Problems That Must Be Addressed For a Successful Big East Expansion

Tobi WritesAnalyst IJuly 7, 2010

GREENVILLE, NC - SEPTEMBER 05:  Patrick Pinkney #15 of the East Carolina Pirates throws the ball against the Appalachian State Mountaineers at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium on September 5, 2009 in Greenville, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Last week I wrote a Bleacher Report laying out the position the Big East is in today.  It was supposed to be the first of three reports.

As I was working on part two of my planned three part series on the Big East—the part dealing with the plan to try to stabilize the Big East long term—I realized I had written page after page of existing issues facing the Big East that have to be spelled out first to be addressed by a successful plan.

It became a report on it's own, dragging this into at least a four piece series. And as I sit thinking about it, it makes sense to break the last one into two reports as well to make it more bite sized—one report simply listing possible candidates and their attributes and the final report dealing with my conclusions and which of those candidates I think should get in and why.

Well... what can I say, the Big East is a big, important conference with big issues that demand solutions of a certain level of complexity.

With no further ado, here are the major conditions facing the Big East that must be addressed by any plan for long term stability and growth.

I am not going to sugar coat things. This article will seem incredibly harsh to some big East fans and to fans of Big East candidate schools.  I apologize in advance, but it has to be. The only way to accurately gauge what you need to do to reach your goals is to start by looking at where you are in the harshest possible light.

Just adding some of the "usual suspects" won't do:

I touched on this briefly at the end of the last article. Just adding some "mid major"-types is not going to improve the view of the Big East in BCS circles.

Adding a school like Memphis, UCF, or ECU amounts to adding schools no other BCS conferences would currently consider.

The fact that all of these schools are single isolated schools located along the fringe of the Big East's already sizable footprint—if not well beyond it—makes this kind of Big East expansion more akin to the desperate attempts of BCS non-automatic qualifier conferences like the Western Athletic Conference or the Sun Belt Conference, or the very contrived additions of distant outliers like TCU (by the Mountain West Conference) and Marshall (by Conference USA).

However none of those candidates offer the kind of proven headliner star power at this level that a school like TCU offered the MWC.

There is a real risk of watering down the perceived strengths of the Big East by inviting distant outliers with few perceivable strengths that are unlikely to bring travelling fans to help conference-wide attendance. Or to help issues like fan enthusiasm or fan depth in the current footprint. Or even to draw a good BCS-sized crowd at that school's home field.

Evan a school like Army, which I think makes a lot of sense in terms of a Big East candidate, has it's warts. Although the military academies are seen as on par with BCS schools academically, the impression of the caliber of their football programs is far less favorable. Sure the academies take advantage of their greatest strength - superior player discipline—to go to bowls from time to time playing a schedule packed with schools from non-AQ conferences where the difference in depth of talent is not that pronounced.  The strong, widespread belief is that at the BCS level, the academies would have a much harder time competing vs. mostly BCS schools who have much more depth of talent on their rosters.

I am not saying the usual suspects should not be considered.  I am saying that they should only be considered if they fit into a larger strategy that meets bigger long term goals for the conference.

Everyone has to commit and pull their weight

One of the biggest problems an unstable conference faces is that it's members get consumed with the idea of leaving.

In the WAC a few years back, Hawaii refused to commit to the conference and it directly lead to schools like SMU, Tulsa, and Rice deciding to leave. 

Since then the three powers of the WAC (Fresno, UH, and Boise State) have refused to commit to the WAC and I believe as a direct result, the WAC has flailed around unable to adopt any policies that would lead to financial stability.

In the Big 12, the desires of Colorado, Nebraska, and Missouri to leave destabilized the conference.  Missouri's very public pining for the Big Ten was particularly corrosive to what little unity the conference possessed and likely played a big role in giving the Pac-10 the confidence to make their bold offer.

The Big Ten's eyeing of Rutgers (and perhaps Syracuse and Pitt) could easily have the same kind of corrosive affect on the Big East.

What can be done?

As a conference you cannot extract a true loyalty oath.  The WAC under commissioner Benson has tried that approach numerous times only so see it blow up in his face repeatedly as teams refused to swear their fealty, leaving the membership only more determined to escape.

What needs to be extracted is a promise to be a good, engaged member while the school is there while making sacrifices for the good of the conference as if they are going to be there long term.  Furthermore, the member schools must commit to go along and support the expansion that projects to help the conference as a whole even if it may cost their schools a tiny bit in the short term.

Selling that will be tougher than it sounds.

The Big East is a conference of users.  There is nothing wrong with that as long as everyone profits at the end of the day.

This latest incarnation of the Big East is a conference of 7 non-FBS football playing Catholic schools rallying around the rock-star of Catholic schools—Notre Dame—to use 8 marginal BCS football schools to deliver vastly increased NCAA Basketball Tournament credibility.  BCS AQ conferences get the most tourney invites.  The football schools also deliver the market reinforcement to the basketball schools that allow the Big East to generate great media hype and good ratings for basketball. 

Without the football schools, the Big East basketball schools would be too spread out and unable to generate the kinds of ratings and hype they do today.   They would be another Atlantic 10, landing one to three teams in the tourney each year in spite of very good play.

The Big East football schools are users as well. If they were to break away from the basketball schools by adding distant outliers from non-AQ conferences, they would lose key markets and fan depth in their footprint.  They would also be unable to generate great basketball ratings in their footprint.

The current market offerings of the football Big East are marginal as BCS conferences go, with schools from small population states, programs with non-BCS sized fan bases, and teams with DMA-wide influence (rather than state-wide followings like most of the the other BCS conferences's members).

The promising conditions of a few weeks ago have evaporated.  There are no longer 4 quality BCS schools flapping in the wind that could have drawn well and moved the heart of the football Big East to a big market like Chicago. 

There is little reason to believe picking up Memphis, UCF, or ECU would help TV revenue enough to offset the loss of additional interest from fans of non-FBS Big East schools.

Additionally it seems likely that the football schools' affiliation with the top academic schools that comprise the basketball Big East likely gives the football Big East an edge in perception over BYU's Mountain West Conference in the eyes of the BCS power universities. (Remember, the BCS is a joint venture between power conferences that value academic reputations, research, endowments, strong fan support, and athletic excellence and the big bowls that value strong fan support.)

A breakaway from the basketball schools means the loss of basketball dominance, the loss of Northeastern TV dominance (driven by the 16 team basketball playing Big East), and the loss of the veneer of academic superiority over the MWC.  

In that scenario, it is likely that the power conference leaders and the BCS bowls rewrite the BCS rules after this current evaluation interval (as it suggests they might on their web site) to rules less favorable to the Big East.  It seems likely an 8-12 team football playing Big East would face rules for BCS inclusion that do not offer them much of an edge over the MWC, if any.

While the current Big East status quo does not maximize football revenue, it does a fairly good job of maximizing basketball revenue.   Either half of the Big East would be losing much of that in a split conference scenario, with neither half likely to be able to offset that lost revenue.

Therefore it is in the interest of all members to the Big East to stay together at this point and do whatever is necessary individually to create the conditions that would allow a reinforcement of the Big East football product, protect the conference integrity from raids by the ACC and Big Ten, and create an improved impression of the conference's BCS worthiness. 

That has to be a two way street.  The basketball schools have to compromise too.

The leadership at all 16 schools truly committed to making the Big East stronger (or at least 15 schools if Notre Dame will not contribute as a peer) could dramatically increase the conference's ability to survive at a BCS conference.

15 schools willing to make decisions in the conference's interest first and foremost could dramatically stabilize the Big East in short order.  Are they willing to sacrifice a little each individually for the greater good of the conference?

The per share issue and the need for 12 (or more) football playing members

Every BCS automatic qualifier conference gets the same payout for their automatic slot in the BCS bowls.  As the Big East only has 8 football playing members, the Big East football schools potentially take home more BCS money than members of the SEC, Big 12, Pac-10, or Big Ten would.

I would think this would put a target on the back of the Big East as they are considered the weakest BCS conference.  How much of a target, I cannot say.

While just adding any team to get to 12 football playing members would be counter productive, logically it seems like a movement to at least 12 football playing members to remove that argument would be sensible.

The NYPBDC Problem

The NYPBDC Problem stands for the New York City, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington DC problem.  Those are #1, #4, #7, and #9 DMAs in the US.

With that in mind, if you take a cursory look at the population of states in the Big East footprint, it would suggest the Big East should potentially be able to draw TV revenue like other BCS automatic qualifier conferences.

The problem is that although those great markets are in or very near to the Big East footprint, Big East football is an afterthought in those markets.

In basketball, the Big East has a strong local presence in three of those four major DMAs.

In football almost the exact opposite is true.  In football, the Big East has no presence in DC, Philadelphia, or Boston and only has a marginal one in New York City in Rutgers (and that one is subject to being poached by the Big Ten).

This would be the equivalent of the Pac-10 trying to get a top TV contract if Cal, Stanford, USC, UCLA, and Washington opted not to play football - cheating that conference out of the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle DMAs.

Eventually being able to generate TV revenue at the level of the other automatic qualifier conferences is a key to the Big East being able to retain their BCS status.  To do that the Big East has to look at expansion to secure some or all of those markets in football.

Acknowledging that 16 is a perfect number

Considering the expansion candidates that the Big East has today, the only way for Big East football to improve it's money making capabilities is to work together with the 8 big East basketball schools to develop a plan to maximize the earning potential of the football schools without harming the basketball schools.

I believe maintaining a voting balance between FBS and non-FBS members is the key to maintaining the trust needed between member schools to keep the conference advancing. That means the Big East will likely need to offer football only memberships with voting rights only on football specific issues to get their additional football members.

I think this does a lot to cover the major problems facing the Big East.  The next Bleacher Report article in this series will deal with trying to manufacture appropriate solutions to these problems.


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