Realignment compromises future of Big East

By Michael Manganello, COMMENTARY
On September 20, 2011

On Saturday morning, the Big East conference included eight football schools, with Texas Christian ready to join for the beginning of next season as the ninth.

Rumors began to spread that Big East founding members Pittsburgh and Syracuse had decided to abandon the conference and had already filed applications to join the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). By Sunday morning, that move was complete.

The bad news wasn't over though. By Sunday night, reports began to circulate that Connecticut and Rutgers were actively pursuing the 15th and 16th spots in the ACC. Should those moves be completed, it may signal the end of the Big East.

USF issued a press release Saturday night assuring that USF President Judy Genshaft and Athletic Director Doug Woolard were aware of the potential moves.

"This is certainly a time of tremendous change in intercollegiate athletics and, clearly, that change may continue," the statement read. "We have been monitoring the landscape and have been actively engaged in dialogue at the conference and national levels over the last 18 months. That will continue in earnest as we move forward."

Conference realignment has been a hot issue in college football, with moves shaking up the national landscape last year. This season, Texas A&M's move to the Southeastern Conference appears to have triggered another round of moves, as schools across the country jockey to get themselves into strong positions for the future.

Having already been accepted into the ACC, Syracuse and Pittsburgh will now pay the Big East's mandatory $5 million exit fee. When they'll begin competing in the ACC is still undetermined, though Big East bylaws require 27 months notice. That rule, like nearly everything else in the constantly evolving landscape of college athletics, can be overruled if the check is big enough.

Conference realignment is motivated by two factors. For the conferences, it's all about expanding the geographic footprint and getting more markets into the fold, which helps negotiate bigger TV contracts. For the schools, moves are motivated by which conference provides the best financial future.

This is a problem for the Big East, which is the only major conference that has not recently negotiated a lucrative TV contract, according to ESPN. The conference's current contract with ABC/ESPN is worth $200 million and extends until 2013. The next lowest contract among the six power conferences is the Big 12's deal with the same networks, worth $480 million. The Big 12 also has a staggering $1.1 billion deal with FOX. The ACC receives $155 million annually from its TV contract, though it has a right to renegotiate due to its expansion.

With only five football-playing conference schools remaining if Rutgers and Connecticut follow Pittsburgh and Syracuse, the Big East would have to expand or shut down.

Along with the Big East, the Big 12 is most likely to collapse, having already lost Texas A&M to the SEC this season and with a quartet of further schools seeming destined to end up in the Pac-12.

Should that move materialize, it makes sense that the remains of the Big East and Big 12 may align to create a conference that would feature USF, TCU, Cincinnati, Louisville, West Virginia, Baylor, Texas Tech, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and possibly more schools not currently in power conferences.

On his weekly conference call Monday, USF coach Skip Holtz addressed the possibilities of change.

"I just think right now the landscape of college football is very unstable as far as who's going to be in what conferences," Holtz said. "I know Judy and Doug have been working hard, not only from a conference level, but from a national level to look at everything and what all the options are for everybody as it all unfolds … It'll be interesting to see how it all unfolds, but right now, I think everything is speculation, but it would not surprise me to see more things fall or move here over the next couple of weeks."

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