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After Pac-12 deal, Big East puts expansion on hold

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Only a few weeks ago the Big East nearly committed to a media rights deal with ESPN, multiple sources told CBSSportscom. On Monday, though, Big East commissioner John Marinatto said the league will now wait until closer to 2013 to finalize its media rights when its current contract expires.

The Big East's deal with ESPN expires after the 2013 college football season. The other five automatic qualifying BCS conferences have recently signed long-term agreements, leaving the Big East as the last AQ conference on the market.

And the Big East plans to take advantage of that. Big time.

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"There's a distinct advantage in going last and with the marketplace continually resetting ... the Pac 12 has reset the marketplace once again," Marinatto said. "It's setting the stage for us providing we're deliberate and aggressive in order to monetize our rights in a fashion that's as similar to what they've done."

Because of this decision, there is no longer any urgency for the league to expand, sources said. "There is no [monetary] incentive to expand right now," a source said. "Now the Big East can take their time."

This delay could affect several schools, hoping to land a spot in the Big East if and when the league expands.

Villanova received an offer last year to move from FCS to FBS and apparently was prepared to announce the move in April. However, the Big East put its invitation on hold, in large part, because of unknown issues with where Villanova would play its home games. Because of a two-year transition period in moving from FCS to FBS, if Villanova does not receive a bid before July 1, the earliest the Wildcats could join the Big East is 2015. However, the Philadelphia Daily News reported Villanova will wait until 2015 unless it receives a Big East invitation before June 1.

All indications are that bid won't come in the next week and Marinatto would not specifically address Villanova's situation or any other possible expansion candidates. The Big East's football coaches told CBSSports.com they preferred a 12-team football league .

"In terms of numbers, we've considered all of the models," Marinatto said. "Where we believe we can add value in terms of content, we will explore that even further. With all the work we've done in the past 12 months, we know what our options are and what those options bring to the table."

A college sports industry source told CBSSports.com he believes the league might expand in stages now. "They don't have to do both [expand and secure new media rights deal] at the same time. But there has to be a resolution to the Villanova question sooner than later.

"Any expansion beyond that doesn't have an urgent deadline. It will be gradual."

Last month the Big East nearly agreed to a new deal with ESPN. One source said the league's presidents had a verbal agreement amongst themselves to accept ESPN's offer. Another industry source said the deal was "very close" to being done but "there had been no 'i's dotted or t's crossed.' "

The SportsBusiness Journal reported ESPN had offered between $110 million to $130 million annually.

Ironically, the Big East decided not to pull the trigger on the deal with ESPN about the same time the Pac-12 was finalizing a new media rights deal with Fox and ESPN. The Pac-12 signed a 12-year deal worth $250 million annually, The New York Times reported.

"I'm very excited about what the Pac-12 was able to accomplish two weeks ago," Marinatto said. "Just like last year, how excited we were about with what the ACC was able to do. Because it keeps resetting the marketplace and it puts us -- because of the assets we bring to the table -- in a much better position moving forward.

"Specifically, for example, the Big East Conference represents 30 percent of the households in America. You look at the Pac-12 footprint. You look at the Big East footprint, look at the ACC footprint. Obviously we deliver much more in terms of our households.

"So 17 months from now, when we have the opportunity to sit down initially with ESPN, as part of the [existing] contract's requirements, and then potentially beyond that if we don't come to conclusion, I think we look at a very, very aggressive and potentially very strong future in terms as far as media market rights. That's one of the things we're preparing for now."

ESPN has an exclusive 60-day window to renegotiate with the Big East beginning in September 2012. If the two sides can't reach a deal, the Big East can entertain offers from other networks, as well as ESPN.

In essence, the league many predicted a few years ago would fold when it was raided by the ACC, could land a landmark media rights deal that would assure the long-term future of the conference.

Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports, said the league should benefit by waiting to finalize a new media rights deal.

"In a marketplace that seems to be growing, college football and college basketball is a growth market," said Pilson, president of Pilson Communication. "Now since there are several markets for Big East football I don't think they lose anything by waiting.

"I don't see that as a risk. The only major sports deal [coming up] is the [2014 and 2016] Olympics and I don't see that having much influence on Big East football, whether [the value] goes up or down."

Pilson said first the league must decide its expansion question.

"The Big East has to get their ducks lined up -- and I don't mean the Oregon Ducks -- and get their teams and membership [figured out], but they want to be careful who they bring into the conference," Pilson said. "I don't think delaying six months or a year will hurt them. ESPN will always be there."

By waiting, the Big East potentially could have ESPN, Fox and NBC/Comcast bidding for its rights. This, of course, would be financially beneficial to the league.

"Now that there are three potential bidders in the market place, it has changed dynamics as well," Marinatto said. "College [media] rights have been undervalued for a very long time. I think it's come to the forefront now that that's been the case given where everyone is ending up.

"Each and every time our competitors go to the table and test the market and then consequently reset it, it puts us in a positive position. Our future in terms of what we're able to do when the time comes 17 months from now is very, very optimistic. Obviously, we need to plan accordingly and make sure we're in a position to take advantage. "Our whole group feels very optimistic and pretty resolved in what we'll be able to do."

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