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TV deal, not expansion, Big East's big issue

5/5/2011

A day never goes by when I don't get a question about the next Big East team, or an e-mail from a reader who has concocted the perfect expansion plan.

Expansion is a big deal, and it's important to the future of the league. But on the list of priorities for the conference, it's not even in the same zip code as securing a favorable new TV contract.

Let's face it: whether the Big East adds Villanova or Houston or UCF or whatever, most folks without a rooting concern are just going to yawn and move on to the next story. TV executives aren't going to fall all over themselves because the league has added an FCS squad that's coming on board in four years or another former Conference USA program in a pro town.

The Big East would be just fine with nine once TCU comes on board next year. Nine works perfectly for balanced scheduling, and I continue to believe a championship game is a horrible, unnecessary and possibly even counterproductive idea for this league. Just ask the ACC.

What should keep commissioner John Marinatto up at night is the critical nature of the next TV contract. The Big East got some security in its last deal, but the down side is that the league has been on the sidelines while the cash has been thrown at every other BCS conference recently. The Big East's current deal doesn't expire until after 2012.

For now, the league is way behind its BCS AQ partners. This story I linked to earlier Thursday does a good job of breaking down each of the other Big Six conference's TV deals after the Pac-12's massive windfall was announced this week. Let's compare, shall we?

ACC: $1.86 billion from ABC/ESPN over 12 years

Big Ten: $2.8 billion from Big Ten Network for 25 years, $1 billion from ABC/ESPN through 2016

Big 12: $1.1 billion from Fox over 13 years and $480 million from ABC/ESPN for eight years (Texas gets additional $15 million from ESPN for its Longhorn Network)

SEC: $2.25 billion from ESPN for 15 years, $825 billion from CBS for 15 years

Pac-12: $3 billion from ESPN and Fox for 12 years

Big East: $200 million from ABC/ESPN until 2013

The other leagues are operating in the billions, while the Big East is in the millions. The Pac-12 deal will provide each school about $21 million a year, putting it ahead of the Big Ten and SEC, which are reportedly handing out about $18 million and $17 million per school per year, respectively. The Big East isn't in the same stratosphere right now. All that extra money for other leagues means their schools can spend more on coaches, facilities, recruiting budgets, etc., widening the gap between them and everyone else.

Exposure is also a major issue. There's no shortage of appetite for college football, but there are only so many hours in the day on Saturdays. With ESPN committed now to each of the other five leagues, how much space will be left for the Big East, whose games often have less national appeal than those of other conferences? Will the Big East be forced to play more weekday games, or be relegated to online platforms if it re-ups with ESPN? Or does the league sign with another network and risk losing the exposure the World Wide Leader presents? Less exposure, of course, makes it harder to recruit.

There are lots and lots of questions the league must answer in its next round of negotiations. The good news is that Big East now has the last remaining inventory of BCS football games to offer, and its basketball remains a top-notch property. There is leverage in that, and Marinatto and league officials must get the most out of it.

How they fare will have much more of an impact on the league future than adding another team.