VIEWS FROM THE REALM OF
Monday, January 14, 2013
By Danny Whitford
Publisher & Editor
Last stand for Big East
League must unify around a
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After a decade of turmoil
during which it was consumed as much by internal tensions as by the outside
forces that were tearing it apart, the Big East Conference is down to its
last, best chance. Now that the league's seven non-football schools have
decided to bolt and its clumsy East Coast/West Coast ploy
has begun to unravel, will the Big East finally be able to coalesce around a
common purpose for the future?
The answer comes down to the
makeup of the future membership roster. Success will be achievable if the
conference reconstitutes itself in a geographically logical fashion with
like-minded schools having football at the core of their athletic engines.
Attractive television markets must be part of the equation.
So far, the jury is still out
on whether that is the course the league will pursue. During its most recent
tumult, the Big East's unwieldy gestures at defining its new brand left plenty
of room for doubt about whether it has arrived at a solid plan for, first, achieving
real stability, and, second, positioning itself for prosperity.
The so-called Catholic Seven
were part and parcel with the all-sports schools in the convoluted western
expansion strategy that envisioned the perpetuation of a discredited conference
structure handicapped by divergent interests and wracked by
intrigue and mutual suspicion.
It should be apparent to those
with open eyes that the awkward pursuit of football-only associations with a
few Mountain West schools was little more than a desperate Hail
Mary to try to sustain the unsustainable. It was a reflexive attempt to prop
up the same philosophy that long kept the Big East frozen in a virtually
defenseless posture as raiders ransacked it.
Fortunately, all is not lost —
The C-7's decision to go their own way and Boise State's annulment of
its unnatural marriage to the league will mark a watershed moment in either
the Big East's resurgence or its demise. The developments offer league
leaders the chance to reboot their business model with new vision unclouded
by the conflicting aims of non-football schools.
In order to put in perspective
the Big East's options going forward, let's review the events as they
unfolded since November:
After wave upon wave of
defections and additions reshaped the league in recent years, a
tipping point is reached when Rutgers and Louisville
are annexed by the Big Ten and ACC. During and after this painful
process, as had been the case since the
football-driven conference realignment wars erupted in 2003, the Big
East's football and non-football members continue to be motivated by
distinctly different dynamics. The result is a failure to achieve a
genuine consensus on specific actions going forward.
The conference once again
looks to Conference USA for reinforcements, summoning East Carolina for
football and Tulane for all sports. ECU and Tulane are the eighth and
ninth members to vacate C-USA for the Big East in the last decade.
Alarmed at the pending
dilution of the league's basketball power rating by the Green Wave's inclusion
in the formula, the C-7 resolve to break up the Big East as we knew it by striking out in a mass exodus
to form a league of their own.
The Big East's TV contract
negotiations are sidetracked as Commissioner Mike Aresco and network
executives are no longer able to quantify the product that will be at
the core of a broadcast deal.
Aresco notes that
discussions with the C-7 about the terms of their spinoff and the
division of the league's assets are proceeding amicably. Only time will
tell if that characterization holds true when the rubber hits the road
on each party's bottom line expectations.
In a signal that a reformulation
of the league's strategy may be underway, Aresco indicates
that East Carolina's football-only membership invitation will likely be
expanded to include all sports. The message seems to be that the
conference aims to have a core of all-sports schools located east of
the Rocky Mountains.
Western football import
Boise State backs
away from the Big East. As part of its agreement to return to the
Mountain West Conference, the Broncos extract a pledge from the MWC to
allow San Diego State to tag along if the Aztecs decide to call
their entry into the Big East.
Aresco suggests that the
chaos may be winding down and that some clarity is returning.
If, as expected, San Diego
State casts its lot with the Broncos, the Big East's grand western
strategy will be effectively neutered. Contrary to popular perceptions,
that is not a negative
development for the Big East — more on that later.
Aresco and leaders from
current and future Big East members meet last week in Dallas
to plot strategies. Information filtering back from the meeting
indicates that the league is no longer dead-set on western expansion.
League leaders realize
they have reached a crossroads. They insist they are confident and unified
going forward. The question is, which avenue at the crossroad will they
choose to follow?
With uncertainty taxing the
resolve of its present and future members and the clock ticking on
scheduling issues and TV alliances, Aresco and school presidents and ADs
realize the urgency of achieving harmony on the Big East's precise definition
of itself and on the steps it will take to shore up its position.
One realistic option that
would hedge against potential future defections, calm the nerves of its
membership and enhance its TV profile is to bring on additional schools from
media markets east of the Rocky Mountains.
With that in mind, unless there is some magic
going on behind the scenes that is hidden from view, continuing to
continuing to solicit
San Diego State's loyalty in the wake of Boise State's defection would be a worrisome
indicator that the Big East is still groping for a cohesive plan.
Unless BYU or Air Force is realistically in play, bringing San Diego State
into the fold makes little branding or economic sense for either the Big
East or SDSU.
As for additional candidates,
logic would seem to suggest that the Big East must endeavor to put down deep roots from Texas
eastward, particularly along the East Coast. Massachusetts, Tulsa, Old
Dominion and Charlotte,
perhaps even Marshall and Southern Miss, are examples of the kinds
of candidates that would help fortify the league's stability and offer
promise for the future. Each of those schools brings either a desirable TV market or a
meaningful reservoir of football credibility.
The relative newbie status in
terms of gridiron culture of UMass, ODU and Charlotte should not be a factor
in evaluating their potential worth to the league. After all, Boise
State, Connecticut, Central Florida and South Florida emerged from the
Division I-AA ranks in the fairly recent past.
A common sense objective would be
to establish a 14-to-16-team all sports/16-to-18-team football conference of two
divisions that would be able to withstand the eventual loss to further
realignment of several members without losing its sense of well-being. Such a composition
would enhance the security of all members and answer questions about the league's
The concern then arises that
such a large collection of schools would dilute each slice of the financial
pie. In reality, the reduction in shares doesn't have to be prohibitive if
the new markets are selected carefully. Most importantly, any modest
decrease in each school's take will be more than offset by security in an
unsecure world and by the potential for ever-increasing long-term returns as
the league's brand matures.
The mix of schools would likely produce a football breakout season by one or
two teams on a fairly regular basis, and the league's potential bowl
alignments would be quite attractive. As for hoops, Memphis and Temple will
always be prominent teams and Charlotte, Tulsa and UMass have pedigree. If
Cincinnati and UConn stay in the conference, all the better.
Based on present commitments,
the league's chess pieces include the following 12 schools: UCF, Cincinnati,
Connecticut, ECU, Houston, Memphis, Navy, San Diego State, USF, SMU, Temple
SDSU will probably accompany
Boise State back to the MWC unless that league's reentry terms get in the
way. ECU and Navy are currently on track to be football-only members, though
the Pirates appear destined to join in all sports.
That leaves 11 pieces on
Aresco's chessboard, only a handful short of the assemblage needed to establish
one of the aforementioned setups. The first candidates to examine should be
Charlotte, ODU, Tulsa, UMass, Marshall and Southern Miss.
Considering that the league's
projected competitive posture on the gridiron now seems to be more in line
with Army's scheduling philosophy than was previously the case, the timing
might also be appropriate to escalate overtures to the Black Knights to
accompany Navy into the conference as a football associate.
Other potential candidates
that fit into the footprint and could blossom in such a league include
Buffalo, Delaware and Georgia State. More examples are in the wings waiting
to be recognized and cultivated into gems.
Meanwhile, fans are hoping
that the Big East's next move will reflect the fortunate reality that — for
the fist time in its existence — all of the conference's schools have
football at the heart of their strategic agendas.
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01/14/2013 06:57 AM