Will Notre Dame Ultimately Cost The Big East Their BCS Bowl Bid?

Tobi WritesAnalyst IJanuary 18, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 11: Brian Kelly attends a press conference where he was named new football head coach at Notre Dame University on December 11, 2009 in South Bend, Indiana.  Kelly most recently led the University of Cincinnati to two consecutive Bowl Championship Series appearances including a perfect 12-0 record this past season. (Photo by Frank Polich/Getty Images)
Frank Polich/Getty Images

With some trepidation and a number of second thoughts, I am wading into the well travelled waters of those who would question Notre Dame and even advocate against their interest.

Although daring to challenge a beloved national power school like Notre Dame is a sure way to ignite a firestorm of personal attacks, I hope you readers might thoroughly consider the question, "Will Notre Dame ultimately cost the Big East their BCS automatic bid?"  It may seem an odd question to some, I know, but I beg a moment's indulgence to make my case.

The Big Ten is tired of its long dance with Notre Dame.  They seem ready to make their end move.  They seem to be saying, in not so subtle language, that they are going to 12 members even if Notre Dame passes. They are at a point where they will take a lesser draw than Notre Dame.

Notre Dame has again expressed an opinion that they are bigger than a conference...even the Big Ten.  They are effectively calling the Big Ten's bluff.

So what comes next?

If the Big Ten is serious about adding a 12th team, we all know the frequently mentioned candidates—West Virginia, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Missouri, and Rutgers.

I look at Missouri and frankly, I don't see the point. The Big Ten already has the University of Illinois—the state flagship of Illinois—and Northwestern, the largest and most prestigious private school in the state.  That makes them already media relevant in St. Louis.  So adding Missouri essentially means adding Kansas City media relevance.

That would mean the replacement is probably going to come from the Big East.  West Virginia is a poor state with small population which makes it not all that exciting in terms of television.  Pittsburgh already tunes in for the Big Ten due to Penn State.  Syracuse may very well effectively be the flagship of Inland New York, but they are an afterthought to New York City residents.  Which brings us to Rutgers.

Would you rather have Kansas City media relevance or New York City media relevance?

To me that is the hypnotic pull of Notre Dame on the Big Ten.  Notre Dame may be the No. 1 college football program in terms of fans in Chicago and New York City.

If they can't land Notre Dame, I have to think the Big Ten would go after Rutgers which is the flagship of New Jersey as well as being the closest big time FBS program to NYC.

With no real nearby BCS power currently, New Yorkers tend to gravitate to whichever team is a national power at the time.  A lot of New Yorkers my age and younger call themselves Notre Dame, Miami, Florida State, or Michigan fans.

Rutgers, like Syracuse, may be something of an afterthought in New York City, but Rutgers could serve as the Big Ten's anchor in New York, much as Northwestern does in Chicago.

Each year, the Big Ten could put Rutgers up against a Michigan or Ohio State in the new Meadowlands Stadium. Nearby games at Rutgers Stadium vs. Penn State would also draw a lot of New York City media attention.

Frankly, it could be the spark that finally ignites the wet gun powder that is Rutgers football.

Think about the ramifications of the Big East losing Rutgers and NYC market relevance in Football.  I'll come back to this in a second.

The Division of shares in a full BCS conference.

The BCS divides up the majority of the BCS bowl game money between it's member conferences by a somewhat straightforward process described at their site.

Let's use the 2008 numbers provided at their site as a fairly straight forward example of how the BCS money might be divided in a normal year.

$17.8 million—to each of the six automatic qualifier conferences
$4.5 million—to each conference with a second team in the BCS (no non-automatic qualifier conference has been in a position to send two teams, so consider this applicable only to the automatic qualifier conferences).
 $19.3 million—(18 percent of the total) divided among the five FBS non-automatic qualifier conferences
$1.8 million—divided among Football Championship Subdivision conferences and their 122 or so member schools
$1.3 million—For Notre Dame in years where they do not make a BCS bowl. 
$0.1 million—Each for Army and Navy

In 2008, only a single conference that didn't have an automatic bid (the Mountain West Conference) had a member which was admitted to a BCS game.  This is fairly typical.

The Mountain West took home $9.8 million for that and the other $9.5 million (of the 18 percent set aside for non-automatic qualifiers) was divided equally among the other four non-automatic qualifying conferences.

(In general at least one non-automatic qualifier school makes it. If not then the five conferences that do not have automatic bids split 9 percent equally instead of the 18 percent.)

The part of all this that is relevant here is how the money is divided within an automatic qualifying conference or more to the point how it averages out.

(For ease of explanation I have worked the math using the automatic payout—$17.8 million—and have ignored the potential of a payout for a second BCS bowl qualifer from a conference.)

Automatic qualifying conferences average payout per member:
12 member conferences: SEC, ACC, Big 12 = $17.8M/12 = $1.483M per member
11 member conferences: Big Ten = $17.8M/11 = $1.618M per member
10 member conferences: Pac-10 = $17.8M/10 = $1.780M per member
8 Member conferences - Big East = $17.8M/8 = $2.225M per member

I live in Texas and have followed the business of football in the region for the last 20 years.  The University of Texas has a general guideline to how they work.  The feeling the pervades through their athletic department and administration is that they strive to be national powers at everything and if that generates revenue, they should get the lion's share of that revenue.  After al ...in UT's opinion they are the lion.

With that in mind it seems very likely that someone at the University of Texas has worked that math.  Just as I am sure similar elite powers like Ohio State, Florida, USC, Alabama, LSU, and others have as well.

Now a Big East fan may argue that the larger power conferences, the Big Ten, SEC, and Big 12 are generally sending two teams to the BCS bowl and landing the other 4.5 million, which brings their totals up to a comparable amount.

That is almost certainly not how those power conference schools see things.  Even with a second school in a BCS Bowl, the payout average for those power schools lags behind the Big East's.

I suspect they feel excellence should equal the largest payout and that they feel they have earned the largest share.

Eventually that will likely be the straw the breaks that camel's back for the Big East as an eight football schools, eight non-football schools hybrid conference.

Why is the Big 10 making a push for a 12th member now?

After so many years, it seems odd that this is now a priority. What has changed?  Why is this now a priority?

This is a question that is never asked and should be.

The share per conference member may be getting to the heart of the matter.  Could the SEC and Big 12 be pushing for 12 member conferences at the BCS level to eliminate this loophole that cheats them out of revenue?

Could the BCS elite see expansion to 12 as a way to cut the number of mouths to feed when they rework the BCS criteria in a few years?

The Pac-10 once said that if the Big Ten went to 12 teams they would likely follow suit to retain parity with their conference partner.  One can imagine a scenario for that.

Let's say the Pac-10 adds Utah from the Mountain West and Colorado from the Big 12. There have been persistent rumors that the Pac-10 is not excited by the conservatism of BYU which tends to go against the more progressive west coast culture in the conference or the Cougars firm resistance to playing on Sundays. In addition, the Pac-10 adding a relatively small state in Utah in terms of media relevance would seem to be a financial non-starter. 

Adding Utah and Colorado, two state flagships, would make the money a lot more viable.  Both have good academics and Colorado is much more in tune with the conference culture. Colorado, in fact, almost became a member of the Pac-10 in the early 1990s before the Texas state government pulled the Plug on UT's desire to become the 12the member of the Pac-10.

If the Big 12 feels Nebraska still has pronounced media relevance in Denver, the Big 12 in turn could add BYU to strengthen their northern division and expand their media footprint, with both conferences essentially carving up primary ownership of the Mountain West time zone. 

BYU has the best attendance of any non-BCS school, is strong enough to survive and perhaps even prosper as a distant outlier, draws fairly well on the road, and would add the Desert region, which might appeal to the Big 12 by helping to offset increased travel costs.

At that point you could have five BCS power conferences with 12 members each.  That would be 60 of the 120 FBS members.

How many FBS schools do you think the BCS powers want in conferences that get Automatic bids? 60/120? 68/120? 69/120? 77/120?

Why would they want to keep the Big East with its eight football playing members at that point?

"The tallest blade is the first one cut."

A Russian girl I knew once told me this charming saying from her homeland. I think it is quite relevant here in getting to why the BCS might want to dump the Big East.

The Big East is starting to look more like a money machine than a struggling borderline BCS conference.  As we showed above, they make more BCS football money per school than any other conference.

I don't mean to overstate this next point as BCS money exceeds NCAA tourney money, but the Big East isn't doing badly in basketball either.

The Big East killed in the NCAA tourney last year and may continue to do so for quite a while.  The Big East has a very large collection of top 25-30 type basketball teams.

They are unique among the conferences with more than 12 members.  Most of those conferences have one or two likely tourney teams and then a number of bubble caliber teams and a bunch of teams with no shot at the tourney.  Even the bad teams in the Big East are pretty good.

The Big East's schedule drags up the strength of schedule of their bubble teams while those other conferences see their strength of schedule dragged down by in conference losses to bubble teams and games against lower seeded conference members.

The Big East has has a very high incident of the type of "good losses" that get you into the tournament.

Every team that makes the tourney gets 1/127th of the NCAA tourney money earmarked for participants. Each time a team wins a game, they get another share.

The NCAA basketball tourney is a bit of a shell game.  It is set up so the big conferences get a lot of teams in due to strength of schedule and their better teams beat the better teams from small conferences (who are usually seeded too low) allowing the power conferences to pile up the tourney shares.

If the Big East, due to its design, ends up consistently eating more slots, they are in essence taking money from the other power conferences.

The BCS schools felt pity for Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia, Rutgers, and UConn after the raid by the ACC and wrote the rules to keep them in the BCS. The power conferences didn't see South Florida or Cincinnati as BCS schools and certainly didn't respect Louisville's academics, but they clearly did not want to see the Big East 5 out on their ear by the power conferences' hands after the ACC's raid.

Now certainly after South Florida averaged 52,553 fans per game in 2009-third in the Big East, Louisville has averaged over 40,000 in the recent past and has a very large athletic budget, and Cincinnati went 33-7 in the last 3 years, has a large endowment, and improving academics. There are arguments for all of those schools. 

There is a lot there to suggest each school is just as valid of a BCS school as Oklahoma State, Mississippi State, or Washington State.  Nonetheless, the perception among the elite power schools is that all three schools were academically suspect and were allowed into the BCS money making brotherhood because the elite had no desire to expel schools like WV, Pitt, and Syracuse after the ACC blindsided them.

I doubt the BCS schools anticipated the kind of basketball success the Big East had last season though or the fact that it may be repeatable.

If the Big East was forced to split into two conferences, it could probably change that basketball dynamic.  One of the resulting conferences would still be under BCS umbrella and the other would not and would likely see their opportunities diminish like other good basketball conferences that sometimes get the short end of the stick, like the Mountain West, Missouri Valley Conference, and Atlantic 10.

The Big East today

The Big East is the proverbial glass half full/empty for fans of collegiate sports as well as Big East members.

When former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese convinced the Big East members to go with a membership of eight football schools and eight non football schools to cover a very populous run of the northeast—with a Florida satellite to aid football recruiting—it was not clear that the setup would work. 

The conference's basketball tourney revenue would not become portable until 2010.  Most fans seemed to feel that as soon as that money was portable the Big East would likely split.

But then the conference started winning. They recently had the most profitable year in its history.  The voting balance between the football and basketball members has helped either side from taking action to destabilize the conference.

Today, one would have to say the Big East appears profitable and somewhat stable.  The glass appears at least half full.  The experiment appears to have been a major success.

The basketball schools are making money and USF appears to be on it's way to being one of the Big East's top football programs, joining Pitt and West Virginia.

The only thing that could destabilize it appears to be the BCS powers.

What happens if the Big 10 takes Rutgers?

A lot of things unravel for the Big East if the Big Ten takes Rutgers in the next 12 to 18 months.  Without Rutgers, the Big East loses football relevance in NJ and NYC and more importantly the idea of the Big East being "mostly BCS caliber schools" with top academics and BCS level attendance takes a big hit, as does the perceived edge the Big East has over the Mountain West.

To maintain the voting balance that seems necessary for the Big East's stability, the Big East would likely want to add a single FBS football school.  They will feel pressure from the elite in the BCS power conferences to add another school with a top academic reputation.  They will feel pressure from the bowl side of the BCS to add a winning team with very strong fan support.

There are no schools in the region that fit both of those criteria.

It would likely come down to a choice between East Carolina (good football, good support, modest academics, distant travel as a conference outlier, no basketball value, little market value), Central Florida (OK football, good support, modest academics, very distant travel as an outlier, no basketball value, some market value, and their inclusion hurts USF), or Memphis (poor football, moderate support, modest academics, very distant travel as an outlier, OK basketball value due to recent history, little market value.)

Will that be enough to keep them in the BCS? 

It certainly won't help their TV revenue in football or their average game attendance (due to distance). It won't help the Big East's diminished academic reputation.  In that regard especially, replacing a well respected state flagship like Rutgers with a directional school like UCF or ECU will especially hurt.

And that is without considering you'd have five conferences in the BCS with 12 members each.  How are they going to feel about a weaker hybrid Big East at that point?

I think the odds would be against that Big East remaining an automatic qualifier.  It would seem much more likely that the 5 power conferences would reach the conclusion that the Big East can simply earn a $9M at large payout each year to divide among their eight members.

Perhaps the power conferences would accept the loss of basketball revenue to a 16-team Big East to retain more of the football BCS revenue. They could just write the rules to exclude them from the BCS automatic qualifier conference list.

Or perhaps, the Big East might be invited in as a "junior automatic qualifying conference"—landing an automatic bid, but only garnering say half the payout, under the understanding that all automatic qualifiers had to have 12 football playing members—effectively forcing the football Big East to take on a large footprint and to sever ties with some or all of the basketball playing Big East.

Either way it doesn't look good for the Big East's future prospects as a hybrid mega conference.

The BCS picture over the next few years.

If you read "the Standards for future BCS Automatic Qualifier Inclusion" on the BCS Web site, it says pretty clearly that the BCS automatic qualifier conferences for 2012-2013 will be determined by evaluating the 2008-2011 seasons by the exact same criteria used to evaluate the 2004-2007 window.

It is also telling that the next BCS automatic qualifier window is a two-year window (2012-2013), that the following evaluation window (2010-2013) will include the last half of the prior evaluation window, and that it clearly states the criteria may be adjusted.

It seems very likely that the Mountain West will be the seventh automatic qualifier conference allowed for in the BCS rules for the 2012-2013 season, but it also seems the criteria may be changed to make it quite difficult for the Big East and/or the Mountain West to be automatic qualifiers in 2014.  (Especially if  the Mountain West is raided.) 

It is possible if Big East basketball continues to dominate tourney revenue at a level that might be considered unacceptable to the power conferences, both conferences could find themselves on the outside looking in.

How sacrificing Notre Dame could change the equation.

There have been a lot of arguments lately about how Notre Dame is more of a leech than a good loyal member of the Big East.  While one can see those writers' points about how things like hiring away a coach that made by far the poorest drawing Big East Football school into  arguably a national power looks really disloyal to the Big East, it isn't an argument I would focus on and has nothing to do with my contention it makes sense to dump the Irish.

My argument is one of buying time.  If the Big East can buy enough time to allow USF, WV, and Pitt's attendance averages to rise into the 70's, schools like Syracuse and Louisville to resurrect their football programs and get back to attendance in the mid 40's, and retain their eight football playing members, the conference's odds of staying an automatic qualifier increase dramatically.

In terms of what booting Notre Dame might cost the Big East, I think the argument is vastly overstated.   The Big East has strong representation in New York City and Chicago in basketball.  Additionally, while Notre Dame is without question one of the country's elite draws in football, the value of Notre Dame basketball is not an equivalent to Notre Dame football.  And certainly Notre Dame track, tennis, or any other sport they may play in the Big East is negligible in terms of revenue generation.

If the Big East were to kick Notre Dame out over a publicly stated reason like a refusal by Notre Dame to join as an all sports member, the Big East could always add a school like UMass to take that non-football slot and not miss a beat in terms of revenue. 

UMass is a state flagship and as such would give the conference media relevance in Boston. The addition of UMASS would even make a lot more sense in terms of travel partners.

Notre Dame would essentially have its legs kicked out from under them by the Big East. 

The Irish would likely reach out for admission to the best conference they could get into as a non-football member as being an independent in basketball and the other sports is expensive and a time consuming pain.  That might be the Atlantic 10 or Missouri Valley Conference. 

The loss of academic and athletic stature in its affiliations would hurt recruiting as would the fact that adding another tournament bubble team to these conferences could have a further negative affect in terms of making the NCAA tourney as described previously.

That Big Ten offer might start looking pretty good.  The Big Ten sensing that, might renew their singleminded pursuit of Notre Dame leaving the eight football playing Big East teams alone and giving the conference time to develop.

Notre Dame would likely try to hold off the inevitable because they are proud.  With the Big Ten at 11 for a few more years, the Pac-10 would stay at 10. That might impact possible modifications made to the automatic qualifier rules wonder which the BCS operates.

That buys the Big East time to add schools and try to appear more like an automatic qualifier conference.  

Army and Navy could be given sweetheart deals in return for joining the Big East as football-only members for a full nine game in-conference Big East schedule (ala the Pac-10 schedule) for a few years.

They would reinforce the Big East media markets, draw good TV ratings, pull strong home crowds—pulling up the Big East attendance average, and can pull 10,000 or more fans to road games, which would immediately make the Big East look much more BCS-like to the Bowl management side of the BCS.

As the BCS gives the academies $200,000 and would no longer have to give that, it would be a plus for the BCS bowls and the power conferences (albeit admittedly a minor one).  As the Big East average per team would drop to equal that of the Pac-10, it would partially take the target off the Big East conference.

The addition of UMass would allow flexibility. It would allow more revenue to flow into that school's athletics, allowing incremental facility upgrades perhaps to allow them to improve their stadium to become an FBS financial power like Delaware or Montana.  More importantly it would create the possibility of UMASS drawing the financial support in state to fund a stadium enlargement down the road to compete at the Big East level in football if the Big East should need them.

(It may seem contradictory to suggest that UMASS would then become a football playing member of the Big East as that makes for a nine to seven vote, but I think at that point the 16 team Big East hybrid would be close to playing its last card to stay in the BCS and remain a large hybrid.  Plus I think the basketball schools have the weaker hand in general. 

The options facing the Big East if the BCS should levy pressure would be to split and have the football schools cherry pick the better basketball programs & markets —Georgetown and St. John—or the basketball schools to willingly do what was needed to keep the core of the conference together if the money would be better in that setup. Perhaps distant outliers Depaul and Marquette might need to be sacrificed at that point to reduce the membership and the attention the power conferences might pay to Big East Basketball. It is awful far to project.)

If and when the Big Ten landed Notre Dame, a Big East with much stronger attendance could upgrade UMass, an academically respected state flagship that is already a conference member, and add a single football only member like Temple (location) or more likely ECU (strong attendance) to reach 12.

The moves would not stink of panic and desperation as they did last time.

With a 40,001 seat stadium, Army and Navy in that division, and a strong ticket game like UMass vs. UConn, UMass could be a survivable low end BCS member ala Cincy (30,000 attendance) fairly quickly.

Now this doesn't alleviate the basketball issue, but it does get the conference a chance to get in front  of some of their potential problems and that is "buying time".

I fully admit there is a lot of speculation in this article.

It doesn't change the questions the Big East should be asking and may not be asking.

Is the Big East protecting a non-football member in Notre Dame at the future cost of a football playing member of the Big East?   If so, is that wise? Can the Big East survive without Rutgers?  What is the Big East's plan if the other five BCS automatic qualifier conferences go to 12 members?

Whether these questions can be answered in a way that spares Notre Dame is the fuel for debate.  My point is, all of these things should be being debated today.

The Big East has the look of a conference that may be in trouble as a BCS automatic qualifier.  There is probably some feelings of resentment towards them by the BCS power conference elite that a conference like the Mountain West may not have.   There may be some resentment towards the Big East from the Big Ten for allowing Notre Dame a safe haven from which to spit on the Big Ten.

Throwing Notre Dame to the sharks could be the key to the Big East surviving the coming years.