The most critical moment to the future of the Big East begins at midnight.
Let the television negotiations begin.
There is no way to oversell just how vitally important these negotiations are to the Big East, the last of the six major conferences to go to the bargaining table with television executives. In the years since the Big East signed its last TV deal, college football media rights have exploded exponentially.
The Big East stands to gain more than what it gets now, even if it is below the SEC stratosphere. ESPN gets first crack at TV rights with a 60-day exclusive window.
"We have a 30-plus year partnership with the Big East and we hope to continue that in a meaningful way," ESPN said in a statement.
If the window passes without a deal, or ESPN takes a pass, then the Big East can begin negotiating with other networks.
But there are big questions that remain unanswered:
1. How much more will it gain?
2. Will it be enough to hold the league together?
3. Which network will end up with Big East TV rights?
“I absolutely believe these negotiations are critical,” new commissioner Mike Aresco said in a phone interview with ESPN.com. “It's job 1 for me. This TV deal is going to be hugely important for financial stability. The conference wants to feel good about its revenues, schools want to be able to build their facilities and improve their programs, so getting a major TV deal is huge. Everybody gets a spring in their step. You see that in the Pac-12.”
One of the biggest questions heading into the negotiating table centers firmly on product vs. media market. Does a bigger Big East without West Virginia, Pitt and Syracuse mean a better Big East spread across four time zones?
When the Big East expands to 13 teams by 2015, it will have footholds in major media markets including New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Dallas, Houston, Orlando, Tampa and San Diego. But only Rutgers and Temple remain as founding members, and both have only experienced recent renaissances.
Most every other current or future member lived in a non-automatic qualifying conference before joining the Big East.
“If you don't have a product to sell it doesn't matter where you are. Except the Big East has both,” Aresco said. “It has a product to sell and it has major markets. If you have a product to sell it's always better to be in a bigger market. For the Big East to have major markets is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Sometimes a school in a smaller market has a national reputation, too. Alabama, Virginia Tech, Tennessee, Nebraska, for example. We have Boise now.
“The Big East was a regionalized football conference with a few good football schools, You've added schools that give you a much broader national reach, committed to building good football programs and I look forward to making that point and carrying the flag. Basketball speaks for itself, but I do intent to talk about basketball. These media deals are not just football, but if you’re the Big East or you’re the ACC the networks care about your basketball a lot because it's good.”
To that end, Aresco has to put on the hard sell about what the Big East is bringing in, and get people to forget about what the Big East is losing. Because the perception remains that the Big East is ripe for the picking if it does not get a satisfactory media deal.
“I sat at Mike's (first) press conference and I heard him say we're going to make people regret leaving,” Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti said. “I thought that was great, because the Big East has always been perceived as a raidable conference, and not necessarily in the past a proactive conference. But I think what people need to focus on is what's coming. People talk about what the league's going to be and how they might not like it. I think that people don't understand it yet because nobody's seen the new league yet.
“But Mike's statement in that way further reinforces his confidence and understanding of the value in the league and I think it was a very important thing for him to say Day 1, because the Big East has got to work harder under Mike to become a destination, not necessarily a stop.”
The clock begins ticking at midnight.