The Big East got rid of its commissioner earlier this week, and yesterday it trotted out his interim replacement — some guy named Joe Bailey who will have no real influence over anything — for one of those canned teleconferences, where he spent 30 minutes saying nothing of value while the rest of the country snickered.
That’s how it is for the Big East these days, fresh off a new round of stories in the wake of John Marinatto’s firing/resignation that theorize one or all of the following: The conference is a dysfunctional, illogical mess; it’s headed for an implosion; and there’s no real chance to get this geographically and culturally evolving group of schools on the same page.
It’s admittedly an easy target. The Big East lost two of its anchor schools last year when Pittsburgh and Syracuse snuck off to the ACC, watched its best football program in West Virginia snag an invitation to the Big 12 and saw TCU renege on its commitment to join the Big East when it also got a Big 12 bid.
Meanwhile, the Big East had to restock at the bargain bin of college athletics with SMU, Houston, Memphis, Temple and Central Florida while convincing Boise State, San Diego State and Navy to bring their football programs along in a league that will have 13 football members and 18 in basketball starting in 2013. It comes to this arrangement at a time when the Bowl Championship Series is formulating a playoff plan, with no guarantees the Big East will still be at the grown-ups table when all is said and done. Oh, and it just fired its commissioner.
But death-knell narratives in conference realignment don’t always work out that way. Twice in the last couple years, the Big 12 has appeared to be just as dysfunctional and hopeless, literally on the verge of breaking apart. A few days ago, it secured $20 million annually in television revenue for each of its members for the next 13 years. And the idea you heard over and over last summer that college athletics was inevitably moving toward four “superconferences?” That doesn’t appear to be happening, either, at least certainly any time soon.
So the gap between what we know and what we think we know in conference realignment is often wide. And it’s probably never been wider than this week with the Big East.
“It’s a very cohesive, very focused group,” said Bailey, which may be boilerplate but is probably closer to the truth than not.
Look, there are plenty of things about the new Big East that don’t make sense, and the idea of a league based in Providence playing football games in San Diego may not even be in the top five. This is a conference that was born out of major basketball programs in the northeast corridor, with nine members once Pitt joined in 1982, in the league’s fourth season. Now, it’s a league that will give us football games between Houston and Navy in the fall and regularly offer up SMU-Rutgers and Central Florida-Providence in the basketball winter.
It just doesn’t look right. It doesn’t appeal to the tradition or common identity of college athletics. And yet, in the rush to read the Big East its last rites, something important has been forgotten.
All of these schools have more to gain by finding a way to stay together than they ever would by breaking apart.
Nobody really knows the ceiling for the Big East, especially regarding its all-important television negotiations coming up this fall. The Big 12 is getting $20 million per school, per year. The ACC yesterday signed a new deal with ESPN worth $17 million. The Big East certainly won’t get that much, and it might get considerably less.
Likewise, when college football’s power brokers gather this summer to hash out fundamental changes to the postseason, whether the Big East will still be acknowledged (and paid) like a power conference is up for debate.
But for as much as realignment has changed the landscape of college sports, one thing hasn’t changed. The Big East was the No. 6 conference before, and it will be the No. 6 conference after. The only difference is the gap between No. 6 and No. 7 has grown wider than ever.
It’s debatable whether the Big East is a nationally relevant football conference now, but by grabbing the schools it grabbed, it has made every conference beneath it irrelevant. Who knows whether that translates to huge television money, but the marketplace for college football is better than ever. The schools that brought their football programs to the Big East stand to gain significantly more visibility and television revenue than they ever could in the Mountain West or Conference USA.
And that’s also why, despite 20 years of harassment from the Northeast media, the basketball schools are better off sticking with the football side than splintering off into a Catholic league.
Mike Tranghese, who helped create the Big East in 1979 and served as commissioner from 1990-2009, told The New York Times earlier this week that those schools should “take a real hard look” at breaking away.
But Tranghese comes from a different time when college basketball could stand on its own in the national landscape. It simply does not anymore. Whatever the Big East gets from its television deal will be driven by the football side, while the total value of the deal will be enhanced by having the likes of Villanova and Georgetown in its basketball inventory. In the end, though, basketball is really just cheap filler programming to tack onto a football deal.
That’s why good basketball leagues that don’t offer football like the Atlantic 10 and West Coast Conference have miniscule television contracts. ESPN and other networks simply don’t value basketball enough to make it worthwhile for the Catholic schools to go it alone — even if Providence playing Houston doesn’t make a lot of sense on the surface.
None of which is to say it will be easy for the Big East to make this work. It’s always going to be a complex conference with lots of agendas and issues, and there’s no guarantee the television negotiations or BCS talks will bring a golden ticket. But despite all the predictions of doom and gloom, every single school involved is better off making it work. Which means it probably will.