College Basketball Jones Bi-Winning in the Big Ten Coffers and Big East Expansion

As America is engrossed with the start of the NCAA Tournament and determining which former Illini coach that this year’s Illinois team will lose to this weekend, let’s turn our attention to the business of college basketball for a few moments.  I’m actually a hoops guy at heart, but as this blog delved into college conference realignment, the focus here turned to football because of that’s really the driving force between the major moves.

Kristi Dosh and Patrick Rishe have been writing a number of posts at the Forbes SportsMoney blog about athletic department and basketball revenue and profits among the major conferences. (h/t to Slant reader Brian.)  What’s interesting to note is that the largest revenue basketball conference on a per school basis isn’t the 11-bid Big East or Dook-UNC-led ACC, but none other than the Big Ten, which an unbiased ESPN SportsCenter anchor lovingly noted this past week was like “watching fat people have sex“.  (The Big East has a larger total basketball revenue number, although that’s skewed because it has 16 members.)  Concrete factors for this are that for all of the bashing of Big Ten basketball and the reputation that it’s made up of football schools, the conference has a rabid hoops fan base where it has led the nation in attendance for the past 34 consecutive years along with revenue from the Big Ten Network.  My personal observation is that most Big Ten football fans follow their basketball teams at a consistently high level, whereas SEC football fans (outside of Kentucky and maybe Arkansas) basically need a Final Four contender to pay attention.

That difference in basketball revenue  between the Big Ten and SEC appears to be a major reason why the Big Ten has more profitable athletic departments overall even though SEC profit in the top revenue sport of football is greater.  (More detailed charts with estimated allocations taking into account the Big Ten Network are here on Dolich’s website.)  Regardless, college conference revenue has essentially created a tier for the Big Ten and SEC with everyone else way behind.  As for the importance of football relative to basketball, the Big Ten (22.2%), SEC (16.3%), Pac-10 (22.9%) and Big 12 (19.1%) are actually all fairly close to each other in terms of basketball revenue as a percentage of total athletic department revenue.  Not surprisingly, the Big East (36.7%) and ACC (31.8%) are the outliers where those conferences receive a lot higher proportion of their revenue from basketball (and therefore seem to emphasize basketball more than football compared to the other BCS leagues).

That high basketball percentage for the Big East has some implications for conference realignment/expansion insofar that the “this is all about football” mantra that applied to the Big Ten and Pac-12 expansions as well the Big 12 situation (where one of the top marquee basketball brands in the nation, Kansas, was almost left for dead) may not completely apply to the Big East.  To be sure, the Big East would love nothing more than to become a football power along the lines of the SEC, but the types of schools that would catapult the Eastern-based league to that status (i.e. Notre Dame and Penn State) aren’t reasonably attainable and no one is going to find them in C-USA.  At the same time, the Big East basketball TV deal (average of $2 million per school per year) is worth more than its football contract (average of $1.67 million per school per year), which means that basketball has to be taken in account.  (Recall my Big East Expansion FAQ back in November.)  With the New York Daily News reporting that a Big East TV network is unlikely (largely because getting basic carriage in the New York City market that’s already overloaded with expensive regional sports networks will be impossible), the “expanding for new markets” argument isn’t very compelling.

That’s why the Big East seems more interested in having Villanova move up to Division I-A than adding any expansion candidates from C-USA.  (Please add re-naming the first round of the NCAA Tournament to now be the “second round” after the First Four to the long list of perplexing, nonsensical, confusing and annoying NCAA changes to names that were easily understood by the average bear before.)   The argument is that none of those schools would add much to the national TV contracts on the football side, so it’s more important to avoid diluting the already more lucrative basketball side.  I wasn’t a big fan of the Big East having Villanova move up when it looked like it was a possibility that the Wildcats would be the only football addition without TCU included.  However, what I now understand is that for the Big East football schools to get the Big East Catholic members to vote for any further all-sports expansion in the first place was predicated on Villanova moving up, so the addition of the Philly-area school has to be looked at in the scheme of the entire Big East expansion in conjunction with TCU as opposed to on its own.  At the same time, much to the chagrin of the various schools that are looking for a Big East invite (i.e. UCF, Houston, East Carolina, Memphis, etc.), the most important fact is that Villanova is already a full member of the Big East.  This isn’t an expansion for the conference – it’s a current member moving up for a sport, which is an incredibly important distinction.

Villanova insiders indicate that it’s increasingly likely that the school’s Board of Trustees will approve the football upgrade.  Frankly, the school has to make the move.  This isn’t a matter of moving up for football to join a non-AQ conference – if the program is guaranteed AQ status, then this shouldn’t be a difficult decision.  The Big East is what it is – an extremely strong basketball conference with revenue in line with that status.  Football may drive the bus in college sports overall, but if a conference is unable to add a major power program (the “kings” and “barons” that Stewart Mandel once wrote about), then it makes no sense to weaken or dilute the nation’s best basketball league for little or no revenue upside for the football league.  Football in and of itself doesn’t make money for conferences; it’s having marquee football programs that matters.  To the extent Villanova provides an extra conference football game on the schedule without having to split the basketball TV contract into an 18th slice, it may very well be most lucrative (or at least revenue neutral) football addition that the Big East can realistically have for now.

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(Image from CBS Chicago)