Reality or Wishful Hope?

Big East commissioner John Marinatto made bold statements concerning the media rights potential of the league at its Media Day. Are his expectations realistic, or is he simply trying to boost the league's image in hopes of getting a better deal?

Marinatto's position and message in what amounted to his "state of the league" address was simple. The Big East has never before been dealing from a position of strength in media negotiations, even though it had such bonuses as more television homes than any other league in the country and the top basketball league ever assembled. This time, due to several factors, Marinatto believes that's not the case.

The first is the timing of the end of the Big East's current contracts. Over the past two years, the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten inked media rights deals that pushed the take of each school into the $17-21 million range. Even the ACC, with less football flair, pushed their per school take to around $13 million. Marinatto believes that puts the Big East in the driver's seat, as it's the last league capable of signing a new deal in the near future. (The next TV contract up for bid will be the Big Ten's which runs through 2016.) With new entrants possible in the bidding process (Fox and NBC Sports are prime candidates), Marinatto's belief is that the Big East will be able to secure a contract on par with those of the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten.

"The next round of media negotiations will propel the Big East to a place where equity exists with other conferences in terms of both money and exposure," he stated.

The question open for debate, and one that will only be answered when a deal is made and announced, is a simple one. Is Marinatto's view realistic? Will the league's basketball inventory, and the fact that it has the only significant inventory of football up for bid in the near future drive the prices higher? Will Fox and NBC engage the 800-pound gorilla of ESPN in a bidding war?

Precedent for Marinatto's view abounds in many walks of life, and not just sports. Take, for example, the dotcom bubble of the Internet. For a couple of year's venture capitalists threw money at anything with a ".com" at the end of it. IPOs and stock offerings brought in far more money than dreamed of by even the most optimistic observers. Could the Big East be riding a similar sort of wave in its current situation? The Pac-12's recent contract of $3 billion for 12 years gives the league hope that it can approach similar numbers in terms of per school payouts.

The league also has something of a unique opportunity in that it is also considering expansion. While league officials would never admit it, there's no doubt that they are talking with the networks about this issue, and finding out which schools would be most attractive. If, for example, Fox loved the idea of another school in the southwest, then it might bid more for a league that included another university in that region of the country. While the league won't leave the decision up to those entities, there's no doubt that the value those schools bring to the table in terms of media rights will be huge in the process. Marinatto admitted as much in his comments.

Unfortunately, there are also some negatives that the league must overcome. The first is the national perception of sub-par play in football, which the league did nothing to counter in 2010. With no team within shouting distance of a Top Ten ranking, the Big East had one of its most nondescript seasons ever. To his credit, Marinatto addressed that in his comments. There's pressure, though, to erase those memories with better performance in 2011, The Big East needs at least one (two would be better) team to reach and stay in the Top Ten throughout the season, and win its BCS bowl game.

The second is the subject of time slots for game broadcasts. ESPN obviously had room for the Big East in past years, but it has contracts with the other five BCS leagues right now as well. It might not feel pressured to keep a sixth. It could fill its Thursday night and Friday night slots with games from other leagues. Fox, which has part of the Big XII and Pac-12 pie, could do likewise, although it has more room to maneuver with its stable of outlets. NBC, with its newly branded NBC Sports Network (formerly Versus), could put more games on in traditional Saturday time slots, but the question is, will viewers find them? And would games on NBC Sports Network be as visible as a game on ESPN2 or ESPNU? Would other games be available on an outlet similar to ESPN's online entity

While money remains the driving factor, there are clearly additional questions to consider as the negotiations heat up over the next 13 months. However, one thing is clear. Marinatto has made unequivocal statements concerning the value of the Big East's next media deal. If those levels aren't met, his position at the head of the league could be a precarious one -- as could the existence of the league in its present form.

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