Friday, December 21, 2012

End of the Big East—Birth of an Old Fashioned Conference




Much like Argentina, no one should cry for the end of the Big East, and certainly no one should romanticize it. Villanova, Marquette, Georgetown, St. John's, Providence, Seton Hall and DePaul, all urban undergraduate focused non football schools, are leaving the conference. This spells the end of a long painful death spiral. (As usual Pete Thamel does a fine job examing the process) In 1980 the Big East was carved out as the first completely commercial conference. It was created solely to stake out a market, produce a brand across disparate schools and increase the probability of getting schools into the NCAA basketball tournament. Born in commerce, it dies in commerce. One side effect may be the creation of a new conference that actually resembles what conferences were once upon a time.

From 1980 to 2005 the Big East launched an unparalleled period of success and visibility for its schools in basketball. Traditional eastern powers like Villanova, Georgetown, Syracuse and Providence joined with newcomer powers like Connecticut and Pittsburgh to generate a depth of competition and market visibility. The Big East branded a distinct form of physical and tough basketball. Each year 6-8 teams got into the NCAA tournament, and their coaches spread the gospel of brutal Big East basketball across the land. The expansion of the NCAA tournament into a national liturgical event gained immense stature for its schools. Connecticut and Syracuse with their superstar coaches took home a series of titles

This basketball success could not withstand the pressures unleashed by the economic dominance of football over the last twenty years. College football and its vast popularity has reaped huge media money, and power conferences have reaped gigantic windfalls from conference contracts. These contracts at the five elite BCS conferences garner 15 to 19 million dollars a year for schools.

College football drives the profit. The Big East was never a football conference. Largely because no one else even looked plausible, the Big East snuck into the BCS championship pool as much as a sop to the mid major conferences as any football merit of the conference. Each year its BCS team got humiliated by real football powers in a random BCS bowl game. Heck, TCU quit the conference before it ever joined the conference.

A media consultant once told me, “aside from the tournament, basketball is filler for slots. It has bulk but not profits.”  The dominance of football and the migration of real money to the big five left the Big East vulnerable in two ways. First, it would never be a serious football conference. At random times Boston College, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia or Cincinnati might emerge for a year a two with a great player or coach. But the coach would inevitably move on, and the player would graduate. When Boston College, Miami and especially Virginia Tech jumped to the ACC, this portended the end of any hope of football elite status. Second, all the Big East schools were hemorrhaging money with football, and the inability of the conference to ever gain elite football status doomed them to perpetual money losing.

This still-born football status coupled with huge monetary losses from football meant any half way decent football schools looked for other conferences that could gain them more money and status. It also meant that the basketball only schools found themselves mooted by the desperate and futile search for football credibility. This lead to increasingly desperate overtures to Boise State, San Diego State, Tulane or whomever could bring a shred of credibility to the conference.

In addition unlike the ACC or Big 10, the Big East never had any serious academic credibility. Schools such as Syracuse or Pittsburgh or Louisville would jump to the ACC which offered more money, stability and more academic stature. Each defection lead to more panicked search for lower quality football schools to fill the void. The Big East could no longer fulfill the requirements of a  successful modern conference.

The paradox here lies with the non-football schools. Most of them were city based religious colleges colleges. They all remained mission driven undergraduate institutions. None of them had huge endowments, but all had fierce and loyal alumni based in urban areas. Many had added strong professional schools and grown into universities, but their core identity remains mission driven undergraduate education. None of them had added football, and the very few who did like Boston College struggled with indifferences and periodic success.

These urban, mission driven religious undergraduate schools had great markets in big eastern cities and had strong traditional rivalries among New York, Providence, Boston, New Jersey or Philadelphia. Many of these rivalries echoed back fifty years when schools clustered in small boxes to play intense rivalries. They all shared plausible commitments to serious undergraduate education with a values based foundation. Sister schools like Xavier, St. Louis, Creighton lived in different conferences. They now loom along with an interesting and similar newcomer like Butler as possible new allies for a reconstituted conference who would share a scale and values dimension.

This basketball driven conference would not make huge amounts of money, granted. The new conference, however, would connect strong rivalries among strong markets with strong committed undergraduate focused universities and colleges. It would also lead to strong filled auditoriums. The conference would post strong strength of schedule and high RPI ratings for the tournament. Travel for the Olympic sports would be manageable. It would have a strong brand, solid recruiting base, good coaches and regularly get strong exposure at tournament time.

More interestingly the conference schools would not face the economic hemorrhaging of football. Football is a two-edge sword. The vast majority of football schools lose serous money, and the losses require internal subsidies. Even with the new mega conference contracts, schools continue to lose money as they must pay rising salaries, build up facilities and pay back internal subsidies to schools. Freeing themselves from the football schools permits these undergraduate focused universities to live within their means, still gain visibility through NCAA tournament runs and imbed themselves in their communities as they once did. It still gives alumni a focal point of identity.

The demise of the first purely commercial conference creates a paradox. Who knows, maybe a new conference might emerge that shares similar undergraduate based values, has relatively contiguous markets with traditional rivalries and does not lose huge amounts of money each year chasing the dream of football largesse. It would be a conference based upon affinity and proximity. Now wouldn’t that be a change?


Big East Exodus


SchoolLeftFor
Miami2004ACC
Virginia Tech2004ACC
Boston College2005ACC
TCU †2011Big 12
West Virginia2012Big 12
Syracuse2013ACC
Pittsburgh2013ACC
Louisville2014ACC
Rutgers2014Big Ten
Notre Dame2015ACC
DePaul*undetermined
Georgetown*undetermined
Marquette*undetermined
Providence*undetermined
St. John's*undetermined
Seton Hall*undetermined
Villanova*undetermined



1 comment:

  1. "Each year its BCS team got humiliated by real football powers in a random BCS bowl game."

    The Big East was 5-4 in BCS bowl games after Miami, VT and Boston College left, including WVU's 70-33 demolition of "real football power" Clemson.

    "When Boston College, Miami and especially Virginia Tech jumped to the ACC, this portended the end of any hope of football elite status."

    Virginia Tech may be the most overrated football program of the past 20 years. They're 2-6 in BCS Bowl games (1995 over Texas - weak, Southwest Conference Version; 2009 over Cincinnati). Granted, they've played in several, but the last 20 years are the only period in their history of ANY national relevance whatsoever. And yet zero national championships, and two BCS bowl wins over mediocre competition which had been slotted by default. Throughout most of their history, they've been little more than a marginal, regional program. In fact, the Virginia state legislature used UVA's vote to force the ACC to take Virginia Tech instead of Syracuse in 2003. Virginia Tech had been a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the ACC by the remaining Big East members, until they were swapped with Syracuse for membership. The thought that anyone outside of Miami was giving Big East football legitimacy is laughable. Aside from that, all of their other sports programs are terrible.

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