When it comes to Big East expansion, less is more

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Will less mean more?

As far as the Big East's expansion plans are concerned, it very well might.

Even though the league's coaches favor expanding to 12 teams and adding a championship game, there are several reasons why the league might be better off with only 10 teams.

While college football industry sources told CBSSports.com last month the league could approach Navy and Army as football-only members to get to 12 teams, if the service academies aren't interested, the league's best approach would be a 10-team league.

And, surprise, the No. 1 reason, is money.

"A championship football game is not the 'be all-end all,' " a college football industry source said. "I'm not sure what they would gain with one. It's a safe assumption to say they'll go to 10 teams. Ten creates more inventory [of games] that is productive and can be used. Twelve teams [without Navy and Army] bring diminishing returns."

Last month, the Big East nearly agreed to renew its media-rights deal with ESPN but opted to wait. The league's reasoning is by delaying a decision, it would either increase ESPN's offer, and if a deal with ESPN can't be reached then NBC/Comcast or Fox would also join the bidding next year.

Big East commissioner John Marinatto told me last month the league decided to wait because it wanted "to advantage by being able to maximize and monetize our value the best way possible."

Sources say the league may approach Army and Navy to join the Big East as football-only members. (Getty Images)  
Sources say the league may approach Army and Navy to join the Big East as football-only members. (Getty Images)  
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 starting Nov. 1, 2012, as well as ESPN.

Sources told CBSSports.com the deal the Big East turned down was nine additional years worth $110 million to $130 million annually. That would have extended the league's media-rights deal with ESPN through the 2022-23 school year.

That nine-year deal would have been worth about $1 billion.

That amount would not have increased much, if any, without Navy and Army in the fold, so each school's share, or "piece of the pie," would have been larger with 10 teams.

Among the reported other possible expansion candidates for the Big East include East Carolina, Houston, UCF and Villanova.

"I still put them [Army and Navy] above the whole cast of characters," a source said. "There's nothing also there. It's just a mess."

Also, if the league goes to 12 teams and holds a championship game on the first Saturday in December, the league's scheduling window would shrink by a week. The Big East plays a large number of Thursday night games, so would having one fewer open week available -- six of the league's eight teams have had two open weeks each of the past two seasons -- cause some scheduling issues?

Here's something else to consider when the Big East begins negotiating its media-rights deal, the league's current football and basketball deals are not "synced up." The basketball contract expires after the 2012-13 school year, the football contract after the 2013-14 school year.

"It's a complicating factor," a source said. "It's not a clean situation."

While the league's decision to expand is football-driven, ironically it could be the non-football schools that ultimately determine what happens with its media-rights deal and expansion. In 2011, the basketball league was the bread winner for the Big East, receiving $3 million more in NCAA basketball tournament revenue than from BCS football revenue.

The men's basketball distribution to the Big East from the NCAA in 2011 was $24.9 million. The league's revenue from the BCS was $21.2 million.

Except for games televised by CBS, ESPN televises every league basketball game on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPN3.com. ESPN's Big Monday has been a staple for the network and ESPN needs the Big East on Mondays as much as the Big East needs ESPN.

Also, if the league decides to sign with NBC/Comcast or Fox, would every conference basketball game still be televised and, if so, what channels would they air?

More important, perhaps, is that to add a football-only or all-sports member requires three-fourths approval by the 16 league members. So the eight non-football schools could theoretically keep the football side from expanding.

Ah, the irony.

Because by adding more all-sports members to get to 12 football schools also would increase the basketball league from 17 to as many as 20 schools. That would make an unwieldy basketball league even worse and is one reason UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun believes the league's football and non-football schools will split in four or five years.

However, it's obviously in the best interests of the conference's schools that don't play Big East football -- DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall and Villanova -- to make sure the league remains intact. As a member of a BCS football conference, the non-football schools benefit more financially than, say, if the league split, and they merged with the Atlantic 10 or created their own Catholic basketball league.

Do you really think DePaul, Providence or Seton Hall wants the league to split? Imagine what their recruiting pitches would be if they weren't in the Big East?

And there's absolutely no way that league would generate the amount of money per team that the Big East does in its current format. It's merely a matter whether the future format will be 10 football members or 12. If Navy and Army don't come on board, it looks more and more like 10 is the right number.

Last month, Marinatto said expansion depends on "the quality of the teams you can bring in."

"When people talk about the 'best model,' what is really the 'best model'?" Marinatto told CBSSports.com. "It's based on the quality of the teams you can bring in. There are a lot of models, and they all depend on the level of the quality of the competition you're able to attract. What's a challenge for us moving forward is taking advantage of the time we have before September 2012 to position ourselves as best we can.

"What's the correct model? There is no obviously single answer to all of that. It depends on what you're able to attract as potential candidates to come up with an optimum situation to maximize your value, as well as the quality of your programs, so each school obviously receives the most that they can [financially]."

And to receive the most money per school, it appears less means more.


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