Big Ten Armespansion: Will the Big East Adapt or Die?

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Part I: Survival of the Fittest in the Big East 

Six months into the Expansion debate one truth seems to have emerged no matter who you talk to: The Big East will not survive Big Ten Expansion. Of course nothing's happened yet and no one knows who, if anyone, will be invited to the expansion party. But the Big Ten clearly wants a piece of the New York media market, and the only way to get it is to include schools from the Big East. If that happens, it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the Big East will dissolve (at least as a football conference).

Many of the Big East's current problems stem from the first round of expansion back in 2003. Prior to that, the Big East was a legitimate powerhouse in college football. Boasting such successful, historic, and capable programs like Pitt, Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College and (to a lesser historic extent) West Virginia. Even so, the Big East was a relative newborn in the College Football world. The conference was founded in 1979 as a basketball conference and didn't begin playing football until 1991 when Miami joined the league. Despite being a founding member of the BCS, and thus damned to an eternity of listening to the musak version of "Sound of Silence" in a small elevator to nowhere, the league lasted only 12 years in its original football form.

Seeking greener pastures, Miami and originally Syracuse were set to depart for the ACC in 2003. That is until the governor of Virginia screwed everything up and forced the conference to take Virginia Tech instead of Syracuse. The result was Miami and Virginia Tech leaving the conference in 2004 with Boston College saying adieu in 2005, all heading to the ACC. And frankly, the conference has never recovered on the football field.

This is not to say the conference is devoid of legitimate assets. Syracuse has a history of successful football (just none recently). Connecticut has grown into a decent football program from humble and recent beginnings. West Virginia has become one of the premier football programs on the east coast over the past 15 years. Then there's Pitt, with a history of Heisman trophy winners and long term success. Perhaps more importantly, the Big East boasts a number of powerful names in men's college basketball: 'Cuse, UConn, Villanova, Marquette, Georgetown, Cincinnati, Louisville, etc.

Despite this, the conference ranks dead last in overall television revenues taking in just $33 Million to feed a conference with 8 football schools and 16 basketball schools. The conference distributes just $2 Million per year to it's basketball schools ($32 Million total), with a weighted distribution for the conference's 8 football schools as additional revenue. West Virginia reported a take home of $3.5 Million as of February 2010, making a total conference haul of $5.5 Million. And that's for a team that made the Final Four. And a Bowl Game! I don't care about your allegiances, that is a totally unsustainable business model and one that has made the conference ripe for poaching.

 

The result of this is at least five teams in the Big East that are easy pickins' for any conference that comes calling. The most obvious departures are Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Connecticut, and (somehow) Rutgers. Hidden in the weeds is the prospect of West Virginia heading else where and perhaps down-on-its-football-luck Louisville searching for a better fit. But regardless of whether WVU or Louisville actually depart, it's perfectly clear that at least two Big East teams are under serious consideration as additions to the Big Ten.

The consensus view seems to be that if some two to three team combination of Pitt, 'Cuse and/or Rutgers and/or UConn join the Big Ten or leave the conference for new digs, the Big East is finished. To an extent, that consensus may be justified. If the Conference were to lose two football revenue producing members, I think it's logical that Big East football would disappear into the history books. However, when it comes to the Conference disappearing, I'm not so sure.

Of the Football assets discussed (Pitt, Rutgers, and Syracuse), the loss of two of those teams would make keeping the Big East as a viable football league nearly impossible. It's worth noting at this point that UConn seems to be less of a possible candidate after the Big Ten let people know about it's demographic shift mentality to it's pending expansion. Also, the meager 325,440 TVs in the state won't do them any favors unless NYC comes with the deal (which I think is unlikely). Assuming that two of those schools, let's say Pitt and Rutgers, leave for the Big Ten it's make or break time for the conference.

The Departed

If you have to choose between Pitt, Rutgers and Syracuse, the final expansion decision will come down to money. Of the group, only Pitt will be competitive on the gridiron and hardwood, but the Panthers can't deliver any new cable territory to the Big Ten. That is not true, however, for the ACC. In the event the Big Ten does not pick up the Panthers, the Pennsylvania television market would be a huge get for the ACC. Despite the pessimism and declining population of the Pittsburgh/Pennsylvania area, I have to think there's still a chance that Pitt will end up in the Big Ten.

Then there's Syracuse, who's long term basketball prowess and former football glory make it a good fit for the conference, despite Jim Boeheim's protestations. Syracuse does offer some access to the closed New York state media market and delivers a number of newhomes. And for the rabid 'Cuse fans, don't act so appalled by the notion of switch conferences. You've danced with the Devil in the pale moon light once before, and God knows you'll put on that pretty red dress and do it again so long as your dance partner's got a big wallet and will pay for steady diet of pills and wine coolers. If the call comes, we know you'll dance with us or the ACC.

Rutgers will be the least athletically competitive of the group, but they offer the biggest potential payoff based on their proximity to New York. Despite all the hoopla, there's no guarantee that Rutgers can deliver that market. And for some reason Teddy Greenstein thinks Rutgers will deliver Philadelphia,

Rutgers is also an hour from Philadelphia and its 2.95 million households

Not to point out the obvious, but Philly was already delivered by a school called Penn State. 20 years ago. You know, when the conference first expanded? Regardless, Rutgers' $50 Million in athletic revenue is relatively attractive and at the least, Rutgers would add the 2.3 Million households in New Jersey that the Conference doesn't have (Semi-correction, apparently there are 3.4 Million total households in Jesery, but I can't find a link - Ed.). there's also the possibility that Rutgers (as well as Syracuse) would provide an entree into the New York market and after a few years of selling their product at a loss, the BTN and Big Ten would finally gain access to that market (though likely at a reduced rate). There are benefits there in the long term, so it is more than conceivable that the Big Ten adds Pitt for geographic/athletic reasons and Rutgers/Syracuse for financial ones.

What that leaves is a six team football conference and a 14 team basketball conference. So what happens to the Football teams?

The End of Big East Football

At six teams (Louisville, UConn, West Virginia, University of South Florida, Syracuse/Rutgers, and Cincinnati) the conference would immediately lose it's BCS autobid. There is no way I, or anybody on the outside, can see the BCS delivering an autobid to a Six team conference. And it's not like the Big East can add new teams that will help them maintain their bid, the pickins' are really, really slim. Memphis isn't going to cut it, nor is adding UCF. Football in the Big East is dead, and that means WVU and Cincinnati (at a minimum) are looking for new homes.

The Quick

West Virginia is an interesting question. The Mountaineers have become an enormously successful althetic school, and would immediately be competitive in the ACC, SEC or Big Ten as an upper middle tier program. The main drawback, at least to the Big Ten, is academics. On the other hand, the ACC might not be a bad fit for the 'Eers. WVU has a nasty, nasty rivalry with Maryland that I've witness first hand and I can't imagine that WVU would have much trouble developing rivalries with it's Virginia cousins in Blacksburg and Charlottesville. When the ACC expands in response to the Big Ten, WVU has to be a prime consideration.

UConn, likewise makes for an interesting ACC addition. Just south of Boston College, UConn would bridge the gap between the ACC's northernmost school and help to balance out the coming expansion. Also, like WVU, the Huskies' long time hardwood success will be a welcome addition to the ACC. Even though Connecticut is a relative newcomer to the D1A football ranks, the Huskies' athletic department has dumped too much cash into the program (with even more committed) to allow the program to be an independent. So irrespective of the school's long standing ties to the conference for basketball, the prospect of playing an ACC schedule, getting ACC TV money, and offering the ACC a crack at the New York TV market could be a perfect fit.

Between Rutgers and 'Cuse, my guess is that one of them ends up in the cold after the Big Ten expands. At this point I'm guessing it's Syracuse. But either way, both schools would likely find a home in the ACC based on geographic location, prior flirtation ('Cuse), television revenues, and non-threatening football programs. Both schools have been remarkably profitable despite being in the Big East, so the ACC wouldn't exactly be bailing out the Greek economy. I think it's a logical fit, though that doesn't mean it'll happen.

And the Dead

Cincinnati is in a difficult position. After two straight conference crowns and two BCS bowls, the Bearcats may be settling back down to earth this year. The departure of Brian Kelly to Notre Dame likely means the Bearcats will take a significant step backwards in 2010 and the years to come. And don't think that won't occur to anyone discussing expansion in the major conferences. Had Brian Kelly remained at Cinci, I think it's conceivable that the SEC might have come sniffing around (despite Kentucky's likely objections [proximity to Cinci]). But with the basketball program in a weakened state and the football program losing its leader, the best bet for Cinci is a move to the Mountain West. Cinci would add credibility to the MWC's move to take the Big East's autobid, and would also benefit the Bearcats on the hardwood. Cinci's a good school, but I can't see them landing in a major conference when the Big East breaks up.

Sadly, I've got to say the same about Louisville. The Cardinals have a soft spot in my heart from a trip I took back in college, but I'm struggling with where they'd end up. You don't go from CUSA to the Big East to the SEC/ACC/Big 8 when your football program goes from No. 3 in the country in '05 to Kragthorpe'd by the end of the decade. It hasn't been a good couple of years. Like Cinci, Louisville suffers from proximity to the University of Kentucky who will undoubtedly do everything in their power to block the addition of the Cardinals to the SEC. There's just too much on the line in terms of recruiting and ratings for the two schools to exist in the same conference. I see Louisville and Cinci moving to the Mountain West, or one of its eventual breakoffs when the final Big Ten expansion bomb goes off.

USF, on the other hand, is screwed. There's no way that USF ends up in the ACC unless the SEC pillages Miami and FSU. Even then I think that's a LONG shot. The constant string of reports involving sketchy academic practices, Jim Leavitt's departure, and the assorted bad press have made it doubtful that a major conference will extend an invite to the Bulls. Can you see Duke or Virginia voting them into the ACC?  The most logical place for USF is in a revamped and expanded Conference USA. It's a step down for the Bulls, but it's the only step I can see them taking if they want to maintain their football program.

So the Big East is Dead, Right?

Actually... No. The conference traces it's roots back to the hardwood. That's what it was founded on and that's what gives it its identity. This football thing has never been a big deal to schools like Marquette, Georgetown, DePaul, Seton Hall, St. Johns, Providence, and Villanova. It's just not important to them. That gives you seven schools with which to keep a basketball and non-revenue sports conference alive. And one wildcard.

Notre Dame.

In a way, the demise of Big East football might actually help the Irish remain independent. At eight teams, the Big East can remain a viable basketball conference, and might actually add a school or two from the A-10. that allows Notre Dame to remain in the conference as a basketball and non-revenue sports member of the conference without the pressure to join the conference's beleaguered football conference. Now this may be a bit of a stretch to say that Notre Dame will go this route. The Irish would be looking a diminished level of play in it's non-revenue sports and could also have issues if the remaining conference members don't fund the same number of programs as Notre Dame does. There's also the money issue. A conference like this would like be a financial drain on the Irish and it's likely this type of arrangement both financially and appearance wise, would be a deal breaker. But it's possible.

Evolution

In the end, I think the Big East survives. But it survives in a much, much different format than we know it today. With football gone the Big East will remain a viable, yet diminished, athletic conference. On the hardwood, the Big East will likely remain one of the better basketball conferences in the country, especially after they pillage schools like Richmond and Dayton. There's also the outside chance that Football could find its way back into the Big East if, over time, schools like Georgetown, Villanova, Richmond, et al decide that it's worth promoting their d1AA/D2 programs.

Minus between two to five programs, the Big East's days on BCS competition are over. But it's far too early to read the Conference it's last rights.

As usual, you can follow our continuing snarky coverage of Big Ten Expansion here.

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