Last month, the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, two debt-clogged athletic departments with very few major achievements in the last century and non-elite fan support. It did this because of TV markets. New York City! Baltimore! D.C.! We'll be famous!
Everybody hated the move.
The ACC responded by adding Louisville, a school that doesn't offer a huge television market, but that does offer all-sports competence, very good football, a fiscally responsible athletic department and a strong fan base. The ACC did not choose UConn, which allegedly yields parts of the New York and Boston TV markets. This came as a surprise, as the ACC had previously looked to be picking off TV markets all the way up the East Coast. Things changed.
Everybody liked the move.
The Big East responded by adding Tulane, which is bad at football and basketball and does not have many fans, but plays in that New Orleans TV market.
Everybody hated the move. (The Big East also added ECU, which is decent at football and instantly has one of the conference's best fan bases. Nobody cared, as we were all too busy hating the other move.)
We've learned things like identity and merit do matter in conference realignment, and big television markets aren't the end-all that commissioners treat them as. If you can either collect a bunch of small schools that are bad at sports but happen to play near big cities or build a league of good programs with historic, cultural and geographic ties, you take the latter.
The ACC learned this just in time. The Big East learned this too late.
The Tulane addition appears to have been the last straw -- Marquette athletic director Larry Williams came close to saying just that. No, I don't really know what else the Big East should've done there. But once you add something in California to something called the Big East, you've pretty firmly established your path.
Seven Big East basketball schools, all of which have religious ties, are reportedly set to break away from the Big East and perhaps pull schools from the A-10 to pretty much create a new Big East. Imagine! A conference composed of similar schools in a reasonable geographic area. They're tired of being tied to such confidence-inspiring moorings as Memphis football and ECU basketball, probably rightfully believing they could create something lasting on their own without having to worry about chasing football insta-megabucks and constantly repatching every time the ACC gets nervous.
As for the future of the basketball programs, Big East branding, who gets the loot, TV money, the state of Madison Square Garden and so forth, see Pete Thamel's excellent summary at SI.
But when they go, four or 13 football schools are getting left behind, depending on how you look at it. Cincinnati, UConn, Temple and South Florida will be the Big East football schools that will have to get very creative very quickly. The only immediately viable option is to stick together and to affirm ties with the schools scheduled to join over the next three years: Boise State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF, SMU, Memphis, Tulane, East Carolina and Navy.
Since Rutgers, Louisville, Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame are all headed out the door, that's all the new Big East would have to work with.
Towering above all other concerns: Boise State and San Diego State were already rumored to have cold feet.
The Broncos waited until just about the last possible minute to agree to leave the Mountain West in the first place, and reportedly met with the MWC recently about possibly staying. If the Big East dies, you'd have to think the western schools would have second thoughts about joining the new version. Well, probably like 99th thoughts, at this point. But if they stay out west, it's really really time to panic.
Boise State's the new conference's best hope for football playoff money and legitimacy, save perhaps Cincinnati. And with the new playoff system granting exactly as much access and money to the Mountain West as to the Big East, reasons to stay in the Big East are dwindling. Even the TV money factor is disappearing.
The Conference USA schools (Houston, UCF, SMU, Memphis, Tulane, East Carolina) would face a more awkward path back to their old conference, if such a course were to unfold. C-USA has loaded up and is already set to have 14 schools by 2015. Unless C-USA wants to expand to 20 freaking schools, weird things would happen there. Weird things will happen either way.
Tickets out of the Big East just got much more valuable for current members, too. If Cincinnati and UConn fought hard the last time to woo the ACC, which ended up taking Louisville, they'll battle even harder the next time, should the ACC need to reload again.
Last time, it was about life and potential death. Potential has now been removed. The game done changed, for Big East schools and for conference realignment.
(Also, now's the time to change the name. Let's get geographically appropriate. I mean, have an intern come up with one. Everybody else has more urgent business. Forget this for now. But somebody, get on it.)
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