Big East expansion is one of the most hotly debated topics throughout the spring meetings and, well, ever since Big East commissioner John Marinatto suggested it back in 2010. The debate really picked up when they pulled the trigger on inviting TCU, who accepted, and the completely absurd, ludicrous bullshit surrounding Villanova. Then this craziness extended to questions like, will the Big East stop at 9 football schools? Will they go to 10? 12? 16?! And who gets the invite? UCF? ECU? BYU? Houston? Maybe an ACC raid?
Through all of this, the recurring theme among these debates has been that the Big East football schools should split from the Big East basketball schools and send Notre Dame an ultimatum. Even more so, this split should have been done yesterday. I agree, a split makes sense. The Big East is the most cumbersome conference in all of college sports with 8 all-sport schools, 7 basketball-only schools, and 1 all-sports-but-football school. Commissioner Marinatto spends most of his time balancing the needs and wants of the all-sport schools versus the basketball-only schools. This is a problem when the Big East is already behind the 8-ball and its commissioner can't instill confidence in his members by quelling the infighting to lead the conference in a cooperative, single direction.
Despite the squabbling, the basketball schools still bring a lot to the table. Unlike any other AQ conference outside of maybe the ACC, the Big East prides itself on its basketball programs. Even more so, the conference uses that to gain primetime slots on ESPN like they did for the Big East Tournament Finals. Axing them before a Big East media deal is established jeopardizes maximizing a pay out from ESPN, NBC/Comcast, Turner, or whoever is willing to open their wallet the most. It's like dumping Minka Kelly for Hilary Swank because you want to take a hot girl to your friend's wedding next year and you're hoping Hilary to get hotter than Minka just in time. Anyways, let's look at a list of Big East markets according to a study done by Nielsen:
Big East Basketball Markets (Team(s))
1.) New York City (Seton Hall, St. John's)
3.) Chicago (DePaul)
4.) Philly (Villanova)
9.) Washington D.C. (Georgetown)
35.) Milwaukee (Marquette)
52.) Providence (Providence)
91.) South Bend (Notre Dame)*
Big East Football Markets (Team(s))
1.) New York City (Rutgers)
5.) Dallas-Ft. Worth (TCU)
13.) Tampa Bay (South Florida)
23.) Pittsburgh (Pitt)
30.) Hartford-New Haven (UConn)**
33.) Cincinnati (Cincinnati)
49.) Louisville (Louisville)
63.) Charleston-Huntington (West Virginia)***
83.) Syracuse (Syracuse)
*It's safe to say Notre Dame draws a larger TV market than just South Bend, but ranking them higher only proves my point about the value of the basketball schools.
**Nielsen only studied the top 210 television markets. Storrs, CT was not included in that list but I'm going to assume that UConn captures the Hartford-New Haven market.
***Similar to Storrs, Morgantown was not included in that list but I'm going to assume that West Virginia captures the Charleston-Huntington market.
Total Big East avg. rank = 25.24
Big East Basketball avg. rank = 24.5
Big East Football avg. rank = 32.88
The markets Big East football schools seem to control are an average of 8 rankings lower than the Big East basketball schools. By dropping the basketball schools, the Big East also drops two-thirds of their presence in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C, among the largest markets in the country. Does anyone really think that a 9-team conference without those 4 markets would garner a better deal than a 17-team conference with those markets? Sure the pie is split more ways, but it might be a far larger pie. But what if they split and add schools from the following markets:
The Usual Suspects by Market Size
10.) Houston (Houston)
19.) Orlando (Central Florida)
27.) Baltimore (Navy)
50.) Memphis (Memphis)
103.) Greenville (East Carolina)
If the Big East went to 12 and took the schools in the largest available markets, they could conceivably add Houston, UCF, and Navy. I recognize that this is a pretty big assumption but in this landscape of conference expansion where market size is king, the scenario isn't that farfetched (Hell, I'm actually pulling for ECU). Still, the New Big East's markets would have an average rank of 29.66, still 4 rankings worse than the current 17-team format.
4 ranks worse doesn't sound like much but the Big East is desperate to maximize its future TV deal. The one they got in 2006 was a complete embarrassment compared to the other AQ conferences and the gap is even greater now that the other 5 AQs are all signed to even more lucrative contracts. A way to close that gap is to leverage the Big East's greatest asset; the basketball programs and the markets they deliver. This can be seen year after year as 6-7-8 Big East teams are continuously ranked at the same time and most recently when 11 Big East teams made the NCAA tournament.
There is no question that the on court success of Big East basketball is second-to-none but the markets these schools bring is just as important. The Big East should use those markets to warrant ESPN, NBC/Comcast, Turner, etc. giving the conference a nice juicy contract. UConn coach Jim Calhoun mentioned a split within 4 or 5 years and, as must as it pains me to say it, I'm inclined to agree with him. A split, I believe occurs after the Big East has locked in its upcoming contract for 2013 and beyond. So, a split in 4 or 5 years seems reasonable, if not 7 or 8 when the Big East is in the middle/nearing the end of that media deal.
So what's the takeaway? Unlike most other AQ conferences, where football drives media revenue, the Big East's greatest value is basketball. If the football schools went their separate ways, their value alone is much smaller without the basketball schools. Even though a media deal payout might be split between less schools, that cash might be far smaller without a Big East presence in Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and most New York City. The Big East football schools, even with the possible expansion candidates, can't command a better deal without the markets the basketball schools bring. Until they can, don't hold your breath on a Big East splitting any time soon.