A Look at the Current Conference
Currently, the Big East consists of seventeen Universities (16 full-time and 1 associate) in the northeastern, southeastern and midwestern United States. For football, eight members play FBS football within the conference (Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Cincinnati, South Florida, and Syracuse), one plays football as a FBS independent (Notre Dame), and two play football at the FCS level (Georgetown and Villanova). In basketball, all members except South Florida have been to a final four and several rank in the top 50 all-time win list.
Seven Big East Conference members are located in the top 12 media markets (DMAs), and 12 members are located in the top 34, covering over 25 percent of all U.S. markets – by far, the largest coverage of any conference. The 2008-09 academic year marks the third of a six-year agreement between the Big East Conference and ESPN, Inc. for men's and women's basketball and the second of a six-year term for football. The contract with ESPN is estimated to be worth $250 million and its provisions are summarized below:
Breakdown: BIG EAST football Games on TV:
• A minimum of 17 home games involving BIG EAST Conference teams will be televised on ABC, ESPN or ESPN2, including four Thursday night games and two Sunday night games on ESPN or ESPN2.
• At least one conference game will be a part of ESPN’s Saturday Prime Time package and two games – one on ABC or ESPN, the other on ESPN2 – will be on Championship Saturday in December.
Breakdown: BIG EAST Men’s Basketball Games on TV:
• Minimum 60 games on ESPN or ESPN2
• 49 regular season games – 41 conference and eight home non-conference
• 11 BIG EAST Championship games
• 110 additional regular season games broadcast on the remaining ESPN platforms
• 80 games on ESPN Regional (66 conference and 14 home non-conference)
• 30 conference games on ESPNU/ESPN360
• Minimum of 10 conference or non-conference games on CBS
The above gives the BIG EAST a minimum grand total of 180 television games each year.
The BIG EAST will continue to be featured each week during the conference season on ESPN’s Big Monday. A new element to the agreement will allow ESPN to also feature a BIG EAST Conference match up on Thursday each week. The agreement also provides that each BIG EAST team have a minimum of 10 games telecast on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN Classic or ERT.
Breakdown: BIG EAST Woman’s Basketball Games on TV:
• 11 guaranteed annual average appearances on ESPN or ESPN2
• 15 appearances annually involving league teams on ESPN network
Shown below is a summary of the media markets covered by the Big East. Teams located within top 12 DMA are denoted by *. Teams located within top 34 DMA are denoted by **.
What a split would mean – Football perspective
If the Big East football schools broke off to form a new conference, the biggest challenge facing them would be market presence. As is apparent from the list given above, basketball schools account for five of the seven top 12 DMAs located within the conference. Basketball school account for seven of the twelve top 34 DMAs located within the conference. In addition, the Big East is also disadvantaged by its small number of flagship “state schools”. Outside of UConn, Rutgers, and WVU, the other schools draw fans and media attention primarily from their own market rather than state-wide.
It can be argued that Rutgers, Saint John’s, and Seton Hall all overlap in the New York market. This is true to an extent; however, it can also be argued that SJU and Seton Hall draw much more attention than Rutgers basketball within the New York market. Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Chicago, on the other hand, have no overlap with football BE schools and would be completely lost in the event of a split.
Thus, any split between football and basketball schools is going to result in a huge market presence reduction. As a result, football schools with be looking at smaller contracts from ESPN and less exposure for basketball. When discussing a Big East split, one must keep in mind that basketball, not football, is the economic driver of the Big East conference. Could an all-sport conference with a much smaller market presence and smaller financial resources remain a viable power conference?
What a split would mean – Basketball perspective
Unlike the football schools, the basketball schools would still retain a large television market. New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Providence, and Milwaukee would all be large markets within the basketball conference’s footprint. The loss of the Pittsburgh, Tampa, and Cincinnati markets would hurt some, but expansion teams like Xavier could help alleviate the loss.
On the other hand, a basketball conference faces challenges that all-sport conferences do not face. While it is true that basketball is the economic driver of the Big East conference, part of the value of the current Big East is derived from football. Under the current hybrid set-up, the conference gets publicity year round. Football gets the Big East name in the press from late summer through December/January while basketball garners attention primarily from December to March. Without football, a conference’s media spotlight is greatly reduced. Thus, a basketball only conference might receive less media attention overall than an all-sport conference and they might end up on the same level as the A-10 (i.e. a good basketball conference but one that doesn’t receive a ton of publicity).
What does this mean for a split?
Two things can be ascertained from perspectives posted above. First, any split is going to be a huge financial gamble. Football schools will lose market presence and thus bargaining power with ESPN and other broadcasters. Basketball schools will lose the year round exposure the Big East currently enjoys. Second, additions to either conference must either bring large media markets and/or marketability. Football schools would need to substantially increased their market share or add teams that can bring a lot of national attention (ND for example) to increase contract payout from ESPN and other broadcasters. Because their media spotlight is smaller, basketball schools may want to add a few large market schools (Xavier in Cincy, Dunquesne in Pitt) to maximize their exposure.
Why I don’t expect a split
I think the market footprint and the financial benefits of the current Big East are the glue that is holding the conference together. After looking at the current market footprint and the options that would be available post-split, I believe the presidents came to the conclusion that the current 16-team hybrid league is the best possible configuration in terms of profit and exposure for the respective members of the conference. Adding mid-level market teams like Memphis or depending on large market teams to upgrade (UMass, Dalaware, Temple to improve) is a huge financial gamble to take. You may end up with a better contract after a few years or you may be left holding the keys to a horrific failure. IMO, this is why a split is unlikely for the time being. The football schools have looked at the markets they would lose and the markets they could gain and decided that a new all-sport conference would be worse off in terms of finances, TV contracts, etc than the current 8 team partnership.