8+8=San Diego State? Why the Big East's Bottleneck Leads to Strange Expansion

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8+8=San Diego State? Why the Big East's Bottleneck Leads to Strange Expansion
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Welcome to another Bleacher Report editorial on expansion in the Big East.  Today, I'm going to tackle the question on may fans's minds: "Why isn't it happening?"

To get to the heart of the matter, I think you have to look at the structure of the Big East.

The setup of the Big East has been criticized since it was reconstituted as an 8 Olympic-only member, eight full sport member football/basketball hybrid conference in the early part of the last decade.  I think in spite of the difficulties, the conference has actually enjoyed some stability due to their unusual configuration. And I think members of the Big East might agree.

Much like the US government, there has been a balance between parties with different motivations that prevents either party from pushing a "radical agenda". 

It may have looked ugly and been a pain for the commissioners to manage, but it worked.  Members on each side may have resented the other side, but both realized they were better off because of the added exposure the other provided.

Sadly, a series of blown opportunities and misjudged leverage concluding with the Big East (allegedly lead by Notre Dame) rejecting signing a large ESPN TV deal this year for the potential of open bidding on the Big East product next year has robbed the conference of key members and destroyed that stability. 

To be fair, though, the final chapter on the wisdom of rejecting the ESPN deal is still to be written. 

That having been said, there seems little question that if the Big East had signed the deal, ESPN would not have wanted to put themselves into the legally questionable position of encouraging the ACC to raid the Big East of two of their most valuable TV commodities.

 

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This has created a situation where the non-FBS schools—all Catholic-based private universities—have an 8 to 5 voting edge, which is probably unhealthy.  It strikes me as unhealthy for a conference to have schools with more financial exposure—ie. FBS football—to have less of a collective say on the direction of the conference's expansion.

I strongly suspect the basketball schools recognize that a conference with more basketball members than football members is not likely to keep their football members very long.  I do think they have found that a balance of football-playing full members and non-football full members is an acceptable trade-off for the greater exposure alliance with a BCS conference provides. 

While they may have felt being a junior partner might have been tolerable with TCU, Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia included, but it may very well be seen as unacceptable now.

The conference seems to be trying to get back to a balance of eight FBS and eight non-FBS full members, but it is slow sledding.

There are simply a lot of conflicting interests to play out today that make Big East expansion a complex proposition.

 

Today's Cluster of Complex Issues

With the balance gone, all kinds of added pressure, suspicion and distrust about the reasons behind realignment decisions have emerged.

When the Big East admits all-sports members Houston, Southern Methodist and Central Florida, the eight FBS football-focused members vs. eight basketball-focused members voting balance will be restored. 

The Big East's existing 16-team basketball scheduling will continue. Today, the eight Catholic non-FBS schools appear likely to remain intact as peers in case something happens in the future that might lead to a schism.

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While the Big East may see adding additional football-only members—Boise State, Air Force, Navy and either Brigham Young or San Diego State have reportedly been targets—as worthwhile in helping to secure their future as one of the elite football conferences, there does not appear to be any motivation to add more all-sports members. 

The voting balance and the 16 team basketball conference seems to be as large as the Big East may want to go.

And that is what leads to the the realignment crawl that is leaving Big East candidates and fans pulling their hair out.  How can an unstable, gutted conference sit immobilized for so long?

 

West Virginia Leaving Really Screwed Up the Realignment Plan

When word leaked out that West Virginia was thinking of leaving, Boise State started pushing for more western schools.

The Big East schools saw the logic of BYU and went after the Cougars. With West Virginia out, the football Big East lost one of their best media assets. That would, among other things, make Boise State's buyout take longer and less tolerable.  It seems fairly likely that adding BYU would likely have at least replaced West Virginia's media value.

BYU was a nice candidate as they provided a decent native DMA (Salt Lake #35/210) which they dominate, providing great media penetration.  BYU also is a national brand.  BYU's leadership is trying to further develop that brand to better tap their Mormon fan base outside of the Deseret Region. 

Membership in a Big East with a nationwide footprint would help a great deal in that regard.   BYU also offers the second-best attendance among the non-AQ schools by quite a bit (providing some much needed ticket sales credibility to attract Big East bowl partners).

Otto Kitsinger III/Getty Images

With BYU and the Big East unable to meet terms, the Big East had to look at other options. Do they want to add another Eastern member with that last football only slot? Can they do so without turning away Boise State?

The trouble is that at this point there may be the perception on Boise State's part that they have the leverage to chose the 12th member.  With the loss of West Virginia, adding an elite football program is even more important to keeping the conference attractive to the bigger, TV dependent bowls, and to stay ahead of the win-based BCS criteria in case it is applied to the Big East in the future. 

The BCS website specifies that the Big East will be an AQ conference until the end of the 2013 football season.  The non-AQ conferences have to hit certain measurables based off rankings to earn AQ status.  It also states "If the BCS continues under the same or a similar format..."—a clear implication that the BCS elite reserve the right to change the rules at that point. 

The fear for the Big East is that if their measurables are low enough, they may be a candidate to be removed from the automatic qualifier ranks.  The presence of Boise State alone could make that a toxic proposition, giving the Bronchos a lot of leverage.

Plus there is a big TV value loss there, which means Boise State is going to have to endure the MWC buyout payments for longer now and make less money after that from the Big East.

While realignment is being held up by the football-only members, the all-sports members are ready to set things up immediately.

Specifically, I refer here to football-only members: Boise State's desire to see another western member in the 12th slot in the football Big East, Air Force's desire not to be seen as two-faced for abandoning the Mountain West Conference and Navy's unwillingness to join without Air Force.

It appears that unlike Boise State, the desire of these three school's leaderships to join the Big East have everything to do with the greater stature of the Big East.  They are not impacted by the suggestion from Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany—one of the key powers behind the BCS—that maybe the BCS would be better off getting rid of the AQ conference designation altogether.

Even if the three were allowed to join as a trio, the football Big East will still be short TV assets.  While landing presences in the Dallas/Fort Worth DMA (#5/210), Houston DMA (#10/210), and Orlando DMA (#19/210) is great progress, the football Big East could use another top media market.

Boise State and the academies bring a lot more media value as more impacting national brands on this bigger—effectively nationwide—Big East stage than they bring via their native markets.

 

Intractable Louisville Muddies the Picture Even Further

Then there is the wild-card that Louisville appears to now be the most at-risk program in the Big East and what leverage that creates for the Cardinals. Louisville allegedly expressed an unwillingness to play football in the western division.  How firm is their opposition to being in the west? 

The proposed divisions, if BYU had joined, apparently they would have had newby UCF (who doesn't have a vote currently) in the western division in football, with Cincinnati and Louisville in the East.

What happens if UCF and the Texas duo were to join prior to the football-only members joining and the 12th football member being decided? 

Do they get voting rights on alignment issues? Would UCF insist on being in the East?  Would Houston and SMU vote in support with their fellow newby? 

Would that trio have a voice in which football-only members might get added via expansion?  If so, would UCF vote for a western member in hopes of staying east—or vote for an eastern member in hopes of pushing Louisville and Cincinnati West?

While I think it is much better logic to add your all-sports schools first and have them hash out the final membership, you can see why for expediency the BE may want to invite their six members in unison if they already have consensus among their current members.  Today that appears to work in the favor of San Diego State. 

But is it the right choice?  The San Diego DMA (#27/210) is nice but is distant even in media terms of a conference offering to a network, and it pales in comparison to the Philadelphia DMA (#4/210).  Philadelphia has almost three times the number of TV households.

Would it not make sense to invite a football-only member in Philadelphia like current FBS member Temple—a large public university—to secure a TV presence in another top five market and a Northeastern media market at that?  Temple has said they are more than willing to take a football-only slot in the Big East.

 

The Philadelphia Experiment

Landing a Philadelphia team would make a lot of sense in terms of maintaining the league's identity as the BCS conference in the Northeast. Unfortunately for Temple, current Olympic-only private university Villanova wants that slot.

Villanova plays football at the FCS level, a level of football people in NFL cities largely ignore, where average attendances usually range from 2000 - 30,000 a game vs. the 13,000 - 100,000+ one sees at the FBS level.

Villanova has been prevented from expanding their current stadium to an appropriate capacity for Big East play.  This spring they had talked of playing at PPL Park, the new 18,500 seat pro soccer stadium in the Philadelphia area.  There are plans for expansion of the stadium to 30,000 in time via a series of expansions. 

While it is a nice stadium, it would be tiny at the FBS level and is 20 miles away in Chester.  Almost all FBS stadiums are on campus or within a mile of campus to make game day visible to students.   Being on campus (or right next door) makes getting to games easy, maximizing student attendance.

Temple has a better hand.  They are apparently allowed exclusive rights among college teams to host their games at the Eagles' stadium—Lincoln Financial Field. While that is a big venue with all the bells and whistles fans like, Temple also has travel problems.  It is about seven miles from their campus.

If Villanova lets their Philadelphia neighbor Temple in as a football-only member, Villanova likely loses their only chance to access to an AQ slot in the football Big East.  Temple athletics will quickly surpass the Villanova athletics in the eyes of the Philadelphia public 

It is debatable today as to which school has more exposure.  Villanova is effectively painted into a corner where they have to try to get the other seven private schools to block the addition of Temple and advocate the addition of Villanova.

That may seem totally unreasonable to football-playing fans of the Big East.  The thing about it is that private Villanova has a very reasonable claim to that slot.

Recall that the Big East allowed former Olympic member UCONN to upgrade directly from the FCS world.  There is a precedence here. The idea of internal promotion seems healthy and frankly may be required in a region like the northeast.  The growth of college football in the northeast has been stunted by pro football and the Big East's horrifically foolish pass on the only dominant program in the area—Penn State—years ago.

Why should private Villanova not be given the same right as public UCONN?  Given that precedence, there is no compelling logical reason to block Villanova based off of what Villanova brings to the table.  Villanova won an FCS championship in 2009.  Competitively, you cannot do any better.

More to the point, Villanova has brought a lot of additional money to the Big East table.  They have out-earned other members and, in that way, there is a very legitimate argument that they have earned the right to drag their under-evolved football program into the warm petrie dish that is the Big East.

 

How Basketball Tourney Revenue Applies to the Villanova Situation

To understand the money Villanova has brought into the conference, one has to get the basics on how the NCAA tourney revenue is dispersed and how well Villanova has done.

Every year, the NCAA earns a lump sum of TV money for the broadcast of the NCAA tournament.  Half of that TV revenue pool is split among participating conferences on a basis that in part rewards on-the-court merit in the tournament. 

You get a share for each team invited and a share for each additional game played (with the exception of the final four games and play in games).  1/6th of the money earned is paid out every year over six years to provide better consistency for conference budgets.

Conferences split the revenue by whatever guidelines they have in their conference.  As far as Olympic members go, earning tourney shares is really the maximum you can ask an Olympic member to do. 

The Big East has earned a staggering 108 shares over the last 6 years.  The conference had eight schools who earned nine shares or more each over that period:

Pitt - 15
Villanova - 15
UConn - 13
WV - 13
Louisville - 12
Georgetown - 11
Marquette - 10
Syracuse - 9

With Pitt gone, Villanova has contributed more to the conference's bottom line in terms of NCAA tourney revenue over the last six years than any other school in the conference.

In basketball, they have been a cash cow.

 

So Why Aren't They In?

Given the fact Villanova had almost used the support of their Olympic sports-only peers to force their way into the football Big East this spring—before getting shut down by the old guard lead by Pitt and West Virginia—it may have seemed fairly likely that with the Olympic sports-only schools holding an 8-5 voting advantage, Villanova would be in.

One can understand that with the loss of TCU, the need to add a school with great BCS measurables (like Boise State) and schools that a number of influential members of the BCS AQ ranks respect (two of the military academies—Air Force and Navy), might have outweighed the need to add Villanova when this expansion plan was hatched.

One could also understand that, when West Virginia was lost, the conference may have felt a need to try to land a school with commensurate or better TV value as their replacement.  BYU seems to be at least that.

Certainly, after BYU could not reach terms with the Big East, one would have thought Villanova (or even East Carolina) would be a smart choice for the 12th slot in the conference.  The talk has instead focused on western candidate San Diego State. There has not seemed to be any talk of Villanova.

So why is that?

It seems to suggest that the other Olympic members may not want to support VIllanova joining the football Big East or that the support is not there in Villanova's leadership to upgrade today.  Probably there is a little of both figuring in.

If the football Big East were to fail, the Oympic members' admitted plan would be to add good basketball schools from neighboring conferences.  I think that plan is more than a little over-optimistic in terms of the end results.  Given that it is apparently the plan, how is it in their self-interest to support Villanova's upgrade at this point? 

The eight Olympic-only schools earned 48 shares over the last six years.  That is impressive, but it is only 39% of the shares the combined Big East earned.  Villanova's shares account for 31% of that revenue.

Villanova tied Pitt in earning the most tourney shares in the combined Big East over the last six years.  If you are the basketball schools why would you actively throw that away by pushing Villanova into what finances may dictate is a stronger alliance with the other side?

If the basketball schools do not vote in Villanova now while they have the voting edge and the conference should fail, Villanova comes with them.

It is equally disturbing for Philadelphia fans from the Villanova side.

The plan for adding Villanova from earlier this year spoke of football members of the Big East paying Villanova like they were a bodybag opponent for away in-conference games to help the university fund their transition to the FBS level. 

With schools like Pitt and WV in the fold, the money would have been very helpful as would the revenue generated by higher turnout fueled by fans of nearby schools. 

Now the conference membership is going to be located further away from Villanova.  That will hurt their ability to draw locally.  They are not going to get the good turnouts they could have earned at home playing Pitt and West Virginia.   The road payouts are almost definitely not going to be approved.

And the TV shares will not be as lucrative.

Villanova's leadership was allegedly nervous about having the money on hand to be competitive at the BCS level this spring with all of that on the table.  Maybe that was sincere.  Maybe it was a negotiation tactic.

 

It is unlikely, given the travel and the likely value of the new TV deal, that all the new football schools are going to agree to the "bodybag welfare" plan for Villanova.  That leaves Villanova's leadership with a lot of money to replace to fund an upgrade.

A lot of Villanova's fan base is chomping at the bit for an FBS upgrade today.

Is the money there?

I doubt Villanova's leadership has any desire to admit to their fan base that they may have actively blown their chance to upgrade by waffling for about six months as they likely fished for a better deal from the football Big East.  In realignment, a school should always be ready to seize their opportunity.  Schools like TCU and UCF get the simple truth behind realignment --- "If you snooze, you lose."

Villanova's leadership many be learning that lesson right now.

 

Which Leads Us to Temple

If Villanova cannot upgrade today, they would be forced to do whatever they can to try to upgrade in a couple of years.  To do that, they would have to block Temple to ensure that the football Big East securing the Philadelphia market in the future meant adding Villanova.

Additionally, Villanova's leadership would be roasted by their boosters if they allowed Temple to "take Villanova's spot" after appearing to have blown an invitation.

Blocking Temple works better for the basketball Big East as well. It leaves Villanova in that alliance should the football conference disappear in the next couple of years.  They can promise Villanova to back their play for a slot in a few years when PPL Park may have gone through a couple rounds of expansion and may have a capacity closer to 30,000. 

It also leaves the Olympic member voting block intact in the interim.

That would seem to make sense of the Big East looking at San Diego State.

Of course, all of this could be moot if Delany's "suggestion" of eliminating the conference AQ designation gains steam with the BCS football powers.   With no AQ berth, there is little reason for Boise to join the Big East or for the Big East to pass on more regionally appropriate football-only candidates instead of Boise State, SDSU, or Air Force.

 

Final Thoughts

While I think Big East fans have every right to be furious at their schools' leadership individually and collectively for failing in the last two years to reach an agreement to vote members in to upgrade the conference (especially Villanova 's management above the AD level), I hope this article has illustrated the immense complexity that exists at this current moment with the Big East.

Unlike in previous years, today there are legitimate reasons why expansion efforts are crawling.

 

Post Script:  As I was finishing this article there were another spate of "the Big East expansion to 12 is upon us" articles.  Here is hoping they are right this time.

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