Thursday, December 13, 2012

NBC Should Build The Perfect Big East

The Big East could have ruled college athletics with an iron fist.

That’s not hyperbole or the ranting of a delusional UConn fan who has watched the conference he loved disintegrate. It is a simple statement of fact.

Beginning with the asinine decision to exclude Penn State from the Big East in the early 1980’s and rejecting Joe Paterno’s vision for an Eastern football conference, the Big East has been doomed. College basketball ruled the 1980s in large part because college football couldn’t figure out what it had.

uconn the rent
By the time Notre Dame signed its NBC deal – the one that to this day continues to feed their independence – football had started to take over. The rise of cable television, namely ESPN, brought more exposure to the sport. Once the major independents, like Florida State, South Carolina and Penn State, started to join conferences, the arms race was on.

Mike Tranghese, then Big East commissioner, saw the future and built the Big East football conference. And for the 1990s, the Big East was as powerful as any conference. Miami, despite a probation lull in the middle of the decade, was a national power. Syracuse, with stars like Donovan McNabb, was a New Year’s Day fixture. Virginia Tech rose to prominence and then exploded with Michael Vick at the helm.

Few people remember that when CBS jumped back into the college football game in 1996, they aired Big East and SEC games. As a college freshman in 1999, I can vividly remember watching Michael Vick sprinting down the sideline against West Virginia during the 3:30 game on CBS – the prime timeslot now synonymous with the SEC.

It is ironic that the Big East’s basketball teams are destroying the league because the conference spent far too much effort appeasing them over the past 20 years. While Georgetown, Villanova and St. John’s have their value, the Big East powers worked as hard to make inconsequential schools like Providence and Seton Hall happy as they did for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.

There’s no need to rehash the demise of the Big East except to realize that the conference had everything that everyone wants, namely TV markets. The Big Ten poaches Rutgers. The ACC takes poaches anything. The Big 12 poaches West Virginia. Imagine if they had all stayed with the Big East.

When the Big East turned down the last ESPN offer, the idea was that a free market and a deep-pocketed buyer – Comcast/NBC, now Fox and its rumored Fox Sports 1 – would drive the price up dramatically.

College conferences are starting to take control over their finances. The “new” BCS will largely pay out directly to the conferences, cutting out the bowl game’s influence and financial cut. The Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network and the eventual SEC Network eliminates the middle man and puts a larger portion of the TV revenues in the school’s hands. As college football, after almost a century of being undervalued, finally finds it value, the Big East will cease to exist.

But what if it could be reborn? NBC is standing outside the ball with no date. ESPN has every conference and the future 4-team playoff. CBS has the SEC. Fox has the Big 12 and Pac-12, with enough games to push out its Fox Sports 1 channel. NBC has Notre Dame, but also a cable network that is currently a barren wasteland of hunting shows as the NHL does its best Big East impression and implodes.

The pitch is simple – NBC could take all the money it hasn’t been able to spend on the NFL or MLB or Pac-12 and funnel it into the Big East. For all the talk about exposure, academics and schedule strength, the decisions come down to money. Every single school that has changed conferences in the past 2 years has done so for money – from Nebraska to Quinnipiac.

What if NBC made an offer these schools couldn’t refuse? $50 million per year – and $50 million split up between 4 basketball-only schools. While that sounds like an absurd number, NBC has the cash and is that desperate. They have a cable sports network that is in fewer homes than ESPN and makes about, oh, 1/100th the profit. Think for a second about this lineup:

Big East – North
Syracuse
Boston College
UConn
Rutgers
Penn State
Pitt

Big East – South
USF
Louisville
Miami
Virginia Tech
West Virginia
Cincinnati

Basketball-only
Georgetown
St. John’s
Notre Dame
Villanova

12 teams for football with a title game at Yankee Stadium. A 16-team Big East tournament in Madison Square Garden. Every major market from DC to Boston – what the other conferences are fighting for – locked up in a big way, along with the state of Florida and the eastern Midwest.

NBC gets a national game to lead-in to its Notre Dame coverage. The NBC Sports Network instantly gets full distribution on the East Coast, expands nationally and gets to raise its subscriber fees. The strength of the conference puts its miles ahead of the ACC, past the Big Ten and neck and neck with the Big 12 & Pac-12 for the right to be 2nd behind the SEC.

Think about the rivalries on Thanksgiving weekend. Pitt vs. Penn State. UConn vs. Boston College. Syracuse vs. Rutgers. USF vs. Miami. Virginia Tech vs. West Virginia. Louisville vs. Cincinnati.

$650 million per year may sound crazy for college sports but is it? If NBC did this, they would own the Big East. There would be no worries about losing the TV rights – it would be their conference.

Tell me which school turns this offer down? After all we have seen in college sports in the past 10 years, there is not one school that would turn down $50 million per year. You think Georgetown would turn down $12.5 million per year when it’s about to see less than $1 million per year?

In the end, I know this isn’t reality. In fact, the only reason I wrote this is for the miniscule chance someone from Comcast reads this and thinks – “Hey, I’ve got these billions sitting here, might as well spend them.”

The Big East died today. There will be hundreds of thousands of words written about how great the league was and there will be millions of autopsies performed on the carcass by sportswriters, analysts and anyone with a Twitter account.

Ultimately, the Big East will represent a gigantic “What if?”

What if they accepted Penn State?

What if they stayed on CBS?

What if they didn’t try to appease the basketball schools?

What if they took the last ESPN offer?

What if John Marinatto didn’t find out about Pitt and Syracuse leaving from a press box?

What if any of the horrible, short-sighted decisions weren’t made?

What if the Big East still ruled college athletics?

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