Building the New Big East The Big East urgently needs to initiate some moves to ensure its place among what used to be known as automatic-qualifying conferences. Frankly, it may be too late. The loss of more traditional programs such as West Virginia and Pittsburgh, even if the on-field performance of newcomers Boise and Houston may be superior, could be too much to overcome. But nothing's going to happen if the league continues to sit back and do nothing while other college football officials, conference commissioners in some cases, keep referring to the "Big Five" and acting as if the new Big East is a small step above the Sun Belt. Of course, programs such as Boise, Houston, Cincinnati, Louisville, Rutgers, South Florida, and others could take things into their own hands and simply beat non-conferences foes consistently and push the Big East to or near the top in conference power rankings. But we all know that's going to be a much tougher slog when the champion's reward could be nothing more than a third-tier bowl, and schools in the "Big Five" are making far more money. UH found that out the hard way in C-USA. Even so, while there are no guarantees, if the Big East would act on a few issues, the league still has a chance to remain very relevant.
First and foremost, the conference needs an experienced, assertive commissioner. Not having one at this critical juncture is akin to the Constitutional Convention winding down, while the Big East dithers about its selection of delegates. The Great Compromise didn't happen because Virginia and Pennsylvania were so smitten with Rhode Island and Delaware. The smaller colonies (the Big East is more of a mid-sized one) threatened, cajoled, and did any and everything to get equal representation. The best man for the commissioner job may be Kevin Weiberg. He was a successful commissioner of the Big 12, doubling the member schools' revenue during his tenure. And no schools left when he was commissioner. He also helped negotiate a lucrative TV deal for the Big 10 Network, where he was vice-president of planning and development, and he most recently has overseen TV and bowls for the PAC 12, which signed the largest conference television contract in history about a year ago. Yes, there is an interim commissioner, but the league needs to name its new leader yesterday. Without a captain, the conference is like a rudderless ship.
Another smart move would be to do whatever is necessary to attract Brigham Young to the conference. There is no school in the country the Big East could possibly add that would be more helpful with TV negotiations and bowl affiliations. BYU also brings BCS points, having been ranked in the final BCS standings four times in the past decade. And BYU would come in as the #1 Big East team in attendance. Those other Cougars averaged 60k last year, which is typical for them. The closest new Big East team in attendance is Louisville, which had 48k per game. As mentioned, BYU helps with TV because they have a national brand and also deliver a solid market in Salt Lake. They're not Notre Dame, but BYU has fans throughout the country. The Big East walked out on negotiations with the school less than a year ago, but that was before the new playoff system was devised. BYU is going to have trouble scheduling, and with the school as part of the conference, the TV money could be roughly the same as what they get now. That would be perhaps the key question. There would also be the chance for some great rivalries in the west. How about a Boise-BYU matchup every Thanksgiving? BYU would definitely help the Big East, but the Big East would do some good things for BYU as well.
And if BYU joins, why not go ahead and grab a couple of other western schools, say, Air Force and Fresno, to strengthen the western division? Air Force would likely increase the TV deal. Like Navy and BYU, they have something of a national audience, and they're some 50 miles from the #17 market. Fresno is located in the San Joaquin Valley, which has a population of some four million residents. Air Force and Fresno have been two of the top non-AQ programs the past decade or so, and adding the two schools would have the added benefit of weakening the Mountain West Conference even further. With Houston, UCF, Memphis, and SMU gone from C-USA, and Boise, San Diego State, Air Force, and Fresno out of the MWC, both those leagues would have taken haymakers that may not knock them out but would hurt them to the point that they'd be wobbly for a long time. If there is any difference between the new Big East and the ACC it is a small stream, and it may not even be that if it weren't for the ACC having a few more tradition-rich schools. The gap between the Big East and the leagues formerly known as non-AQs would be a gulf, and we're talking from Tampa to Vera Cruz. Having 16 football schools seems a bit unwieldy, but the SEC and ACC each have 14 now. It really doesn't seem like it would be a problem. The conference could even keep an eight-game league schedule if the Navy-Air Force game were interdivisional and not counted as a conference game.
Hiring a strong, vocal commissioner, getting BYU, and expanding the western division by three teams will all help with two other priorities, the upcoming TV contract and bowl affiliations. Let's first look at the TV deal. Neither I nor anyone else can say just how much it's going to be, but we can look at estimates by people seemingly in the know. Some of those estimates sound overly optimistic, while some come off as more an agenda against the Big East. There are several reasons to think the deal will be a good one. On the other hand, the lack, at least up to this point, of a tie-in with a major bowl could hamper the league's efforts for a sweetheart deal, and in some respects, the league has lost some sizzle with the departure of West Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse. San Diego State University had a study done by a firm called Navigate, which describes itself as, "The industry leader in conducting research, measurement and analysis of sponsorships in sports and entertainment," and has had the NFL, ESPN, the U. S. Olympic Committee, among others, as clients.
Navigate's estimate is one of several, so let's look at them, and maybe we can get a better idea of what kind of money UH may see. Navigate estimated the new Big East TV deal to be worth $167 million annually. That would come out to about 11 million for all-sports schools such as UH. Others, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, think the contract could be in the 200 million range. Someone who may be more connected to any of the above sources is UH athletic director Mack Rhoades, who said the deal could be anywhere from 13-17 million per all-sports school. There are a number of factors that will drive negotiations. For one thing, the new Big East has a vast presence in major media markets. If one includes football and basketball, the league has a school located in or within 50 miles of seven of the top 10 designated market areas and 14 of the 34 largest. Secondly, college sports, especially football and basketball, rank near the top of advertisers' programming favorites. Both are immensely popular, and people want to watch games live rather than DVR them, which allows editing of commercials. Thirdly, the Big East is the last conference up for negotiation for several years, and some new contenders, such as NBC Sports and Fox, are wanting to expand their inventory. Some analysts think the Big East will end up cutting a deal with NBC, which could feature the league on its new sports channel as well as the major network.. The media empire wants a sports network to compete with ESPN. But the conference may also have the option of going with more than one TV partner; for example, NBC may have Big East football games, while ESPN may retain the rights to the hugely successful Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden. While football drives the train, in the Big East, basketball acts as the conductor, not a stowaway in the caboose. Last year, the Big East, in fact, made more from NCAA Basketball Tournament revenue than it did from its share of BCS money--24.9 million for the hoops tourney compared to $21.2 million from the BCS. The best guess here is that all-sports schools will get eight figures. It's just impossible to say if the money will be 10 million or 17 million or somewhere in between or a little less or more. Chances are UH would be very happy with a number in the mid-teens.
The final part of the puzzle is the new bowl picture. Through the 2013-14 season, the Big East football champion will automatically qualify for one of the big four bowl games. After that, however, the situation gets murky. As of now, the SEC, Big 12, PAC 12, Big 10, and ACC have contractual affiliations with major bowls beyond 2013-14; the Big East does not. There will be an expansion from four to six major bowls. Besides the Rose, Orange, Fiesta, and likely the Sugar, the new entries are the Champions, the Chick-Fil-A, formerly known as the Peach, and/or the Cotton, which may merge with the Champions Bowl. Today, the Rose, Champions, and Orange have contracts with conferences, the Orange having one with the ACC and Notre Dame. So far, the Big East has been shut out. Will that change? Much like guessing the amount of the TV deal, it's impossible to say with any certainty.
Assuming the Cotton becomes the Champions, the major bowls that would still be unaffiliated include the Fiesta, the Sugar, and the Chick-Fil-A. At first glance, it seems unlikely that any of those bowls would want to take the Big East champion when they could end up getting a #2 or #3 SEC or Big 10 team. The new Big East should be comparable to the ACC in terms of the quality of football played, but the league lacks the marquee, traditional programs that bowls covet. But several Big East schools, including Boise, Rutgers, Louisville, Navy, South Florida, and others, aren't completely lacking in cachet. Those programs may not average 100k and have 10 national championships in their trophy case, but they all have some things going for them. Still, a tie-in with the Fiesta or some other major bowl seems unlikely; however, an undefeated Big East champion would almost surely qualify for the four-team playoff, and even a one-loss Big East champ ranked from 5-12 would have a good shot at one of the major bowls. There will be at-large bids, and according to BCS director Bill Hancock, those will be made by the selection committee, not the bowls themselves, unless they are one contractually obligated to two conferences. But with three unaffiliated bowls, there could be as many as six at-large spots. Certainly a direct tie-in would be better for the Big East, but the new system does not preclude the conference from playing in a major bowl every year if a team is worthy. The new format will, however, be much tougher for schools such as C-USA and the MWC, because the strength of schedule of the schools in those leagues is going to be a major detriment to their participation. Big East teams may not play an SEC schedule, but a program that beats Boise, Louisville, Rutgers, Houston, Navy, Cincinnati, and South Florida along with a good non-conference opponent or two should be just fine.
What may help the Big East if the champion ends up with a good record but one not quite good enough for a major bowl is that with the new playoff system, a second-tier tier bowl that used to get a league's #2, #3, or #4 may be forced to move down a couple of rungs, depending on whether that conference puts two (possibly even three) teams in major bowls. What happens if, say, the SEC has Alabama and Florida in the semis and LSU in a major bowl? A good bowl that had the SEC #3 might get the SEC #6. In some cases, that would be fine and dandy with the bowl representatives. An 8-4 Georgia or Auburn or Tennessee is still an appealing school. But some bowls may take into consideration that they could end up with a much lower pick, especially bowls affiliated with the PAC 12 or the ACC or the Big 12. If OU and Texas make the semis and Kansas State squeezes into the Fiesta, does the Holiday Bowl really want a 7-5 Iowa State or Baylor outside the Top 25 over a maybe #11 11-2 Boise? We may find out.
Big East fans understandably feel as if they're being shafted, and it's beginning to look that way. But much still needs to be worked out, including TV deals, a 14th (and maybe a 15th and 16th) team, and bowl tie-ins; and if the right man is hired for the job of commissioner and a PR assault commences, the clouds may begin to break. The bottom line is that UH is going to be making maybe five to seven times as much as it was in C-USA, the team will be playing in better bowls (imagine going to the Liberty as a 3rd or 4th place team rather than a conference champion), and basketball suddenly finds itself in one of the top conferences in the land. We still don't know how things will work out for the Big East, but the league can be proactive—good things can still happen for this conference. But unless the league is dissolved, a very unlikely outcome, the University of Houston will be in its best position since before it joined C-USA, and that is good news.