- Andrea Adelson, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Big East has had an eventful 12 months, but the league is not done making headlines. Potential expansion still looms, and so does a new media rights deal. I had a chance to catch up with commissioner John Marinatto for his thoughts on these topics, and where the league stands from a national perspective.
AA: You have often said it is a benefit to be the last conference to go when it comes to negotiating a new media rights deal. What will the next 12 months entail in terms of making sure you maximize this opportunity?
JM: We are indeed very well positioned for our upcoming media rights negotiations, Andrea. In addition to being the last major conference to enter the market, we are also first in terms of TV households and media markets. Eight of our schools are located in the top 14 media markets of the country and 13 are in the top 35. In addition, college football is now firmly second only to the NFL in terms of popularity in America and Big East Conference basketball is unmatched in quality with a postseason tournament at historic Madison Square Garden that delivers drama and ratings year-in and year-out.
As you know, we currently have two concurrent TV agreements which, although negotiated just four years ago, were negotiated in a different era, a different marketplace and after a very difficult time for this conference. As a result, we are extremely undervalued in a dramatically new TV world.
Having the last at-bat provides us the distinct benefit of being able to assess how those who have gone before us have had value measured by the networks and how they have consequently packaged their inventory. We've also learned that it's not enough to simply get your games on television anymore. Now, you have to be creative enough to satisfy the demand for what I call DVR-proof programming on your television set, on the Internet and on mobile devices. So as we taxi down the 13-month runway to our negotiations, we're making sure that we have a sensible and appropriate account of what we bring to the table and an assessment of what potential partners might be able to offer in terms of distribution.
AA: How does expansion fit into those plans?
JM: The addition of TCU, which formally joins us next season, was a significant part of the plan. Aside from what the defending Rose Bowl Champions and number two ranked team in the country last year do on the football field, they're situated in one of the top five media markets in the country. When Dave Gavitt founded the Big East back in 1979, he focused on media markets. He was certainly ahead of his time. When you add the Dallas/Fort Worth market to what we already have, the Big East represents more than 30 percent of the TV households in America and that gives us a local penetration that no other single conference can match. There's a value to that reach which makes us very attractive to potential television partners.
AA: What is the No. 1 priority when looking at potentially adding more teams?
JM: Value -- which I realize is a term everyone measures with a different yardstick. We as a conference have actually expanded seven different times in our history, more than any other league in the country, and value was the standard always used. It's very simple in some ways and very complicated in others. Does a candidate for membership add value? Obviously, we look at the academic profile of the institution. We ask if the candidate fits in with our current members, understanding that we have institutions ranging from smaller private colleges to large public universities. Does it give us access to a market that we otherwise might not reach? Does it make us stronger from a competitive standpoint? What we're not going to do is expand just to reach a certain number. A school would have to add value.
AA: What is the ideal football model for this conference? Nine teams? Ten? Twelve? Are you in favor of a conference championship game? Why or why not?
JM: There are intrinsic benefits to nine, 10 or 12 football teams, so we're not necessarily committed to a particular number.
With nine teams, as we'll have in 2012, we'll be able to balance our football schedule with four home and four road games for each team while still playing a full round-robin conference schedule that allows teams enough flexibility to build a solid nonconference schedule. With 10, you have the option of playing a round-robin schedule as the former Pac-10 did, or doing what the Big Ten used to do and have an eight-game league schedule. With 12, you introduce the concept of divisional play and add the excitement of a conference championship game.
As for a championship game, it's a moot point for us currently since NCAA policy requires 12 teams. But if we do get to that point, or if there's a legislative change with the NCAA, it's something we would have to take a look at it. Can you imagine if we could duplicate in football what we have in men's basketball at Madison Square Garden and in New York City during the holiday season?
AA: Does the league have to expand further to remain relevant on a national level? Why or why not?
JM: As you know, we in fact expanded to 17 in November with the addition of TCU, which will join us as a full-time member in 2012. Given what we have been able to accomplish on the field as a whole since 2005, the addition of TCU and how well positioned I believe we are for our upcoming TV negotiations, I'm very confident that we are in better shape today and have more vitality as a league than at any other time in our 32-year history.
AA: Where does the conference fit in on the national level?
JM: The Big East Conference is a proud charter member of the Bowl Championship Series and we continue to meet every standard for retaining our automatic BCS bid. Further, we have an enormous presence in men's and women's basketball and continue to dominate the winter season and routinely send more teams to the men's and women's basketball tournaments than any other conference in America.
I know we live in a microwave society and people sometimes have short memories, but the numbers don't lie. Do I wish we had done better on the field in football last season? Of course I do. But it doesn't change the fact that just one year earlier, we were probably one second away from putting a team in the national championship game; or two years before that, having a team one win away from getting to the championship game. In the last five years, there's only one conference -- the SEC -- that has a better winning percentage than we do. Then you look at the fact that every single one of our teams has been in a bowl game in the last two years and that each one has won a bowl game in the last four, and that's something that no other conference can say.
Add to all of this the fact that we sent 11 schools to the NCAA men's basketball tournament last year and UConn won the championship as our ninth-place team along with the fact that we advanced nine teams to the women's tournament, the Big East Conference is undeniably a national entity.
AA: How has the addition of TCU affected the Big East's quest to win a national title?
JM: Given the fact that they're 25-1 in the last two years, we're obviously adding a team that's been in that conversation. But they're coming into a conference that has had Cincinnati in the mix in 2009, West Virginia right there in 2007 and Louisville there in 2006. Then you have Pittsburgh, Rutgers and USF, which have all been in the BCS top 10 since 2006. That's six of our eight teams that have been within an arm's reach of the national championship game in the last five years. I would imagine that the SEC can say the same, and their success in winning national championships lately speaks for itself, but I don't know if anyone else can. So even though there's no doubt that we're adding a bona fide national championship contender next season, I'm confident that any number of our teams could be in that mix as well.