Big East Says No Va to Nova For Now

Back in the fall, the Big East extended an “invitation” to Villanova to move up from Division I-AA football and join the football side of the conference.  After several postponements on a decision by Villanova, the school’s Board of Trustees was finally prepared to vote today to approve the football upgrade.

However, the Big East suddenly said, “SIKE!”

The issue appears to be Villanova’s choice of 18,500-seat PPL Park as a home football venue, which is the soccer home to the MLS Philadelphia Union.  I would certainly understand the hesitancy on the part of the other Big East football schools… if it weren’t for the fact that PPL Park has been well-known as the only realistic stadium option for Villanova for around 5 months now.  Regardless of whether one believes that Villanova joining Big East football is a good idea, it appears to be disingenuous on its face that some of the conference’s football members brought up the stadium situation that they’ve known about for quite awhile at the very last minute.

The New York Daily News reported today that 75% of the Big East’s football members would need to approve the upgrade, which means that it requires a 6-3 majority.  What’s interesting is that the scuttlebutt among Villanova insiders is that the Big East members that are blocking the process are Pitt, Rutgers, Syracuse and West Virginia as opposed to the newer members.  (See the 4/11 9:37 am post from the publisher of Rivals site  It doesn’t surprise me to see Pitt, Rutgers and West Virginia up there, but the talk about Syracuse having objections is quite jarring as the Orange (along with UConn) have the longest conference relationship with Villanova of any of the football schools.

I explained the rationale for the Big East prodding Villanova to move up in football in my last post: (1) approval of any all-sports expansion (including the addition TCU) by the Catholic members was predicated on Villanova getting a chance to move up and (2) none of the potential expansion candidates from C-USA would clearly add enough football revenue to risk diluting the conference’s basketball revenue even further.  That’s not to say adding Villanova would really do much for Big East football competitively, but they were a necessary political mechanism to obtain the votes for football expansion overall with TCU (which virtually everyone agrees was a great move).

The Big East released a statement that it would continue to perform “due diligence” on the Villanova upgrade.  What I don’t understand is what’s going to change over the next few months – the PPL Park plan “is what it is” and there aren’t any alternative options for Villanova.  If Pitt, Rutgers and others don’t like the Villanova proposal today, then they’re not going to like it in June.  Everyone involved would be best served by an up-or-down vote ASAP instead of dragging this out further.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

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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.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

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A Modest Proposal for the Big East, TCU, Boise State and Others: The Big Country Conference

The Pitt beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette believes that the Big East is purely looking for football-only members, and with the athletic director of TCU going on the record of only wanting to consider all-sports memberships, UCF and Villanova are considered to be the “Plan A” expansion candidates (with Temple as a back-up if Villanova decides against moving up from the FCS level) because they’re more willing to move just for football.  I’ve heard people with connections to other Big East schools state the exact same thing.  Frankly, if this is all true, it’s quite a shortsighted and underwhelming stance by the Big East as it ought to do whatever it takes to grab TCU, but not surprising as 16 members for basketball and other sports is already a massive league.  For all of those that want to make the divisions in the Big East to be simply “basketball vs. football”, the fact of the matter is that if the football members were all on the same page with anything, they would get their way with the Catholic schools.  The problem is that they aren’t even close to being on the same page – some were ready to split yesterday, others are hell-bent on keeping the hybrid together, some don’t care if the league adds multiple all-sport members and others don’t want any more all-sport members at all.  Therefore, if the Big East fails to add TCU or expand at all, the football members have only themselves to blame as opposed to the Catholic schools or the people in the conference offices in Providence.  (Note that the Fort Worth Star-Telegram is a bit more optimistic that the TCU-Big East marriage will eventually be consummated.) 

Let me throw some spaghetti against the wall here.  If I was running the Big East and the members were looking to make a significant move in football but preserve its strength and membership in basketball, I’d turn the concept of football-only membership on its head.  Instead, the Big East football members could head the formation of a football-only conference.  In essence, it would be a quasi-split – the Big East football members would separate from the conference in only football while keeping all other sports there.  This would preserve the 16-team league in basketball and all of the large markets and television contract advantages that come with it.  (Note that in my Big East Expansion FAQ post, I neglected to include the Big East basketball contract with CBS in the conference TV revenue figures, which is $9 million per year.  That means that each school makes $2 million per year total for basketball between the ESPN and CBS deals, which is actually more than what the football members make for football.  This only serves as further evidence that the Big East doesn’t want a full split and will do everything to keep its basketball league together.)  There is precedent for this type of structure, where the Missouri Valley Conference and Missouri Valley Football Conference share the same branding and headquarters with several common members, but are operated as separate entities with different charters and voting procedures.

After that, the new conference, which I’ll call “The Big Country”, will cherry-pick the best non-AQ schools from across the nation to create a strong and TV-friendly football league.  In fact, instead of the Big East members fearing the Big Ten and/or ACC raiding them to form 16-team leagues, they could form the first BCS superconference themselves.  Since it would be a football-only conference, the concerns about travel largely go out the window as the expenses as the non-revenue sports wouldn’t have to trek across the nation.  With two separate 8-team East/West divisions, even the travel for football itself would largely be minimized.  For the sake of argument, check out this proposed 16-team league:

West Virginia
1 of Temple/Villanova*
1 of UCF/ECU**

Boise State
1 of Houston/Memphis***
2 of New Mexico/Nevada/Hawaii****

Each school would play the 7 teams in its division plus 2 cross-division games, so the wide geographic range of the conference is a lot more manageable than how it looks on its face.  (Admittedly, Cincinnati and Louisville would get the shaft in terms of travel under this format, but remember that they had to travel all over the place in the much less lucrative former C-USA that stretched from West Point to Texas.)  A conference championship game would then be played (likely at the home stadium of the school with the best record or highest BCS ranking).

(* Whether it’s right or bone-headed tunnel vision, the Big East football members REALLY want a presence in Philadelphia.  In a way, it makes sense to the extent that it’s difficult to position yourself as the Northeastern BCS representative without a Philly school when you’ve already conceded Boston and DC/Baltimore to the ACC, don’t have a great hold in New York City and Penn State has such a solid fan base throughout the entire East Coast.  While the Big East would know with about five minutes of market research that Philly will probably only support Penn State en masse if it supports college football at all, the location in and of itself appears to be extremely important to the conference in this expansion process.)

(** Maybe it’s just me, but UCF doesn’t excite me as much as they seem to have excited Big East officials.  It’s a large and growing university that happens to also be the college home of Michael Jordan’s kids, yet I’m always wary of adding a school in an area that already faces an overload of direct BCS competition.  East Carolina actually has a very good fan base for a non-AQ school, but having 4 other BCS schools in the state of North Carolina that is an overwhelmingly ACC state is a killer.  On that front, UCF would get the nod purely because of its physical location where the Florida market is large enough to pump in enough additional quality BCS-level football players.)

(*** Is there any athletic department that has messed up more since the 2003 conference realignment than Memphis?  With its strong basketball program, solid fan base for an urban school, historic rivalries with Louisville and Cincinnati and financial backing from Fred Smith and the FedEx Mafia, Memphis would’ve been the next-in-line for an all-sports Big East membership if it had ANY football pulse whatsoever.  Instead, the Tigers might have the worst football team at the FBS level right now with dwindling attendance and are almost certainly getting passed over again.  I’ve only put them here as a football-only option as a geographic bridge between Louisville/Cincinnati and the rest of the West Division, but Houston would reasonably get the nod if I had to choose one of those two.)

(**** The one thing that I like about all of these schools: they’re flagship universities in growing areas that don’t have any other direct in-state BCS competition.  These are truly markets that this football league can own outright even if they’re on the smaller side.  In fact, I’d be willing to sign up all three in lieu of picking one of Houston/Memphis.  UNLV could also emerge as an option instead of Nevada here, but the Wolf Pack has clearly been stronger in football recently.)

If I’m running ESPN or another network, this is a conference worth paying some real money for compared to the current Big East or even an expanded 10-team Big East football league that includes TCU.  The Big East football members get the benefit of controlling their own destiny for football but still keep their profitable basketball league together.  As for what the other schools in this football-only league do with their other sports, the Big East members can legitimately say, “Not my problem.”  If this superconference is formed, then this permanently kills the chances of any other presently non-AQ conference like the Mountain West rising up to AQ status, so the stance can be either get onto the AQ gravy train now or forever hold your peace in the non-AQ world.  The Big Country wouldn’t make Big Ten or SEC TV money on a per school basis, but it would certainly present the opportunity for a massive upgrade that neither the Big East football members nor the non-AQ schools could hope for in more measured and conservative expansion scenarios.  This would make it a whole lot more palatable for schools such as TCU to agree to find a separate home for its other sports in comparison to the good-but-not-great revenue bump that it would receive if it were tacked on as a 10th football-only member of today’s Big East.  With other schools such as Boise State looking for a conference for other sports in the same manner, they can all agree to end up in a place like the WAC, WCC or even a brand new conference, which would provide a quality league for such other sports.

Do I think that the Big East football members are even considering this at all?  Heck no!  I’m sure that plenty of people will look at this proposal and perform some virtual vomiting all over it.  Yet, when The Big Country is framed and managed as a football-only conference, I don’t think it’s nearly as crazy logistically as it looks on a map.  This is a way that the Big East football members can throw in all of their last poker chips on the pigskin without risking anything on the basketball side.  In a way, the low revenue of Big East football gives those schools freedom to make moves that would be impossible for the Big Ten and SEC – they have little to lose on the football end, so this is a chance to go for a huge gain that will excite the general public and legimitately change the perception of the league.  Regardless, there’s no reason for the Big East football schools to split off (whether it’s just for football or all sports) unless it does so in a massive game-changing way.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

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Frank the Tank’s Big East Expansion FAQ

With the Big East announcing that it’s looking to add two football programs, a lot of the same  questions about what the conference should do have been continuously coming up, so let’s address them here:

1. Why don’t the Big East football schools grow some cajones and split from those bloodsucking Catholic schools already?! – As with most decisions of consequence in life, it’s all much easier said than done.  First of all, the gospel that “football money rules all” that has been advanced over the past few years is not quite correct.  Most people blindly follow the Underpants Gnomes Plan for college sports:

Phase 1: Expand for football
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit

However, football in and of itself really isn’t what drives money in college sports.  Otherwise, the 14-school MAC would be the richest league anywhere and the 12-team Conference USA would be looking to poach the Big East as opposed to the other way around.  Quantity does not equal quality, and what TV networks pay for is quality.  Instead, it’s the marquee football schools (i.e. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Florida, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Miami, USC, etc.) that disproportionately drive revenue and adding anything less than one of those schools is speculative and by no means any guarantee that ESPN or another TV network will pay a single cent more.  (Stewart Mandel’s 2007 grouping of the BCS schools into four different tiers is still a pretty good assessment of how where various programs stand in the long-term.)  It’s even unclear that the expanded Pac-10 will really gain much (if any) revenue with Colorado and Utah and that’s with the revenue pop of the creation of a new conference championship game.

Without any marquee schools involved, we can’t apply the same standards for expansion for the Big Ten or SEC to the Big East.  The Big East receives around $33 million per year from ESPN, with about $20 million allocated for basketball ($1.25 million per basketball member) and $13 million for football ($1.625 million per football member).  As you can see, basketball is on the same tier financially to the Big East as football.  Plenty of people have criticized this fact, but it’s a classic “it is what it is” situation.  Without a Notre Dame or Penn State-type addition, the Big East can’t reasonably expect to add any school that adds enough to the football revenue side that would make it worth it for the league to split.

The Big East football members make $2.875 million in TV revenue each annually (including both football and basketball).  That means a 10-team all-sports league would need to have a total TV contract of $28.75 million compared to the current $33 million contract which includes a whole host of large basketball markets just to break even.  Of course, the Big East schools aren’t going to go through the hassle and inevitable lawsuits to split in order to simply break even.  The only good reason for a split would be to see a big-time increase in revenue to make it worth it.  So, in order to make $5 million per school (which would still be the lowest out of all of the BCS conferences by a substantial amount), a 10-school split league would need a $50 million annual TV contract ($17 million more than the current 16-school contract) while a 12-school league would need a $60 million contract ($27 million more than the current deal).  Even if we assume that a split league would somehow lose absolutely no value on the basketball side (and that’s a very generous assumption) and the current 8 Big East football members alone can start at the $33 million level that’s being paid out to the entire 16-team conference, 2 additional schools would need to add about $8.5 million each to the Big East TV contract while 4 additional schools would need to bring $6.75 million each.

Is it reasonable to assume that individual schools will be able to bring to the Big East revenue increases that are close the entire TV contracts for the conferences that they would be leaving such as the Mountain West or C-USA?  (The MWC makes $12 million in TV money per year for all sports and the C-USA deal with CBS College Sports is between $7 to 8 million annually.)  Absolutely not, which is what the Big East’s university presidents understand and why they are adamant about not splitting.

This doesn’t even get into what would happen to the Big East’s accumulated NCAA Tournament credits over the past five years, which represent a significant amount of money equal to about five years of BCS bowl payments.  The football schools would risk giving all of that up to the Catholic schools in a split situation (since the football schools would be exiting the conference from a legal perspective) and, at the very least, there would be massive lawsuits involved.  The Big East football members aren’t stupid enough to get within the vicinity of that type of potential trouble and financial loss unless it’s adding a certain Catholic school from South Bend (which won’t happen).

2.  Didn’t you go to DePaul for law school, which makes you a hack homer and completely biased in supporting a program that can’t play basketball worth crap or justify its existence in the Big East? Yes, I went to DePaul for law school, but my emotional sports investment is with my undergrad alma mater of Illinois and the Big Ten.  Also, I completely understand DePaul sucks royally hard in basketball right now.  Oh man, do they suck.  My eyes are burning.  Personally, I don’t really care whether the Big East splits or not – my only long-term preference for DePaul (and what the school’s administration cares about) would be staying with the Catholic schools that it considers to be its institutional peers in some form or fashion.  (I’m sure the alums of the old-line Big East schools such as St. John’s and Georgetown would feel very differently about that – they are definitely invested completely in the hybrid.)

That being said, the value of DePaul and all of the other Catholic schools in the Big East is as a collective as opposed to the individual schools.  The Catholic members are what allow the Big East to go into any negotiation and state that it’s the conference that covers the New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and Providence/Boston markets.  Believe me when I say that this fact is pumped up on slide #1 on any Big East PowerPoint presentation and that the relative peanuts that the conference is receiving from ESPN today would be even less without that market argument.  The Big East can’t point to massive fan bases or schools like the Big Ten or SEC (and likely will never have any), so the competitive advantage that it has to sell is its presence in nearly all of the largest markets in the Eastern half of the United States.  Otherwise, the differentiators between the Big East and C-USA or the Mountain West (much less the other BCS conferences) from a TV perspective are virtually nil.  The Big East is still more valuable with the Catholic schools than without them for that reason.

3.  Doesn’t the Big East need to protect itself from getting pillaged by the Big Ten and ACC? The bad news in Providence is that every Big East member would jump to the Big Ten or ACC immediately no matter what the Big East decides to do – no expansion decision or financial scheme would ever change that.  The good news is that the Big Ten and ACC aren’t interested in any Big East schools.  So, for the foreseeable future, the answer to the question is an emphatic NO.  Similar to the analysis of the financial prospects (or lack thereof) in a Big East split situation in the answer to question #1 above, the financial incentives simply aren’t there for either the Big Ten or ACC to expand beyond 12 barring Notre Dame or Texas being added.  In the Big Ten’s case, each additional school needs to bring in $22 million just to break even in today’s world without Nebraska or a Big Ten title game – that number is probably going to push toward the $30 million over the next year or two in the 12-team league.  Once again, the entire 16-school Big East contract is worth $33 million.  While the Big Ten Network is lucrative, it can’t perform David Copperfield magic tricks – 2 or 4 Big East schools aren’t suddenly going to be worth $30 million each to the Big Ten when a 16-school league is valued at $33 million total.  Similar math applies to the ACC situation, albeit with lower figures in the $15 million per school range.  ESPN isn’t going to add $30 million to its new ACC contract so that the league can expand with 2 Big East members (or a $60 million increase with 4 additional members) when it currently can get all 16 Big East members for $33 million.  None of it adds up.  Therefore, the Big East should be expanding to better itself as opposed to some type of defensive measure against other conferences.

4.  Can’t the Big East make up the revenue gap with other BCS conferences by creating its own TV network?  Well, a lot of people seem to apply the Underpants Gnomes Plan to the notion of a Big East network, too.  Just because a conference (a) starts a network and (b) has teams in certain markets doesn’t automatically mean that such conference network is going to magically get the basic carriage at a high subscriber rate that’s required to make it financially viable.  Case in point is the mtn (which is the Mountain West’s network that’s owned by CBS College Sports), which hasn’t been able to get basic carriage in its two largest markets of Dallas-Fort Worth and San Diego.  So, if TCU wasn’t enough to get the mtn onto basic carriage in DFW, it’s not going to suddenly get a Big East network on in the same market when the Big East has no substantial alumni or fan presence in that area otherwise.  The Minnesota Twins also started a network that ended up folding, and that’s actually a team that legitimately “delivers” its home market.  Even the Texas Longhorns network isn’t really going to be the financial boon that many were predicting and there’s no single school in the country that’s better positioned to start one up.

Without leverage, you don’t get basic carriage, and without basic carriage, you’re better off just signing a comprehensive deal with ESPN.  That leverage doesn’t come in a linear fashion, either – it’s faulty reasoning to say, “The Big East is 50% less popular than the Big Ten in its home area, so the Big East network can just charge 50% less than the Big Ten Network.”  Instead, there’s a tipping point where there’s a critical mass of fans in a market that care about the network so much that they will actually leave (not just threaten) their current cable provider for another one that carries the network.  At that point, the current cable provider is better off paying up $.70 per month (or whatever the subscriber rate is) to that network than losing more money in cancelled $80 monthly cable bills.  The Big Ten and the New York Yankees had that leverage and even they had to endure fights with cable providers for a year or more in order to get basic carriage.

That leads to another issue specifically related to the Big East – in order for its conference network to work out in any form, it needs to get basic carriage in the New York City market.  Remember that this was a market where Cablevision argued that the freaking Yankees were “niche programming” and there’s already three extremely high-priced regional sports networks (YES, SNY and MSG) to compete with.  Frankly, if any combination of Rutgers, Syracuse and/or UCONN was enough to get a cable network basic carriage in NYC, then such combination would’ve been invited to the Big Ten months ago.  The problem is that the NYC market is fool’s gold for conferences because the sheer size of it and the way that college sports fans are so dispersed among all of the conferences there means that no single conference could ever get the critical mass required to make a network work in that area.

This issue applies to pretty much all of the large markets that the Big East is located in (Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington).  The conference has a presence in each of them where they provide value for the purposes of an ESPN national TV contract or signing up the syndicated Big East package with an RSN, but none of them provide the critical mass of fans that would meet the threshold of getting a Big East network basic carriage.  Heck, the only Big East markets that I could see as “guaranteed” to get basic carriage are Louisville, Hartford and the state of West Virginia.  Pittsburgh and Central New York probably could be added to that list, but everywhere else would be speculative.  The Big East has the high population numbers on paper, but not enough fan intensity within that population base to justify creating a TV network.

5.  Couldn’t Big East consultant/savior Paul Tagliabue figure out how to create a Big East network?  Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue?  The guy that took the single most valuable sports property in America and created a network that initially couldn’t get carriage anywhere other than DirecTV, where the NFL has Godfather powers due to Sunday Ticket access?  The guy that created a network that couldn’t reach a deal with Comcast until he left the commissioner’s office and Roger Goodell took over?  The guy that created a network that still doesn’t have deals with Time Warner, Cablevision or Mediacom seven years after it went on the air?  You want that guy giving you advice on starting up a cable network?  Seriously?!

I remember traveling to London for work a couple of years ago and found that the BBC carries the NFL Network Thursday Night package live.  Think about that for a second:  people living in the United Kingdom literally have more access to NFL Network games than people in the United States.  That’s Paul Tagliabue’s cable network legacy.

6.  Why can’t the Big East get Penn State or Notre Dame? C.R.E.A.M.  The Big East will get farther trying to ask USC and Florida to join.

7.  Why can’t the Big East get Boston College or Maryland? C.R.E.A.M.  Note that other than the schools that moved up from C-USA to the Big East, there was no single greater financial beneficiary from the 2003 conference realignment than Boston College.  The people that matter at BC are very happy with the ACC.

8.  Why can’t the Big East go after the almost-leftovers of the Big 12 such as Missouri and Kansas? First, as I’ve written over the past few months, the Big 12 will be stable as long as Texas wants the league to stay alive, and pretty much everything points to that being the Texas long-term position for a multitude of reasons (TV network, political heat, etc.).  As a result, no one should be shortsighted in thinking that the Big 12 is going to collapse at any point soon.

Second, C.R.E.A.M.  Texas might be a mean pimp a la Wayne Brady, but they’ll pay out juuuuuuust enough money to keep its employees from drifting off and getting legitimate jobs.  It’s not as if though the Big 12 has really had completely poor payouts.  I don’t buy Dan Beebe’s projections of $452 gazillion per year per school that will all be funded by his multi-level marketing “business”, but even if the Big 12 can simply keep its current payout levels, that will still provide between $6 to 7 million annually for each member.  Those numbers far surpass what the Big East can ever hope to provide.  As noted earlier, revenue is driven by the marquee football schools and the Big 12 has two of them in Texas and Oklahoma.  Regardless of whether UT, OU and Texas A&M have guaranteed $20 million annual payouts, it’s going to be extremely tough for any of the Big 12 schools to leave for a league whose best football anchor is arguably West Virginia.

9. Won’t the Mountain West become an AQ conference in a few years? – My educated guess is no based on the losses of Utah and BYU.  Even with the addition of Boise State next season, the issue with the Mountain West and the BCS evaluation criteria will always be with the depth (the performance of the schools from top to bottom) as opposed to the top 2 or 3 schools.  Regardless, why would TCU take the risk of that not happening in a few years when it could get into a BCS conference right away?  The answer is that they wouldn’t – TCU and any other non-AQ team would jump at any BCS invite.

10.  Why the heck would TCU or anyone else agree to a football-only Big East invite? – The crappiest house in Beverly Hills is worth more than the nicest house in South Central LA, and the crappiest spot in an AQ conference is worth more than the nicest spot in a non-AQ conference.  It’s a hell of a lot more difficult to find a spot in a BCS football league than a home for basketball and other non-revenue sports.  TCU is at its absolute peak in terms of marketability and attractiveness and the leadership there likely knows that it needs to strike it while it’s hot.  Any other non-AQ school that might receive a football-only invite from the Big East would be wise to do the same because future opportunities aren’t guaranteed.

At the same time, TCU or any other non-AQ school HAS to run the table in order to have shot a BCS bowl bid, and even that’s not necessarily a guarantee if there are multiple undefeated non-AQ teams.  Going undefeated every single season is simply unrealistic for even the very elite football programs.  In contrast, there’s a fairly good chance that this year’s Big East champ will have 3 losses (or even more).  Being in an AQ conference means that a school has some margin for error during the course of the season, which doesn’t exist in the non-AQ world.

11.  Won’t TCU try for a Big 12 invite instead? It takes two to tango: TCU can try for a Big 12 invite all it wants but the Horned Frogs will be rejected every time.  I’ve said this many times before and I’ll say it again: the single biggest issue with the Big 12 financially is that it lacks viable markets outside of the state of Texas.  Putting aside the fact that neither Texas nor Texas A&M want anything to do whatsoever with TCU (which is definitely the case), TCU is simply in the same place with respect to the Big 12 as Iowa State and Pitt are with the Big Ten – overlapping markets will kill any chance of an invite.  As long as UT and A&M are in the Big 12, TCU will NEVER receive a Big 12 invite.  Big East schools don’t have to worry about TCU bolting down the road.

12.  What do you think will happen even though you have the gambling skills of Charles Barkley on a bender? I believe that the Big East will do the right thing and invite TCU as a football-only member, with TCU sending its non-football sports to the Missouri Valley Conference.  (Note that under NCAA rules, a school cannot play its non-football sports in a league that sponsors football when its football team plays in another league.  Notre Dame is compliant because its football team is independent.  Thus, the WAC, C-USA or staying in the MWC for non-football sports aren’t options for TCU.  The Missouri Valley Football Conference exists at the FCS level, yet it’s administratively a separate league from the MVC despite having common members and sharing the same branding and headquarters.  Not to open up another can of worms, but that MVC/MVFC setup might work for separating the leadership of the Big East football and non-football leagues in the future while still keeping the same name and branding.)  Meanwhile, Villanova will accept its outstanding invitation to move up from the FCS level since I just can’t see how anyone can turn down a BCS invite with the way college sports is heading.  It’s not what I believe is the right thing to do for the Big East (as I personally believe that adding Villanova would be a mistake), but the tea leaves seem to indicate that this is the most likely outcome.

13.  How confident are you that the Big East will actually expand? The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette summed up the Big East expansion situation very nicely yesterday:

The logistics of this expansion will be tricky because its basketball league has 16 members.

That means to add two football programs, the conference either must go to 18 teams (or 17 if Villanova is one of the two football teams added) — which nobody seems to want– or eliminate one or two basketball members. That does not seem to be desirable, either.

A third, but likely unrealistic, option would add two football-only members.

Let me get this straight: nobody wants 18 schools, nobody wants 17 schools, eliminating basketball members is undesirable and adding football-only members is unrealistic.  Well, that inspires a lot of confidence, doesn’t it?

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

(Image from Webshots)

Big East Schools Agree to Expand to 10 Football Teams

News is trickling out from the Big East meetings that the university presidents have agreed to expand to its football league to 10 members.  (See Tweets from Stewart Mandel and Pat Forde.)  The conference has temporarily refuted my pessimistic concern that it would elevate Villanova alone as opposed to adding TCU (which I thought was a no-brainer back in February), although there’s still plenty of time for the current Big East members to mess that up.  If I were to guess today which 2 schools would be added, I’d say TCU and either Villanova (as a move-up from the FCS level to FBS) or Temple in order to keep some semblance of a Northeastern tilt.  There also definitely won’t be a split between the football members and the Catholic schools.  Without a Penn State/Notre Dame-type addition, there aren’t any potential football additions that would bring enough revenue to compensate for the loss of the large markets in the Big East basketball contract.  I’m not saying those are the right decisions for the Big East – this is just my semi-educated prediction as to where I think the conference will end up.  I’ll certainly be writing more about this story as it unfolds, but in the meantime, what does everyone else think?

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111 and Facebook)

Through the Wire with TCU and N to the Izz-O, V to the Izz-A

I’ve been spending the last couple of months powering through The Wire for the first time on my Netflix queue.  (I just finished Season 4.  Until further notice, if anyone mentions a word about Season 5, I will hunt you down like Omar.)  The overarching theme of The Wire is that our institutions in society are largely intractable, where “good soldiers” that follow orders and tow the party line are rewarded with promotions while bold thinkers usually end up getting demoted, fired or shot.  “The System” is fixed in place with little hope for change, whether we’re talking about the drug trade, police tactics, political maneuverings or old people continuously believing that young people like the Black Eyed Peas.  (As depressing as that sounds, The Wire manages to weave in at least a few laugh out loud moments in each episode and I understand why plenty of critics call it the greatest TV drama of all-time.  I can’t believe that it took me this long to watch it.)

What the conference realignment process over the past year has shown is that college sports has its own entrenched system.  Slant reader duffman put together some incredibly detailed analysis of various college football programs over the years (here and here), with some of the takeaways being that decisions and circumstances from the early 1900s set up the system that we have today and not much has really changed in the sport’s hierarchy since World War II.  (This doesn’t count institutions that voluntarily de-emphasized athletics since then, such as the University of Chicago, Ivy League schools and service academies.)

When I first wrote the Big Ten Expansion Index post, I imagined conference commissioners and university presidents taking a Machiavellian approach in raiding each other to advance their own interests.  However, it has borne out that risk aversion largely rules the day.  For all of the talk about demographics, geographic footprint and basic cable subscribers, the Big Ten performed the equivalent of Berkshire Hathaway buying stock in Coca-Cola by adding tradition-bound and geographically contingent Nebraska.  (To be sure, it was definitely the right move.)  Texas, despite having the most powerful college program in the country on paper, couldn’t shake off the political shackles of Texas A&M and Texas Tech… assuming that it wanted to shake them off at all.  Big IIX commissioner Dan Beebe somehow kept the conference together based on a bunch of pie-in-the-sky promises regarding exit fees from Nebraska and Colorado (which have turned out to be about a third as much as predicted) and supposed future increases in TV revenues.  Now that the Big IIX has averted the Conference Grim Reaper, Texas-based politicians are likely going to keep it alive in perpetuity.  I know a lot of people believe that Texas is on the road to becoming independent in a few years, but I don’t see it.  Texas is in a very different situation than Notre Dame, not the least of which is having to answer to a whole lot of politicians and members of the general public that are going to demand UT to spread some wealth as opposed to just its fanatical alumni base.  Besides, Texas wants to own a massive plantation and sip mojitos while watching a bunch of worker bees from Lubbock and Waco do the landscaping work.  Notre Dame, on the other hand, just wants everyone to get the f**k off its lawn.  Both Texas and Notre Dame are power-hungry, but have different approaches in seeking/maintaining such power.

It took a guy from the world of women’s tennis in the form of Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott to attempt a truly revolutionary move.  Yet, in Wire-esque fashion, the Pac-16 proposal was rejected at the very last moment and the Pac-10 had to settle for the “good but not great” additions of Colorado and Utah that may not even raise conference revenues much compared to the status quo (if at all).  Plus, ESPN, who is still the ultimate sugar daddy for every conference (even the Big Ten), came down hard against the prospect of 16-school conferences and appears to be willing to pay up in order to prevent them from ever forming.  As a result, I’ve become extremely skeptical that there’s going to be much change for the foreseeable future among the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-10, ACC and Big IIX.  (On a side note, the commenters have been discussing what the new name for the Big IIX ought to be.  My vote would be for the Big Country: instant association with a band and song that you won’t be able to get out of your head for 8 hours straight after hearing it along with the ability to use Oklahoma State alum Bryant Reeves as the official conference mascot.)

This brings us to the Big East, which is the epitome of institutional dysfunction.  The conference has reportedly has offered Villanova a spot to move up from FCS and is in talks with TCU.  Now, TCU receiving an invite makes complete sense to me and I said as much back in February for a whole host of reasons.  What’s amazing to me, though, is that the Big East-related people that I’ve talked to believe that if it came down to having only a single spot for either Villanova or TCU, then the invite would go to Nova since the conference is hell-bent on preserving its hybrid format at all costs.  This would be the case despite the fact that Villanova has less history, a smaller student population and alumni base and worse stadium situation than Temple, which is a school that the Big East kicked out as a football member in the same Philadelphia market that has proven to focus almost completely on pro sports.  Of course, I’m not an advocate of the Big East splitting for the sake of splitting in order to add a bunch of C-USA schools at the expense of breaking up arguably the nation’s best basketball conference, but the last thing that the Big East needs to be doing is trying to add in an FCS program.  That’s a WAC-fighting-for-its-survival move as opposed to an expansion worthy of a BCS AQ conference.  (By the way, please see this incredibly honest and straight-forward email from the athletic director of current FCS program and prospective WAC member Montana that several people sent to me and went into great detail as to what it would take to move up to FBS and how the FCS playoffs are losing money.)

This is a display as to how entrenched schools and conferences can be within their own microsystems at the expense of programs such as TCU and BYU that by every reasonable measure are BCS-level schools TODAY.   The Big East was formed as a basketball conference that later tacked on a football component as a matter of convenience and that attitude still permeates even though the economics of college sports have changed over the past 2 decades where football rules all.  True to form, the Big East decided to replace the retiring Mike Tranghese with his long-time lieutenant John Marinatto as commissioner this past year as opposed to going after a Larry Scott-type outsider that could actually make an unbiased judgment as to how the conference is perceived in the outside world.  Combine that with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue being brought on board as an advisor (who has an unabashed interest in preserving the hybrid as a trustee of Georgetown) and it feels as though we’re more likely to see a remedial or reactionary move by the Big East geared toward placating the delicate balance between the Catholic schools and football members than a forward-looking one in the form of inviting TCU and/or other worthy programs.  I have nothing against Villanova, but the thought of that school having an easier time being granted BCS AQ status over a whole host of other schools is ridiculous.

With my understanding that the Big Ten isn’t going to be looking to add anyone unless Notre Dame and/or Texas suddenly have a change of heart, any members of the Big East that want to better themselves are likely going to have do it individually instead of looking toward the conference.  Pitt, realizing that a Big East network isn’t on the horizon and likely wouldn’t work even if it ever came to fruition, has actually started its own TV network called PantherVision, which is largely made up of coaches’ shows, Olympic sports telecasts and bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.  It would behoove the other Big East schools that have strong local fan bases (i.e. Louisville, West Virginia, Connecticut) to start their own similar channels because I certainly wouldn’t have much confidence in the lackluster leadership in Providence if I were running any of those institutions.

The shuffling among the non-AQ conferences will certainly continue with the WAC on the endangered species list.  Among the power conferences, though, expect more of the same (with maybe a Big East addition or two) as opposed to bold moves for the next few years.  I hope that the Big East does the right thing and invites TCU, but don’t be surprised if the institutional bias in that conference ends up elevating Villanova alone.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from What’s Alan Watching?)

A Mid-Major Program in a Major Conference: DePaul Basketball Program Progress Report


I was listening to Terry Boers and Dan Bernstein (for non-Chicagoans, they host the afternoon drive on WSCR 670 “The Score” and, in my opinion, have the best sports talk show in the city) last week and they had an extended conversation on the state of DePaul basketball, which was extremely unusual since I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard them discuss the Blue Demons in ten years of listening to their show.  Their main point was that DePaul doesn’t seem to know what type of program that it wants to be as of today – if the school doesn’t want to commit the resources to be competitive in the brutal Big East, then it ought to just resign itself to being a Loyola-type program.  Truer words have never been spoken.  When I wrote this high-level assessment of the DePaul program in the wake of its first Big East conference game three years ago (a victory over rival Notre Dame), I was optimistic about the school joining a conference that it felt it should have always belonged to (in the sense of being the dominant Catholic university in a major media market).  However, I also sounded the following warning:

Still, it’s not just enough for DePaul to simply join the Big East – the Demons need to establish a winning program within that conference.  Otherwise, DePaul is going to be to the Big East what Northwestern basketball is to the Big Ten: a Chicago outpost whose arena is filled up every game with fans of the opponents.

Unfortunately, it looks like the latter scenario is becoming the norm at Allstate Arena.  DePaul has lost its first five Big East games of the season, including a blowout loss at home against a horrific South Florida team.  While I knew that DePaul’s stadium situation would always put a damper on the program’s ability to draw recruits, what I didn’t expect was for the school to simply ignore the financial realities of what it takes to be able to compete in the Big East.  Let’s just put aside schools with football programs, such as Notre Dame and Syracuse, and take a look at a ranking of the 2007-08 athletic revenue and expenses of the Big East Catholic schools that don’t play Division I-A football (all of the Catholic schools except for Notre Dame):

  1. Georgetown
    Undergraduate Enrollment: 6,545
    Revenue: $28,956,475
    Expenses: $28,956,475
  2. St. John’s
    Undergraduate Enrollment: 11,567
    Revenue: $27,865,749
    Expenses: $27,750,357
  3. Villanova
    Undergraduate Enrollment: 6,663
    Revenue: $23,925,129
    Expenses: $23,925,129
  4. Marquette
    Undergraduate Enrollment: 7,482
    Revenue: $23,677,426
    Expenses: $23,677,426
  5. Seton Hall
    Undergraduate Enrollment: 4,577
    Revenue: $17,345,372
    Expenses: $17,345,372
  6. Providence
    Undergraduate Enrollment: 3,892
    Revenue: $17,314,913
    Expenses: $17,314,913
  7. DePaul
    Undergraduate Enrollment: 11,128
    Revenue: $14,342,873
    Expenses: $14,342,873

For some points of reference, Ohio State had the largest amount of athletic revenues in the nation last year with $117,953,712.  Among the schools in Chicago sphere of influence, Notre Dame had revenues of $83,352,439, Illinois had $57,167,843 (almost right at the median for schools with BCS football programs), and Northwestern had $41,835,733.  All information is from the fascinating institutional data site run by the U.S. Office of Postsecondary Education.

The expenses number is a pretty good proxy for each school’s athletic budget since athletic departments will typically spend every penny of it (which leads to some Enron-esque accounting to meet the balanced budget mandates of most schools, so that’s why every one of the Catholic schools listed above except for St. John’s reported revenues that equaled exactly to their expenses).  As you can see from the list, it’s clear that DePaul is far behind its peers in the rest of the Big East in terms of commitment of resources to athletics.

I’m not saying that DePaul should be prioritizing athletic spending over other parts of its educational mission.  However, if DePaul wants to be part of a power conference, then it’s going to have to make the commitment that is commensurate of a power conference team or else consider moving out.  When the Blue Demons have a smaller budget than Providence and Seton Hall, which are institutions with around 4,000 undergraduates (compared to DePaul with over 11,000), much less being nearly doubled by smaller schools in smaller markets like Marquette and Villanova, it appears as though the administration just wanted to be passive part of the Big East as opposed to actually competing in it.

I completely understand that DePaul is collecting much larger checks from ESPN and other sources as a Big East member compared to, say, if it had moved to the Atlantic 10 in the same manner as St. Louis University.  There’s also a certain cachet of being in the same conference as Notre Dame, Georgetown, and other Catholic universities that DePaul wants to consider its peers.  It was obvious five years ago that the invitation to the Big East was an opportunity that the school under the El tracks in Lincoln Park couldn’t possibly pass up and I was extremely excited about the move at the time.  However, DePaul hasn’t done much over the past several years, if anything, to justify that invitation.  As of now, DePaul has an athletic budget that’s closer to Loyola than Marquette, and while that’s fine for a mid-major school, it’s simply not befitting a Big East program.  DePaul needs to figure out what it wants to be in terms of sports.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)