The past year has been particularly hard on Big East fans. Things were looking up when the conference finally took an aggressive stand against conference realignment by adding TCU. It seemed for once that the Big East was building a defense against future raids by bolstering the value of the conference as a whole. But just as the 2011 football season was starting the wall came crumbling down. Longtime members Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced that they would join the ACC. A month later, TCU spurned the Big East for the more natural confines of the Big 12. And just days later West Virginia announced their intention to join TCU in accepting a Big 12 invitation. Amidst the insanity the Big East was left battered and bruised.
To add salt to the wound, pundits from all over the media took their shots at the conference. You couldn’t turn on ESPN’s College Football Live without seeing an ‘expert’ literally laugh out loud at the plight of the Big East. On top of that, everybody and their mother were drawn in by the conference’s world crashing around it and couldn’t help but take jabs of their own. And through all this fans of the Big East could only stand on the side and watch in concern about the future of their teams in a conference that looked like it didn’t care if the vultures picked it to the bone.
But there’s finally reason to get excited for Big East fans. A glimmer of light has finally appeared at the end of the tunnel.
The first sign of the Big East making plays was the axing of blundering fool John Marinatto. It’s safe to say that this was addition by subtraction for a conference that was continuously spinning its wheels bickering with itself due to the lack of vision by the commissioner. Kicking Marinatto to the curb has allowed the Big East to wipe the slate clean en route to a new era.
Secondly the additions of teams such as Boise State, Houston, UCF, San Diego State, SMU, Temple, Memphis, and Navy was key to rebuilding the barrier knocked down by the departures of Syracuse, Pitt, TCU, and West Virginia. At first glance the additions as a whole look like they couldn’t hold the jock strap of the teams that left. But Boise State is a perennial ranked team with Houston right behind them. UCF and SMU have overhauled their football programs to compete on a national level. Temple has seen a resurgence since Al Golden was hired and Steve Addazio intends to keep the ball rolling. San Diego State and Navy are intriguing additions that have seen steady success over the years. Finally, I’d be the first to laugh at Memphis football but their athletic department has invested millions to turning around that program.
But what these programs bring is new markets for the Big East to add to their inventory. While teams like Houston will always have to compete with Texas and Texas A&M for viewers in the Houston market much the way UC competes with Ohio State and Notre Dame in Cincinnati, just having a foothold is extremely valuable. There’s nothing to say that a Top-10 Cougars team wouldn’t cause a good portion of the 2.1 million households (10th largest) in Houston to flip on their televisions and watch them play in a major bowl game. That’s what the conference is banking on with these additions. Furthermore, the acquisitions of programs in markets as far West as San Diego and across the middle of the country in Idaho, Dallas, and Houston means that the Big East is the first true ‘National Conference’. Having a coast-to-coast presence is very important when the conversation involves media rights.
Combining intriguing programs in markets across the United States has put the Big East in a strong position to receive a hefty payday via a new media deal to be in place from the 2013 football season onward. Who exactly get those rights isn’t known but what is clear is that there will be at least two bidders with huge pockets at the table when negotiations open on November 1st. The obvious one is ESPN which has owned Big East television rights since 2005 but was denied a contract extension by the conference in May of 2011. Being the current rights holder ESPN has an exclusive negotiation window beginning on September 1st but all signs have pointed to letting that expire so the conference can hit the open market in early November.
When that day does come expect the other primary bidder NBC/Comcast to go after the Big East hard. This network has been desperate to add content to their revitalized NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus) for quite some time now and got a whiff of the riches sports can bring during their coverage of the Olympics for the past three weeks. But it could also be a perfect fit for the Big East who are looking for better exposure in addition to a fatter wallet. A NBC partnership would allow conference games to be aired on the basic cable channel NBC, which every household with a TV set has, from noon to midnight on any given Saturday throughout the season. Obviously the Big East would have to make room for the weekly Notre Dame game but there are still plenty of time slots (three of Noon, 3:30, 6:30, 9:30) to choose from. The remainder could be aired on the NBC Sports Network.
This is what will stabilize the Big East for the future. The main thing that has haunted the Big East since Miami, Virginia Tech, and Boston College bolted for the ACC almost a decade ago is that the conference has been synonymous with ‘instability’. The remaining members were constantly looking for a way out especially with SEC, Big Ten, and Big XII programs getting huge paychecks from their media contracts. ESPN’s current contract pays Big East all-sports schools roughly $4 million a year. The next lowest per-school payout belongs to ACC schools, who bank $17 million per year.
No wonder Pitt and Syracuse bolted.
Understanding the importance of TV money to the stability of a conference, the Big East wisely hired Chris Bevilacqua to negotiate their upcoming contract. The media deal guru was perhaps most famous for negotiating the PAC-12′s monster 12-year $3 billion deal. On top of that, the conference went the unconventional route by naming Mike Aresco commissioner. This was a name that hadn’t been thrown around until early Tuesday morning but certainly made perfect sense with the Big East’s focus on signing the highest paying media deal possible. He had been with CBS for the better part of the last twenty years and was crucial in transforming the network’s sports programming. Why the ultra-profitable NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is exclusively shown on CBS is because of this guy. Yea, he’s qualified.
In letting their media rights go into a bidding war with two major networks and spending millions stacking their roster with TV deal gurus, the Big East has positioned itself to receive a massive pay raise in their next deal. Some reports have the conference receiving anywhere from $9 million per year for each all-sports school to upwards of $17 or $18 million. While I think ultimately the deal lands within the $12-14 million range, any one of those numbers should be cause for celebration for Cincinnati Bearcats fans. A paycheck double or even triple what they are currently receiving would go a long way to eating away at the Varsity Village debt and pouring money into the much-needed renovations of 5/3rd Arena and Nippert Stadium. For the conference as a whole it would separate themselves from the Mountain Wests and Conference USAs and much close to the ACCs and Big IXs, further strengthening the barricade against future raids.
So after a year of heartache and anxiety, the Big East looks like it’s poised for a Betty White-sized comeback. Additions of schools who have gone all-in to compete on a national level will definitely add to the on-field play at least in due time. More so, these programs have created important footholds for the conference in major media markets such as Houston, Dallas, and Orlando. Any television network has to like that. Also, given the impending network bidding war, it’s extremely possible that this conference could be looking at annual 8-figure paychecks for each member. To strengthen their cause, the Big East aggressively snagged some of the most intelligent minds in media coverage and TV rights to run negotiations and ensure they get the best deal possible.
Really what more could you ask for from the Big East brass than that?
So chin up, Big East fans. This conference is positioning itself to not only survive but thrive in the future era of college sports.