I know I said that I was going to continue the FAQ from part 4, but my answers to some of these questions are so long that it makes more sense for me to make some of them into separate posts. Like this one.
You keep talking about a “top tier.” Let’s say that this haves/have-nots divide does happen in some way. Will the Big East will even be in this top tier?
It’s a fair question. Before it looked like the BCS would do away with AQ status for its conference champions, there was plenty of speculation as to whether the Big East would retain that distinction either way. The conference has struggled to produce high-ranking teams at times, and the 2010 UConn team that went to the Fiesta Bowl wasn’t even ranked in the BCS top 25 (their average position among the six computer rankings used in the BCS formula was 52). Would such a lackluster performance be rewarded with a continued automatic berth in a BCS bowl game?
Now that auto-bids are probably on the way out, we can only speculate how things would have been. Chances are, though, that the Big East would still have been part of the club. Remember, what happens on the field is not the point of the BCS. Television is. And when it comes to TV, the one thing the Big East always had going for it was that it was the conference with the greatest reach into the Northeast. While it isn’t exactly the most football-crazy part of the country, it is the most populated. Even if those TV sets aren’t necessarily tuned in to Big East football every Saturday, it’s still too many people to be ignored. If the BCS bowls have 10 slots to fill, one of them would certainly be reserved for the champion of the Northeast’s conference.
That’s where things get a little hairy for the Big East going forward. (WARNING: TIN FOIL HAT TIME)
ESPN owns the Big East’s broadcast rights through 2013. As part of that contract, the network was allowed an exclusive early negotiation window in which they could make an offer for an extension. They did, to the tune of $1.2 billion. The conference, however, turned down that offer in favor of testing the open market. This was a problem for ESPN. Ever since the days of the CFA and NCAA reorganization in the early ’80s, television networks have fought to gain a monopoly on college football. ABC/ESPN is very close to one now, owning the rights to the BCS, almost every bowl game, and all or part of every BCS conference. The Big East’s decision to look elsewhere meant that ESPN’s competitors would now have a chance to gain a foothold in the market.
Then the ACC suddenly decided to expand by adding Pitt and Syracuse from the Big East.
The timing was a little odd for the ACC considering that they had just signed their own billion-dollar deal with ESPN. One would think that the conference would have expanded before signing a television deal in order to capture whatever value the new members would add. On the other hand, the timing makes complete sense for ESPN. With BC, Syracuse, and Pitt now in the ACC, ESPN found a back door to control the lion’s share of the Northeast market after the Big East turned them down. Supporting this theory is this comment from Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo:
“We always keep our television partners close to us,’’ he said. “You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85 percent football money. TV – ESPN – is the one who told us what to do. This was football; it had nothing to do with basketball.’’
DeFilippo backtracked almost immediately, and other ACC ADs were also quick to downplay ESPN’s role in the expansion process. Still, it makes a lot of sense for ESPN to be the driver in all of this. It’s true that adding two more schools triggered a clause in the ACC’s contract with ESPN that allows them to renegotiate for more money, an important point given the TV contract that the Big 12 was later able to command. However, I still don’t think the ACC gets as much out of their expansion as ESPN, which found a way to capture the bulk of the market it wanted while also weakening the product their competitors will be bidding for. Bristol is the biggest winner here.
The Big East, on the other hand, was left with some work to do. Without the unofficial title of “Conference of the Northeast” to fall back on, the league was forced to find another way to sell itself. Their answer was to turn west, expand from coast to coast, and re-brand themselves as the first “national” conference. In the process, the conference added a presence in several major media markets and, as they put it, “expanded upon its nation-leading television footprint to over 31 million television households.” That’s true, but it’s also a bit of spin; there’s a huge difference between being located in a television market and delivering it. It’s something the Big East probably knows quite well, since they didn’t exactly deliver the Northeast to begin with. They just reached too many people to ignore, and the new, expanded Big East hopes to employ the same strategy.
Time will tell if that strategy is successful. On the surface, it seems like a pretty dicey proposition. As far as television value is concerned, I don’t think there’s any question that the Big East is weaker after the loss of West Virginia, Pitt, and Syracuse. Moving into places like Dallas, Houston, and Orlando is nice, but college football viewers in those markets are already watching Texas, Texas A&M, and Florida… on ESPN. It makes sense, then, for the Big East to look elsewhere for a TV partner. The contract will be worth more to a network trying to break into those markets than it will be to the one that already has a presence there.
That’s where the opportunity lies, and why the Big East could still pull a fairly hefty television deal. NBC, for example, could be willing to spend quite a bit to acquire the conference’s all-sports rights. Ratings for the NBC Sports Network have actually gotten worse since its rebranding from Versus. It needs more actual games. Live games are the lifeblood of any sports network, and right now all NBC has going for it is the NHL, MLS, and Notre Dame. The Olympics will do a lot to increase awareness of the NBC Sports Network this summer, but if they want to retain some of those viewers, they will need more live content. The Big East would be a perfect fit. Packaging the Big East with Notre Dame gives NBC a credible college football and basketball lineup, something that any alternative to ESPN– if that’s what NBC eventually wants its sports network to grow up to be– absolutely must have. The Comcast-owned NBC could also provide Big East games for regional Comcast SportsNet affiliates around the country. It’s a perfect fit. It will take a lot more than the Big East to build a challenger to ESPN, but NBC’s first step is to fight their way into the marketplace. That’s what the Big East can do for them. The conference would be worth more as NBC’s crown jewel than it would be as ESPN’s afterthought.
Whether the Big East ends up with NBC or someone else, it’s still unlikely that their television rights will bring in as much as the other BCS conferences. But they don’t really need to match them dollar-for-dollar. The contract just needs to be of the same basic caliber, and I think it will be when compared to the rest of Division I. The new Big East is far, far more compelling television than a MWC/CUSA combo. Some might argue that the end of The Mtn isn’t a big deal, but it is; if the Mountain West had any broad appeal at all, the channel would have received better distribution and would still be in business. Things certainly won’t get better now that the conference’s top programs have left, even if it combines with a similarly gutted Conference USA. The Big East might not make as much as the rest of the current BCS conferences, but it’ll be on a much higher plane compared to everyone else. Which is, of course, the whole point.
It’s not a guarantee, but compared to remaining independent or joining a lesser conference, joining the Big East is a much safer bet if Navy wants to continue playing in the top tier of college football.