If Big East can stay together, riches await
As bleak as the future looks for the Big East, which has had four members switch league allegiances in the last six weeks, the conference is not necessarily doomed.
The league's plans to expand westward into Texas, up to Colorado and out to Idaho might seem like a desperation move with less chance of working than that pass Michigan State used to beat Wisconsin, but don't write the obituary on the Big East yet.
The Big East presidents and athletic directors, along with Commissioner John Marinatto, have a meeting set for Tuesday in Philadelphia. It's expected that the school leaders will authorize Marinatto to begin — finally — officially inviting schools to join the league.
The Big East could soon include Central Florida, SMU and Houston for all sports and Boise State, Navy and Air Force for football only, along with its current five football members and eight other schools, including Notre Dame, that compete in everything else.
The football lineup with Louisville, Rutgers, Connecticut, Cincinnati and South Florida doesn't exactly stack up with the power-packed Southeastern Conference or the tradition-rich Big Ten, but that might not matter.
More than anything else, a seemingly insatiable appetite for college football on television might keep the Big East in business.
"Even as we sit here today, as gloomy as it may appear, the Big East can still have a nice outcome for a variety of reasons. Not the least of which is supply and demand," said Chris Bevilacqua, a New York-based sports media consultant who helped the Pac-12 make its landmark $3 billion television deal with Fox and ESPN earlier this year.
The other five BCS automatic qualifying conferences — the Southeastern Conference, Big Ten, the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pac-12 — are all in the midst of, or are about begin long-term television deals. All are worth more than a billion dollars, with the Pac-12's deal setting the standard at $3 billion.
Meanwhile, the Big East is mired in uncertainty, and as new Cincinnati athletic director Whit Babcock noted last week, trust among members is "wavering."
Marinatto has been an easy target for criticism for not being proactive and allowing his league to be raided.
West Virginia, which accepted an invitation to the Big 12 last week and expects to join next year, asserted as much in a lawsuit filed Monday. The school is challenging the Big East's bylaws that require the Mountaineers to stay in the conference for two more years.
"The Big East and its Commissioner failed to take proactive measures to maintain, let alone enhance, the level of competition for the Big East football schools," the suit filed in the Circuit Court of Monongalia County states.
Marinatto might have botched realignment and expansion, but he could be right about one point he has stressed for months: Being the last league to negotiate a TV deal will work to the Big East's advantage.
"They're the last ones on the market with a conference football package and you have multiple buyers — that always leads to nice outcomes," Bevilacqua said in a recent interview.
ESPN tried to get the Big East to sign an extension this year, reportedly for about $1 billion over nine years. That deal would have gotten the Big East in the ballpark of what the other BCS AQ leagues are getting, but not close enough so it was rejected.
If the Big East survives, and ESPN wants its back — and ESPN can never get enough college football — it will now have to compete with Fox, NBC and its cable entity, Versus, and CBS, which is looking to build its cable channel, CBS Sports Network.
Plus, there are cable distributors such as Time Warner, Comcast and Cox that are delving more into providing content.
Turning down ESPN is not what's tearing the league apart. If Marinatto can pull together the Big East's plan, there could still be a billion dollar payoff — that's what he has been selling to potential new members.
What about an automatic bid to the Bowl Championship Series?
It's impossible to say how that will play out and BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock has said as much.
The Big East is trying to add schools that have had recent success in football. When Big East officials crunch the numbers, adding Boise State and the rest easily make up for the loss of Syracuse and Pitt on the field. Losing West Virginia stings more.
But the fact is that the future of the BCS, like everything else in college football, is up in the air.
Its contracts run through 2013 and beyond that there are no benchmarks to determine which conferences will be automatic qualifiers — there's even a chance there will be no BCS in 2014.
If there is, there's a good chance TV ratings and market sizes will be just as important — if not more important — than winning percentages and bowl appearances when it comes to deciding who gets in.
And if the Big East is left out after being one of the original six leagues that helped craft the BCS, maybe its lawyers can persuade the leaders of the other AQ leagues — especially the ones who poached Big East teams — to think again.