When the ACC raided the Big East once again in September, the stated intention of the fractured league was to remain a BCS conference. Or whatever the definition of a big time conference was going to be in 2014.
That’s the year when everything changes. College football’s postseason is going to be adjusted, making it less about what league you’re in and more about what your league is worth. Right now, the reconstituted Big East is attempting to rebuild its worth before increasing it.
And that’s the tragedy that overshadowed this week’s announcement that Memphis was joining the league in 2013. A few months ago Big East turned down a massive $1 billion offer from ESPN, hoping for something better. Sounds laughable now, doesn’t it? Memphis is in the league for the same reason West Virginia is suing to get out of it.
"The Big East and its Commissioner failed to take proactive measures to maintain, let alone enhance, the level of competition for the Big East football schools,” West Virginia’s lawsuit against the Big East reads.
Remember, this is a football discussion. While Big East basketball remains powerful, it is the economics of TV that football still drives these contracts. By far. Then throw in the fact that college basketball on television is becoming oversaturated. Football is going to have to carry the new Big East when formal negotiations begin later this year.
Things have changed a lot in six months. Commissioner John Marinatto has gambled and won in the sense that is league is still a league. He has lost in that a TV windfall along the lines of $1 billion look less likely. That was the amount ESPN offered last year (for nine years) to broadcast the Big East.
That was before the ACC struck and West Virginia left. Since then, Marinatto’s league has been reduced to selling the Big East brand to the likes of San Diego State more than selling Big East football. Memphis is marginally better off, I suppose, than in Conference USA. Still, the jokes about Boise State being in the Big East West Division haven’t died down. It’s a great week for Memphis but in the end the school was nothing more than a live body willing fill out the lineup.
And that lineup for 2013 looks more like Conference USA. In about 2005. In fact, the projected 2013 Big East roster includes seven former Conference USA schools.
Back in the mid-2000s the Conference USA football deal was worth about $9 million per year. The current Big East deal, due to run out in 2014, is worth about $35 million per year for what in 2011 was eight teams.
That’s after the league turned down that $1 billion offer last year. Think an average of $111 million per year would have kept the 21-year old football conference together? It certainly would have kept the Big East on ESPN which all that matters these days as conferences morph into content farms for TV. Now there is speculation that the Worldwide Leader, upset at being rejected, could lowball the Big East when its deal expires after 2013-14. Or drop out all together.
One industry analyst texted me saying the addition of Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC alone will worth more than a new Big East deal in 2014. The Sports Business Journal reported Monday that the addition of Pittsburgh and Syracuse will mean a $1 million-$2 million bump per year for ACC members. In a matter of a whirlwind few months, the Big East’s hopes for a lucrative TV contract now rest with Boise State, Connecticut, Houston and Rutgers.
Those are the four most attractive Big East schools to TV, according to the analyst.
CBS Sports Network may be interested in the new Big East-to-West Conference. The same goes for the NBC/Comcast. Its new NBC Sports Network needs programming. But don’t expect a bidding war. That’s what has driven up the price of college football in the past decade – the public’s insatiable desire for more of it. But even during that gold rush there has been a clear dividing line – thank you, BCS – between the haves and have nots.
The Big East-to-West TV carrier(s) may pay a lot more than $35 million, but it/they won’t overpay. The point is not to lose money on a diminished football league, especially with the Big 12 out there for grabs in 2015.
No matter what the outcome, the Big East is going to be something like the sixth-richest conference, just like it was in the last round of negotiations. The same market forces still apply. The Big East has been in the BCS only because of a waiver granted in 2007. The latest BCS contract expires in a couple of years, coincidentally at about the same time as the Big East’s TV contract.
Former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese always said there should be a major college football presence in the Northeast. Sadly, that’s not the case anymore. Not in one conference. The league always claimed New York in its TV footprint. But with Syracuse leaving and San Diego, Boise, Houston and Memphis coming in, how much longer can Big East football be a big presence in the <>East<> much less nationwide?