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Big East thinking big about media future

5/27/2010

Big East commissioner John Marinatto was riding in a cab in New York City with Paul Tagliabue a couple of weeks ago when he mentioned the new offices the league had moved into in Providence, R.I.

There was enough space in the new building, Marinatto suggested, to erect a studio for a possible Big East Network. Tagliabue quickly corrected him.

"John," he said, "we're not building a studio in Providence. We'll build a studio next to the 'Today' show in Rockefeller Center. You'll look out and see people in downtown New York City. That will be our studio."

Tagliabue, the former NFL commissioner, is helping the Big East as a consultant and adviser on its future, especially in terms of TV deals and opportunities. And Marinatto said that studio idea is one way he's prompting the league to think big.

The Big East knows it may need to take bold steps to survive with the possibility looming that the Big Ten swipes one or more of its teams in the coming months. And even if that doesn't happen, the conference must address the significant revenue gap that is growing between itself and mega-leagues like the Big Ten and SEC.

The Big Ten has become an intimidating monster because of its Big Ten Network, which is spewing money into that league's coffers. The Big East is exploring ways to come up with a similar cable channel for its product despite the many challenges that exist in doing so.

For one, Big East football isn't nearly as popular as the Big Ten, and with only eight football teams currently, there aren't as many games to show on a network. But the Big East does have 16 basketball teams and a highly entertaining hoops circuit.

And then there is the league's location, which encompasses many of the top markets in the Northeast. That's a major reason why Marinatto thinks a Big East Network could succeed.

"Because we have so much of the nation's population and households, it seems like we're in a position to take advantage of that more than some of the other conferences, maybe," he said. "That could allow us to be unique as the Big Ten has been."

Could Big East sports alone be enough to entice cable subscribers? Maybe not. But Marinatto says the league has access to "other alliances that could drive that concept." He declined to give specifics, but when I asked him if by "alliances" he meant other college sports, pro sports or even entertainment programming, he said, "all of the above."

"Because we're sitting where we are in the Northeast corridor, we have people from our schools who are involved in the business world who are working at the right places," he said. "Maybe that can help create some partnerships that would make us unique."

Could you envision a Big East sports and entertainment network that includes not only league games but also concerts, Broadway musicals and Major League and NBA games from cities like Philadelphia and Washington D.C.? Who knows. Marinatto said "everything is on the table."

And don't forget the appeal of Notre Dame to such a network. Sure, there wouldn't be Irish football games on such a network, but the channel could show Notre Dame basketball and other non-revenue sports that could draw eyeballs from a national alumni base.

It's important to note that the Big East's current media agreement with ESPN lasts until 2013, and the league is keenly interested in remaining a viable partner with ESPN. All ideas about a new network and media opportunities are based on looking beyond the expiration of that contract. No one knows what the league will even look like in 2014.

But at least the Big East is thinking big.