Before we get to talking about Notre Dame, the fate of the entire college sports landscape is being decided in Austin and College Station this week. Who knows if the Big Ten will ultimately be a part of this (I know that they are trying very hard), but I do believe this: Texas A&M would be insane to turn down an invitation from the SEC. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed all of my discussions with Texas fans over the last few months, but the prevailing belief among the Longhorn faithful that A&M would be making a mistake by taking that deal is complete nonsense. As much as I hate parroting the ESECPN talking points, the SEC has definitely been the top football conference overall for several years now. Its conference TV revenue per school today is larger than the projections for the proposed Pac-16, while A&M could also sell local TV rights on top of that. Financially and culturally, it’s a no-brainer for the Aggies. It puts its rivalry with Texas at great risk, but remember that Penn State gladly threw away its own Thanksgiving rivalry with Pitt a few years after joining the Big Ten. Remember that Pitt used to be considered Penn State’s equal not all that long ago. Now, Pitt is hoping for a Big Ten invite itself while Penn State rolls in revenue like few other programs. In this environment, it’s always better to be a member of a stronger and more established conference as opposed to trying to “control” a less stable and newer conference. If you had to bet your entire life savings, is the SEC going to be the more stable and lucrative conference in 10 or 20 years or is it going to be the new Pac-16? I would bet it all on the SEC, so how anyone could think that A&M would be making a mistake in choosing that option is being disingenuous.
Now, I mentioned in a post last week that a Big East message board obsession might be coming true. In reality, it’s really more like 2 related Big East message board obsessions coming up to the surface: a mandate to Notre Dame and a possible split of the league. It had been my belief for a very long time that there really wasn’t anything that the Big East could tell Notre Dame (as I explained in this post looking at Big East expansion options a few months back). Well, it turns out that I may be wrong since there is a mechanism that has a lot of teeth (and it’s counterintuitive as to who is pushing the issue).
A source with knowledge of the agreement that was entered into by the Big East schools following the ACC raid of 2003 states that in the event that 2 football members leave the conference, the football and non-football members can split the league without any penalty and retain their respective revenues, such as NCAA Tournament distributions. What is surprising is that the Catholic non-football members comprise the faction that is pushing the issue. If you recall, those schools met back in March to discuss “contingency plans”. Apparently, the Catholic schools have decided that they will exercise the split option if 2 Big East schools leave the conference (no matter who they might be) and have informed Big East commissioner John Marinatto as such. Financially, the Catholic schools would actually be in a fine position because they would have a large reserve of NCAA Tournament credits with Georgetown and Villanova having both made it to the Final Four in the last 4 years. There is also the stability and cultural fit standpoint, where the Catholic schools are not enthralled with the “usual suspects” of Big East expansion candidates from Conference USA. (In a side note, FedEx CEO Fred Smith has reportedly offered millions of dollars to a BCS league that would invite Memphis. Someone suggested to me that this type of offer could run afoul of Federal anti-corruption laws for inducing a public official, such as a public university administrator, to perform an official act. If there are attorneys practicing criminal law out there, let me know if that would be the case.) As much as the football members may complain about the hybrid model, the Big East is in a position where it will always need to leverage its basketball league in order to provide coverage for the football side. The Catholic schools are the ones that give the Big East an entryway into New York City, Chicago and Washington, so removing them actually hurts the football members more than the other way around.
This affects Notre Dame from several different fronts. Externally, it’s still optimal for the hybrid to stay together for all of the Big East members, so Catholic schools like Georgetown may be willing to sacrifice its connection with Notre Dame in order to preserve the hybrid model and its basketball games with Syracuse and/or UCONN. This gives to teeth to the rumored pressure from the Big East on Notre Dame to make a decision on whether to join for all-sports.
Even if there isn’t an ultimatum per se, the Big East is on notice that it will split up with the loss of 2 members without question. Therefore, if the Big Ten takes Rutgers and Syracuse, for example, it automatically forces the break-up of the Big East (where it’s not just a hypothetical threat). My understanding is that Notre Dame simply will not join an all-Catholic league for non-football sports when push comes to shove. Notre Dame’s alums may believe that it will be okay only because it would still be a pretty good men’s basketball league, but the problem is for all other sports. The athletic department size disparity between Notre Dame and the Catholic Big East members is the equivalent of USC or UCLA moving their non-football sports to the West Coast Conference. That’s just not going to cut it for an athletic department of Notre Dame’s size and stature, no matter how much its alumni base believes football independence matters more than everything else combined.
That’s the angle a lot of people are missing: Notre Dame’s decision on conference membership actually has very little to do with football. The Irish can still keep its NBC contract and there really is no danger of the program being shut out of the national championship picture even if 16-team superconferences are formed. A lot of Notre Dame haters go overboard in arguing that the Irish are heading toward football irrelevance. In reality, Notre Dame has as strong of a fan base as ever and it’s shown every time that the team is halfway decent. However, the rest of the Irish athletic department will suffer a ton of damage if the Big East loses any members. Once again, the Notre Dame alumni base might be perfectly fine with throwing every other sport under the bus, but the leadership at Notre Dame won’t be. There is little rational justification to let that happen when the Big Ten offers more football revenue anyway plus a major reduction in travel expenses.
The rise of superconferences might give Father Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick the PR cover with Notre Dame’s alums to make a move to a conference, but it’s really the terms of the Big East agreement combined with the stance of the Catholic membership that are putting the legitimate pressure on the Irish.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from mlive)