The rumor mill is working overtime this weekend as news has leaked out of the proud home of Beano Cook that Pittsburgh will announce their move to the Big 11 on February 4. Everyone has an opinion, or half-baked theory, on what will happen next and why it will happen. Here’s my overview, trying to be as factual as possible.
Why does the Big 11 want to expand?
The answer is simple: money. It all comes back to cold, hard cash. Expanding, whether to 12, 14 or 16 teams would open up multiple revenue streams or improve current competitiveness.
Expand TV Markets
The Big Ten Network has been a boon to the conference, raking in a reported $9-10MM annually per school. As it stands, the BTN is a regional cable power. To ensure continued growth, the BTN needs to expand into other markets to get coveted standard tier cable inclusion and, as a result, more eyeballs. Forcing their way into virgin cable packages increases their revenue from both cable companies and advertisers.
Adding a 12th member would allow the Big 11 to stage a conference title game in football. Not only is a title game a revenue generator, but it helps the Big 11 to keep pace with the other major conferences, the SEC, Big XII, and to a lesser extent, ACC. The SEC netted “only” $15MM last year from their wildly successful title game, so it’s safe to say the title game is a secondary concern to the TV markets.
Marketing & Mindshare
As it stands, the Big 11 football season ends the weekend before Thanksgiving. The other conferences have two more weeks of football after that to generate money and interest. The Big 11 is completely off the national radar during that timeframe, which has a negative effect on recruiting and further diminishes the Big 11’s brand.
This feeds out of a couple points above, but merits a separate mention. Expanding into new, key areas could open up heretofore, uncharted recruiting territory for the Big 11. NYC would be a huge get for basketball and adding Missouri would open a closer, though indirect, link to the talent rich football areas of Oklahoma and Texas. This is a particularly timely mention because many of the Rust Belt’s best football prospects are fleeing south this year. Is that the start of a trend?
Many have hypothesized that the Big 11 season’s early conclusion creates a disadvantage to its teams by lengthening the layoff before the bowl games. This is hard to prove and likely just a flimsy excuse for the conference’s recent struggles, particularly in BCS games.
Much will be made of the academic implications that need to be considered. Those associated with the Big 11 have mentioned that any new member must also be a member of the Association of American Universities, which is a group of the top 62 research universities. Some select quotes from a New York Times story really paint the picture the Big 11 would like the public to believe.
“It’s significant that we have institutions that meet the academic standing and reputation of institutions now in the Big Ten,” Gee said. “I don’t want to coin a phrase here, but we are sort of the public equivalent of the Ivy League in our quality.”
Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse would probably give serious consideration to joining the Big Ten to enhance their academic reputations, said Kyle V. Sweitzer, a data resource analyst at Michigan State who wrote about university ambitions and conference affiliations in the most recent issue of New Directions for Higher Education.
Still, Rutgers and others would be “foolish not to explore” a move to the Big Ten, Sweitzer said. “No question the Big Ten has the academic reputation to go along with athletics,” he said. “I’m not sure the Big East does as a whole.”
Ah, nothing likes the typical Big 11 academic elitist tripe. Regardless of what the talking heads may say, this decision is not about academics. Anyone that the Big 11 would consider on an athletic and market basis is already on the list of 62 schools, rendering their posturing a moot point.
Why does Pitt want to leave?
Again, this is all about the money plus one nod to history and emotion.
Pitt would stand to gain their share of the $9-10MM annual BTN pie if they became a member. Splitting the goodies amongst another member may dilute the share per school, but it’s still a better haul than the Big East can offer.
The Big East is a football wasteland. The Big East is on thin ice with the BCS and may even lose their automatic bid. Meanwhile, the Big 11 consistently gets 2 teams into BCS bowls and is firmly entrenched in the college football subconscious. Additionally, Pitt plays in Heinz Field and struggles to regularly fill the place. Home games against the likes of Ohio St, Michigan and Penn State would guarantee sellouts when compared to Cincinnati, South Florida and UConn. Joining the Big 11 would also strengthen recruiting ties to the talent rich Ohio and Pennsylvania high schools.
The Big 11 may have its warts, but it is more stable than any conference, outside the Ivy League. Pitt will have no worries about their conference’s BCS viability or if other members are jumping ship for greener pastures. The Big 11’s money is also very stable with the BTN guaranteed for the next 20 years.
Joining the Big 11 would renew Pitt’s contentious rivalry with Penn State in all sports. It would also permanently fracture their underrated, but heated, rivalry with West Virginia.
What’s next for the Big East?
Three baseline questions and one big whopper of a question.
#1 How many teams does the Big 11 expand to? 12? 14? 16?
There’s been plenty of talk from the Big 11 folk that they may reach for 14 or 16 members. If they settle for 12, the response could be fairly simple – add another member. If they expand to 14 or 16, it could spell the end of the Big East as Rutgers and/or Syracuse would be a likely target. That would drop football playing members to a total of 5 or 6, and, as you will see below, the pickings are slim for viable football schools.
#2 Who will be the newest Big East member?
There are a couple logical contenders, but any addition must bring enough football credibility to keep the BCS football berth.
Boston College – I don’t know how logical this is, but its the Big East’s best option. I don’t know why BC would leave the football money and stability of the ACC, but they are obviously not a natural fit there.
Memphis – the most likely addition. They add a ton in basketball, but don’t bring much football, geographic or cultural continuity
East Carolina – they open up the Carolinas market and are a decent football program. Unfortunately, the Pirates have a terrible basketball program and their football coach just left for USF, so continued success there is tenuous.
Central Florida – UCF opens up the Florida market a bit more, but brings nothing to the table in terms of prestige or reputation
Temple – Temple fits nicely into the geographic footprint and brings instant hoops credibility. Temple was a former football-only member but were kicked out of the league for noncompetitive play. The Owls have turned the football program around under Al Golden and look dramatically more appealing than they did just 12 months ago
#3 Will the Big East keep its automatic BCS football berth?
It’s way to early to tell, but this looming question will be the main factor in determining the Big East’s Pittsburgh replacement strategy. Get #2 right and #3 becomes a non-issue and all is right with the world. Get #2 wrong and the answer to #3 is "No" and we begin discussing #4…
#4 Will the Big East break up?
This is the doomsday scenario put forth by many Marquette fans. I’ll explore it more tomorrow.