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The Big East should stick together, while it can

Why dissolving the Big East makes little financial sense in the short term, and ultimately doesn't matter.

Tom Pennington

The Big East has long been a media punchline for its (historically) inept leadership and perception as the weakest of the six BCS football conferences. Understandably, this causes no end of bruised egos. It's commonly said that no program is in the Big East by choice, but for the basketball quartet of Providence, Seton Hall, DePaul, and Marquette - that isn't really true. The Big East not only is all they have, their privileged status as a member of a major basketball conference remains a point of pride for these programs, as well as their lifeline for continued relevance both in terms of perception and financially.

Their desire to remain joined at the hip to programs such as Georgetown, St. John's, and Villanova is likely at the heart of some recent columns from Providence Journal columnist Kevin McNamara, who is functionally a mouthpiece for the Friar program, airing sentiments such as the notion that Big East football has "bullied" basketball, which could not possibly have less of a factual basis, and truly could only be the creation of the warped, insular self-delusion that has led to the continued decay of the Big East conference. If Providence having a stranglehold on the league commissioner's office and sabotaging conference football at every turn constitute bullying, one would hate to imagine that an ideal outcome for the likes of McNamara would be anything other than the complete cessation of all college football, now and forever.

From such madness comes the idea that the remaining Big East non-football schools should figuratively take their ball and go home, with McNamara arguing in a recent column that the seven should collectively take advantage of recent football defections (absent Rutgers and Louisville, there are three remaining football schools in Cincinnati, Connecticut, and South Florida. The challenge then is to get around the Big East's 75% threshold requirement, which is seemingly created to introduce permanent gridlock?) What's so crazy about this is that McNamara himself reported that the newest Atlantic Ten television contract would only pay member schools 350k a year. A reformulated Big East give or take a Xavier is surely better in terms of quality, but will struggle with inventory and negotiating leverage from having fewer schools. Football remains the ultimate driver of the bus when it comes to television revenue. Big East basketball schools can't afford to surrender that additional revenue; repeatedly doing such in the past is how they got to such a weak negotiating position in the first place.

Consider the fact that Kentucky's football program, which is in such a sorry state that it recently stopped publishing attendance numbers, is twice as profitable as its vaunted basketball juggernaut. You can argue about the merits of football vs. basketball until you are dead and the son, but in terms of payout, raw television ratings, and scarcity of product, football remains king. (Keep in mind that last point, which is an underrated motivator in proposals to have the five power conferences secede from the NCAA.) One expects lay fans or media blowhards to repeatedly and loudly beat the drum for something that makes sense in theory but is not at all practical, but the really confounding thing on this point is that we are even starting to see respected local media columnists like Steve Politi and Jerry Carino advocate for this untenable position, clinging to the sentiment that the sports feel like equals in spite of overwhelming market realities.

While rumored 2011 payouts will undoubtedly shrink minus Louisville, there is little doubt that any contract would be much higher with the status quo, which is one reason why there has been no serious push towards a split outside of grumbling from the usual suspects. There's that, along with any so-called basketball unity being a fiction being pushed by the have-nots that would undoubtedly be left behind in any further cataclysmic realignment. Notre Dame left with no hesitation for the Big East, and rest assured Georgetown and Villanova at the minimum would leave on that path in a second too if they could. Those three want nothing at all to do with being the anchors of a basketball-only conference, saddled with poor television revenues, and in prime position to be permanently locked out of major conference basketball if and when NCAA secession finally occurs.

That is ultimately why McNamara's floated proposal and all other manner of public and private lobbying is for naught, as their preference remains instead to go it on their own; trying for the remaining lifeboats (like a proposed national basketball conference) instead of watching everyone drown. It's correct that this path is not particularly likely to succeed, but it's better than the alternative of certain failure. It's not particularly likely that the ACC or another remaining power conference would be at all amenable to adding small private schools that do not sponsor major conference football and would require considerable subsidy to even be in a position to do so. However, the prospect of the ACC getting further picked to the bone by the Big Ten, Big XII, and SEC mean that the idea of federated members does remain a remote possibility.

They already crossed that rubicon with Notre Dame, likely alienating Maryland and possibly football confederates like FSU and Clemson in the process. The door is already open a crack, and if caving to Notre Dame and ESPN respectively ultimately leads to further departures, then it just might stay open long enough for the league to go back for seconds after further devouring what remains of what used to be known Big East football. Imagine the symbolism of an ACC tournament in Madison Square Garden, with Dick Gavitt's dream of an elite basketball-focused conference finally realized, only with his program barred from participating, instead relegated to toiling in the Atlantic Ten.

For the Rutgers basketball fan, any misgivings about this whole sordid business and in football dominating basketball need to go by the wayside. The emotion to feel is sheer joy in watching the demolition of the Big East. The conference is largely responsible for destroying Tom Young's program on the banks in the late '70s, with Rutgers basketball withering as Seton Hall repeatedly lobbied to keep the Knights out of the league in later seasons. They wanted to preserve the privileged status they gained from joining in RU's stead after the critical mistake of turning down the opportunity to be a charter member. Fair enough, but don't complain now that the tables have turned. The endgame is coming for you, and not a moment too soon.

Update: Zags has more details on all fronts regarding the BE dissolving. Basically, it's not going to happen. The option supposedly on the table is dissolving the Big East, which of course would be extremely risky. Hey, if they want to forgo our exit payment, go right ahead.