ESPN writer John Gasaway wrote a very insightful piece yesterday using numbers to detail why the Big East still constituted a “major” conference. (The piece is paywalled, so if you don’t have Insider, try this.)
If you reached this post, you are probably a Marquette fan, or at least a fan of another Big East program, so this is not news to you. You watch the league. You see the quality of play. You are biased, but relatively informed. Unfortunately, you may be one of the only ones watching.
The “newness” of FOX Sports 1 and the relative small fanbases of the 10 Big East schools have combined to draw middling to weak ratings the past two years. However, this was expected by both conference officials and network head honchos. (And this blogger, as well.) There are no giant state schools with enough alumni to colonize a small moon. There are some national brands, but the brands have either been down (Marquette) or have failed to live up to expectations (Villanova, Georgetown) in crunch time. To make matters worse, there has been little star power, other than a brief Doug McDermott spurt, as showcased in the NBA draft this year, where all of 0 Big East players went in the first round.
College basketball doesn’t draw big numbers for the regular season in the first place, so with the factors explained above, it is not unreasonable to say that the casual viewer hasn’t seen much, if any of the Big East the past two years. That’s what makes the NCAA Tournament so vital for the continued success of the league. It’s the one time a large chunk of the country (at least the large chunk advertisers care about) actually pays attention. With only one team making it to the second weekend so far, there have been no opportunities for an interest bump.
You take all of that and what comes out is a league with an image problem, and a publicist that’s still getting his feet wet. Add on to that the whole “Power Five” terminology that is football-based but has extended into the realm of basketball by a large contingent of the media, and the Big East has been seen an elite mid-major conference.
Of course, this is ludicrous, as the article points out. In the regular season, The Big East has proved its worth thanks to Villanova’s dominance and a large middle class. Recruiting hasn’t dropped and revenue is as high as ever, in large part to the lucrative FOX contract.
Why does this matter? You don’t want it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Recruits in the upcoming years won’t have much, if any recollection of the Big East that was the premier basketball conference (2005-2011). Sure they may know, some names and will have an affinity for the teams themselves, but as a whole, the cache that the BEast carried will expire soon. If the new narrative becomes ingrained, that the Big East is now the best mid-major, it will be much more difficult to recruit at a high level on a conference-wide basis. When recruiting starts to fall across the board, then you got real problems no amount of PR will smooth over.
This article, from a noted analyst (Gasaway) in a noted publication (ESPN.com) serves as a good starting point (as much as an Insider story from a “numbers” guy buried on the opening night of the NFL can be).
With that said, I do want to clear one part up. In the article, Gasaway implies that the teams that would go on to become the AAC were the ones who wanted out.
After all, the teams that left the Big East comprised a regular who’s-who of college hoops: Connecticut, Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Cincinnati all departed in search of greener pastures. (While the league was hemorrhaging teams, two somewhat less storied basketball programs also chose to head out the door: Rutgers and South Florida.)
This is 100% wrong. Uconn, Cincy, and USF did not choose to head out the door. The breakup was initiated in its entirety from conception to implementation by the current Big East, particularly the administrations at Marquette and Villanova. Remember, the depleted Big East was in the midst of renegotiating a contract with ESPN with a conference that would have had the Catholic 7, Connecticut, South Florida, Cincinnati, Temple and Boise State, San Diego State, Central Florida, East Carolina, Houston and SMU.
Here’s what the money situation looked like at the time (emphasis mine):
Based on a 14-team football league (with four football-only members) and a 17-team basketball league, a $60 million deal per year would be worth $4.06 million each for the 10 full members; $3 million each for the four football-only members (Boise State, San Diego State, Navy and TBA); and $1.06 million each for the seven non-football members.
That meant, not only was the competition about to get drastically worse, the payouts would actually decrease. Instead, the C7 ventured out on its own and got somewhere between $3 and 5 million a year from FS1. (As a reference, the A-10’s TV deal, signed in 2012 a few months before the breakup of the Big East was worth $350,000 a year, per team. Let that sink in.)
I bring this up because it’s important to remember the prevailing thought at the time was that a basketball-specific conference couldn’t hang with the big boys, both financially and on the court. This was an unprecedented step to uncouple basketball and football. There was tremendous risk involved, and it would be a litmus test of sorts going forward. (Some writers went as far as to say the Big East/C7 were worse than the AAC/Metro 9. I disagreed.)
So while the end results have been underwhelming, yes, the Big East is still a major conference. Just as it set out to be.