History of the Big East Split Concept
There are few topics regarding conference realignment that have had more traction over the years than a potential Big East split between the football and non-football schools.
On this site alone, you’ll find a number of articles specifically about a Big East split. In 2011 there was talk of a split when the landscape was close to changing drastically with potential Big 12 to Pac-10 defections and the resulting trickledown. At that time, the Big East basketball schools were actually in a position to usurp power if the membership numbers shifted in their favor.
In 2009 we asked the big question for the Big East: To split or not to split.
Back in 2005, we looked at what we called “grounds for a conference divorce” in the Big East. The idea of a Big East split in 2005 seemed so likely, that we were all preparing for the countdown to a Big East split.
As for the fans, no topic is more active on the message boards than the topic of Big East realignment and a conference split.
So let’s take a quick look at why this topic has been so popular.
The Big East Formation (1979):
The Big East was formed as a basketball conference in 1979 and didn’t add football until 1990. Basketball was the top priority and the conference was created with 7 members: Boston College, Providence, UConn, St. Johns, Syracuse, Seton Hall, Georgetown. Rutgers had initially been invited over Seton Hall, but Rutgers opted to remain in the Atlantic 8 (now A10) to be associated with Penn St.
Villanova joined the Big East a year after it’s formation for the 1981 season, to bring the membership to 8 with Pitt joining over Penn St. in 1983.
In 1990, the Big East added football as an associate sport, which included associate members of Temple (A10 for other sports), Rutgers (A10), West Virginia (A10), Virginia Tech (Metro Conference until joining the A10 in 1995). Miami joined the Big East as an all sport member in 1991 as a football member. Only Boston College, Syracuse and Pitt were already all-sport members of the Big East and part of the Big East football conference.
The Paterno Northeast All-Sports Conference Plan:
The original plan by Joe Paterno in 1979 was to create a northeast football conference with schools such as Penn St., Boston College, Syracuse, Rutgers and Temple was pushed aside by the to-be Big East members as Penn St. was not invited. Since basketball was the priority college sport at the time, few saw any regrets. Paterno had plans to bring in football powers from the east coast, many independents, to create an all-sports conference with football as the crown jewel. His potential targets included powerhouses like Miami, Florida St., Georgia Tech as well as Virginia Tech and others. With such a powerful lineup, many felt that Notre Dame would potentially align themselves with this football power that at the time would have rivaled any conference in the country. His vision of a conference in the 1980’s made up of Boston College, Syracuse, Penn St., Rutgers, Temple, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Miami, Florida St., Notre Dame and even perhaps Clemson (over Pitt) would never come to be.
In 2012, the result has been a scattering of football programs in the region that can now be found in 5 different conferences: Penn St., Rutgers and Maryland in the Big Ten; Boston College, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and Pitt in the ACC; UConn and Temple in the Big East; Buffalo and UMass in the MAC; West Virginia in the Big 12.
2003 Big East Defections:
Back in 2003, when Miami was looking at joining the ACC, the initial turmoil began in the Big East. Being in a position of power at the time, Miami made it clear to the ACC that they would join, but only if the conference also brought along some of their northern allies in Syracuse and Boston College. So a deal was done and the 3 schools planned to join the ACC. The ACC then hit a bump when it was clear that they wouldn’t have the necessary votes for all 3 schools due to political pressure in Virginia as Virginia Tech was being excluded. So the vote then became for Miami and Virginia Tech to join. For a 12th school, Boston College eventually won the final spot and joined the ACC.
While all this was happening, the Big East was hit with unrest. They had lawsuits against the ACC with schools suing the ACC that then got invited to the ACC, accepted, and had to take their names off the lawsuit. So any credibility with the lawsuit was lost when you have schools essentially saying that they put ACC membership over any legal stance they took a day before.
So while the Big East football conference was losing it’s (2) top programs and a founding member in Boston College, the basketball schools had plenty to think about.
Looking back to 1979, passing on Penn St. back in 1979 proved to be a fatal mistake for the remaining Big East football schools.
And over that period, from 1991 to 2003, all Big East additions were on the football side as Miami joined in 1991, Rutgers and WVU joined as all-sports members in 1995, and Virginia Tech in 2001. But the non-football schools sat back, approved the membership additions with the sole intent being to keep Syracuse, Boston College and Pittsburgh happy and to remain in the conference.
Big East Non-Football Schools Options in 2003:
Rather than the Big East being in a position of power and prepared for the shift in the sports landscape from basketball to football, instead, the conference sat there, waiting to have it’s members picked off.
When Miami and then Virginia Tech and Boston College announced they were leaving the Big East, the Big East basketball schools were in a position of power.
1) vote to drop football since they had 9 non-football members with only 4 members with football (Pitt, Syracuse, Rutgers, WVU);
2) Split from the Big East to create a new conference with a new name;
3) Agree to let the Big East expand with new all-sports members.
The non-football schools had a meeting that year to discuss their options. Eliminating football and/or splitting from the Big East (would depend on legal issues surrounding the Big East brand and finances) was indeed a topic. Providence favored the 8 schools leaving the Big East (UConn would have been the 9th but was planning their FBS football upgrade) and inviting UMass to serve as their travel partner in the region. Georgetown wanted Richmond to join from the A10 as the 10th member.
But in the end, the Big East non-football schools felt the fear of not being associated with a football conference, seeing how the landscape was changing and wanting a taste of the television money that the sport provided.
So they agree to add basketball powers that sponsored football in Louisville and Cincinnati. For the 8th football program, the basketball schools agree to let USF join, a newer football program with little basketball success. To appease the non-football programs, the remaining 5 football schools allowed Depaul and Marquette to join on the non-football side. In allowing that to happen, the Big East now had 16 members: 8 all-sports football members (Uconn, Syracuse, Pitt, Rutgers, WVU, Louisville, Cincinnati, USF), 7 non-football members (Providence, St. Johns, Seton Hall, Villanova, Georgetown, Depaul, Marquette), and (1) school in the Big East with football outside of the Big East, Notre Dame.
From that point on, the Big East voting power would officially shift to the football programs.
State of the Big East:
For each member who has since left (Rutgers, WVU, TCU, Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt, Notre Dame) all-sports members with football have been brought in.
The Big East now is set to include the (7) non-football schools; (9) all-sports members with football (UConn, Temple, Cincinnati, USF, UCF, Memphis, Houston, SMU, Tulane; (4) Football-only members (Navy, ECU, Boise St., San Diego St.)
The non-football schools have met with commissioner Aresco and have expressed their frustration with the current membership. One problem though: they don’t have any power to do anything.
The Temple Problem:
In 2011, when the Big East voted to allow Temple in as a football member in 2012 and all-sports member in 2013, they created a dilemma whereby they gave up their voting power to control their own destiny of dissolving the conference. Temple AD Bill Bradshaw has confirmed that Temple indeed was granted full voting rights starting on July 1, 2012.
Through dissolving the conference, the current members would distribute the NCAA revenue shares they have coming to the conference per their current agreement. The conference would then “fold” with the Big East brand ownership remaining with the non-football schools.
This was the only way out for the non-football schools whereby they would be able to retain all their revenue without any potential legal issues.
Sure, in a utopian world, all Big East members would agree to a split where the basketball schools would retain the Big East name and the football schools would split off to form something new…perhaps even bringing back the old “Metro” conference name that some of the former members were part of before merging with Conference USA. All parties could agree to a revenue split and everyone would be on their way.
But that isn’t the reality.
The Big East brand has value, regardless of the membership. And the football schools aren’t going to give it up easily.
Update: On 12/12/12, ESPN has reported that despite the Big East confirming that Temple is a full voting member, despite Temple AD Bill Bradshaw confirming Temple is a full voting member, ESPN is claiming that Tempe does not have a vote regarding the dissolving of the conference. This means that if true, the 7 non-football schools could vote to dissovle the conference, take their money, leave, and start a new conference by inviting schools such as Xavier, St. Louis, Butler, etc.
There is only one real option: the basketball schools would need to leave the Big East and create a new conference. Plain and simple, that’s the only real option they have on the table. Their window closed when they agree to let Temple in in 2012. Smitten by the potential of a $160 million a year television contract that would pay the Big East basketball schools up to $3 million per year, the non-football schools agreed to any membership changes made. That estimate has now dropped to $60 million with an estimated $1 million per year for the non-football schools. So despite having at least (2) windows in which they had voting control, the non-football schools now have only 1 option: leave the Big East, leave millions on the table, and leave to gain only 1 thing: control of their own destiny.
The only other option would be if the 7 non-football schools left to join the A10, something the A10 would certainly be in favor of. But at 21 schools, with ample dead weight, it might be less than ideal.
Television Finances of a Split:
So we already have the NCAA tournament shares covered: if the Big East non-football schools left, they would forfeit those shares. But what about a new television deal? Based on our industry analysis, the non-football schools would make at best, $750,000 per school per year if they were to expand by 3 schools to a total of 10 members. That number would remain solid if the schools were able to keep the Big East brand, one that in itself has immense value in college basketball. Member schools would likely make $500-$700k per school per year…the higher number if the membership were limited to 10 members with strong additions with high market penetration. The Atlantic 10 pays $350,000 per school at 14 members (16 members this year), a number that would be higher is they were able to drop 2-4 of it’s members. A new conference formed from a split Big East would almost certainly make more money than the Atlantic 10 due to the cache of the specific programs such as Georgetown and Villanova.
Expansion Candidates in a Split:
For expansion candidates, the new markets would be key.
Xavier would be the likely top option, replacing the loss of University of Cincinnati. Schools #9 and #10 would be more difficult.
Butler would certainly be considered after all they have accomplished and the access they would provide to the Indianapolis market.
Richmond, a school that Georgetown once favored joining, could also be a candidate, to help push the footprint further south. But with all the success of VCU and since the school has no football aspirations, their non-religious affiliation would not be a problem making VCU the potential first choice in the Richmond market.
St. Louis is another option, supporting the western flank made up of Depaul, Marquette and potentially Xavier and Butler.
In the northeast, there is always UMass to offset the Uconn loss. But with UMass looking to move it’s sports eventually to an all-sports conference (football is in the MAC, other sports in the A10), they are a less stable school.
Dayton is another program that in the past would probably be the #2 option after Xavier. But with the television contract and market exposure being the driving issue, it might be difficult to pass on adding a new market in favor of adding one that Xavier would partially cover.
Out west, you have schools like Creighton in Omaha that if teamed with Xavier and St. Louis would give a strong western presence for the conference.
You also have other schools like Siena in Albany, NY. Boston University could be the long lost Boston replacement for former member Boston College. Holy Cross, a candidate in 1979, could also give some access to the Boston market.
There is also the opportunity to shift away from market access and more towards market penetration. Adding George Washington or George Mason would give a pairing with Georgetown as the dominant basketball conference in Washington D.C.
So now we wait to see what the Big East basketball schools decide to do. By having only 1 option, to forfeit the millions owed to each school from the NCAA revenue shares…and the risk of losing highly visible programs like UConn, Cincinnati and even Memphis…topped by losing the television money to be generated through the additions of SMU (Dallas market) and Houston, the opportunity to do something has probably passed. If the Big East non-football schools leave, it’s a financial loss. If they stay, they are forever at the mercy of the football programs.