Let's start with what this article is not.
This article is not a rant about how ESPN and, to a lesser extent FOX, have ruined college sports by giving gigantic TV deals to some conferences and individual schools, thereby making others vulnerable for poaching and ultimate destruction. That certainly did happen, but no, this article is not about how the Longhorn Network destroyed the Big 12 and how the ACC and Pac 12 openly recruited Texas, which led to Oklahoma being pulled West with the Longhorns (along with a few saddlebags to make a 16-team league). This isn't the ACC needing to do something before the SEC or Big Ten pilfered their current members. It's not about that; really, it's not. Maybe.
(Before I get too far, we're going to go ahead and throw a big giant full disclosure at the top of this. I went to Rutgers and worked in the sports information office for more than a decade. I still do some work with Rutgers. That said, I have zero inside information. Best I can tell, they don't even know what's going to happen next, so I sure as heck don't. This piece is purely reactionary and only based on facts that are public knowledge. Does that disclose enough? Oh, I also think the Big East Basketball Tournament is the best multi-day event of the year, often more exciting than the NCAA Tournament. Ruining that event is a travesty, and if people aren't fired for this, the people who ultimately decide whether or not to fire them should be fired.)
This is also not a rant about the Olympic sports, which, along with basketball, are a complete afterthought in this process. Sure, the Longhorn Network plans to show increased Olympic sports games, but any basic knowledge of how television rights work would lead you to believe that the increased exposure will not lead to increased revenue. The money is saved for football and basketball. Sorry, folks. A piece of a bigger pie does not mean the other sports will get more assistance. Will they get more money? Sure, some of those sports will get more actual money, but what the money goes to is rarely discussed.
Here's what a lot of that money goes to. Travel. What used to be a bus trip for conference games has turned, for many schools, into overnight trips and long flights. Where are they getting the money to pay for those trips? It doesn't come from selling candy bars outside the supermarket. It comes from the trickle-down money that football and basketball bring in. That's money that could be spent less on travel and more on equipment and training for sports desperate for anything they can get. Sure, in some of these conferences, that money wouldn't exist at all without the new TV deals. I understand that's the nature of college sports these days. Schools are faced with making their Olympic sports teams travel thousands of miles to participate in conference games to reap the benefits of national TV dollars for football and basketball. Were it not for those national TV dollars, those Olympic sports may not be funded at all.
That's why this isn't about that, either. Maybe.
Okay, fine, it is about that. It's about all of that, but it's also about the fact that it sure as heck feels like a handful of people are making all the decisions for the future of college sports, and those people don't care about anything other than making as much money as humanly possible right now. They don't care about the history of their conferences. Fact is, for some conferences, there isn't any history. The Big 12 was more of a holding room for the Big 8 until whatever they knew was going to shake down eventually took place over the last 18 months. There's no real history there.
The ACC added Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech less than a decade ago, so pilfering the Big East actually is part of its history. Let's not forget that Syracuse was one of the original teams rumored to be going to the ACC back in 2005, but the conference went with Virginia Tech in large part because Mark Warner, the governor of Virginia at the time, lobbied to get the Hokies into the ACC.
Tradition in college sports is a house of cards. When Boston College left the Big East, there was an edict that Big East teams would never play the Eagles again. See how well that worked out. Boston College plays Big East schools all the time. Nobody even cares, as long as the game can get on TV somewhere. ESPN's Andy Katz talked to Jim Boeheim this week and the Syracuse Basketball coach already said he hopes he keeps playing his old traditional rivals even though his team won't be in the Big East anymore:
“We’ve played St. John’s for 100 years, and we played them when I was in school,’’ Boeheim said. “We would want to play St. John’s definitely without question. Yes, we’d play Georgetown. No question we’d be open to playing those two schools for sure.’’
So who cares about conference tradition if Syracuse gets to play home-and-home games with North Carolina and Duke, then still gets a game each season with Georgetown and St. John's. Does this nonsense about conference affiliations really even matter to anyone?
It matters to what's left of the Big East. And it certainly matters to the rotting carcass of what was once the Big 12. The Big East members, per public reports, seem to be scurrying to the door to get out. Connecticut wants to join Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the ACC. Rutgers wanted to be in the Big Ten for a few years, and most certainly would want to be in the ACC over the Big East at this point. Remember, Rutgers' Director of Athletics is Tim Pernetti, a former TV executive who should have been named Big East Commissioner when the job instead went to in-house pick John Marinatto. Oops. Marinatto has systematically ruined his own conference from the inside out. The Big East can only blame itself.
As of Monday morning of Sept. 19, this was the note on the front page of the Big East's website, just one day after two cornerstone institutions fled for the ACC:
“Although I was obviously very disappointed to learn the news about the ACC’s being in discussions about membership with the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University, I continue to believe the BIG EAST Conference is well positioned for the future and that the events of the past 24 hours will unify our membership. We have been working steadily to solidify and strengthen the BIG EAST Conference and position us for our upcoming TV negotiations and I am confident that we will again emerge from this situation and remain strong.”
That note was published on Sept. 17, the same day that Big East founder Dave Gavitt died of heart failure. Gavitt was a legend in college sports. He was a visionary and a trailblazer. We won't get a chance to know what Gavitt thinks about Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving, and the growing likelihood of UConn leaving, too. We won't get Gavitt's thoughts on a Big East that could potentially feature TCU, USF, Kansas and Kansas State and not have Syracuse, Pitt, Connecticut and the other traditional Northeast schools that have made the Big East what it is. This isn't Gavitt's Big East anymore. This isn't anyone's Big East anymore.
As long as the Big East keeps its NCAA Tournament and BCS automatic bids, someone will want to be a part of the conference. The Big East isn't going to die, unless some of the non-football schools band together to start their own conference. Until that happens, the Big East, which has never actually had any football tradition to begin with, will continue to cobble together scraps like they did in 2005. Last time, it was four teams from Conference USA. This time, it could be the Big 12. It doesn't even matter anymore, because we're clearly on our way to college football Pangea.
First, it was 12 teams to get to that arbitrary number someone deemed necessary to host a conference championship game. Now it seems the best number for conferences is 16 teams. Next year, it will certainly be 18 teams or 20 teams or 24 teams until we are left with four major conferences making up the top 100 or so college programs, with the rest of the FBS (and Division I basketball-only schools) left to figure out the second tier.
Come to think of it, maybe this isn't about any of what I've been discussing. Maybe this is about where college sports are going. Clearly you can't trust what you're hearing from conference commissioners or school presidents. Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said just last week, "I don't want to get too far ahead of ourselves. Our preference is status quo, all conferences staying at 12. But ... if we expanded further, we'd carefully look at equal access to all territories."
That had to be some weird code for "we need to figure out the revenue sharing with the Longhorn Network before we announce anything." Which, per reports, they have.
SuperConferences are just going to get more and more super until they get so big, they aren't even run by the likes of Scott or Jim Delany or John Swofford anymore. Actually, those names will probably still be involved, but the conferences will just be run through the networks. The head of officiating for the Pac-12, Mike Pereira, already works for FOX, so it's not that far a leap to think that the commissioners will eventually work for the networks too.
But maybe this isn't about SuperConferences, either. Maybe this is all about Notre Dame.
When the Big East lost Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, they should have strong-armed Notre Dame to join as a football school or get out. Sure, the Big Ten would have taken Notre Dame's basketball teams and Olympic sports, but the Big East needed to take a stand right then. Instead, they put in a clause for a $5 million buy-out for any team wanting to leave the conference, with a 27-month exit timetable that nobody believes for one second they will hold Syracuse, Pitt and whoever else has one foot out the door into staying for. In 2003, the Big East actually had a little bit of leverage with Notre Dame. Not anymore. Every conference in the country would want them, but with an independent TV deal with NBC, Notre Dame doesn't need revenue sharing from with other schools in a conference.
Had the Big East figured out a way to work revenue sharing with Notre Dame – much like it's being reported Texas is working out with the Pac-howevermanythey'llhave – none of this would be happening. Syracuse wouldn't be leaving. ACC teams would have been lining up at the door to get into the Big East. Heck, Big Ten teams could have had been lining up, too.
Instead, less than a decade later, the Big East may get swallowed up whole, or worse yet, may fall so far from relevancy that they'll lose Madison Square Garden as the home of the Big East Basketball Tournament after their contract runs out. Losing MSG would be the official death knell for the once-proud conference.
But honestly, if a conference with Syracuse, Pittsburgh and maybe Connecticut or Louisville is playing post-season basketball in the Garden, does it matter what that conference is called?
It would to the Big East schools getting left out in the cold. Just ask the Big 12.