Thursday, September 13, 2012

Does Notre Dame's departure doom the Big East?

Yesterday, Notre Dame announced that it was leaving the Big East, its long-time home for all sports except football and hockey, and was joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame will continue playing football as an independent, but as part of this move play five football games against ACC opponents each season. It is unclear when this move will occur; the earliest Notre Dame could leave the Big East without paying a penalty is 2015 but I'm sure arrangements will be made allowing them to leave earlier.

The University of Houston is scheduled to move to the Big East following the 2012-13 season, and the reaction to this news on various UH athletics message boards was one of panic: with the loss of Notre Dame, the Big East would become less prestigious and wouldn't be able to attract a high-quality television contract. The Chronicle's Jerome Solomon, similarly, sounded the alarm: noting the Big East's recent losses of Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Syracuse to other conferences, he opined that "the conference took another significant hit that makes it less attractive to television networks, which, as we all know, is the only reason college sports exist" and speculated that Connecticut and Rutgers might be the next Big East schools to head to the exits.

But is the loss of Notre Dame really such as disaster for Big East, as well as for Houston's aspirations of joining a more prestigious and lucrative conference? Dan Wetzel doesn't think so:
This was a good day for the Big East. 

Seriously, it was. No, losing Notre Dame in basketball and other sports isn't a plus. And yes, it will likely lower the amount of money the Big East can demand in its current television negotiations, but only a little. TV money is about football first and Notre Dame wasn't in the football league. As for basketball, the Irish program is fine, but hardly a big national draw that drove up hoops revenue.
I tend to agree. Football is the reason why Houston is joining the Big East. Yes, the fact that it's a good basketball conference doesn't hurt, but football is what's driving the bus in college sports right now and Notre Dame was never, ever going to join the Big East for football. Thus, this announcement is going to have no affect on the Big East's prestige and marketability as a football league.

 Yes, the conference's television contract for basketball might take a hit, if for no other reason than Notre Dame has a brand that extends across all sports, but I don't think its affect is going to be that great.

Wetzel goes on to note that the ACC has ruled out adding any more members, meaning that UConn and Rutgers aren't going anywhere, and also notes that the ACC's new $50 million exit fee means that their members aren't going to be jumping conferences anytime soon, either. This, along with the Big XII's apparent satisfaction with being a ten-team league (which allows for a round-robin schedule and avoids a perilous conference championship game), suggests that we might finally be entering a period of stability in the conference realignment shuffle. And that's good for the Big East:
Conference realignment could be entering a quiet period. If so the Big East is in good shape. No, it's not what it once was, but it maintains a strong basketball presence on the East Coast. The additions of Temple and Memphis actually bolster that sport. The Big East tournament is still a big deal, and there are still very strong hoops brands, including UConn, Georgetown, Villanova and so on.
Indeed, even ESPN, which has an exclusive negotiating window with the Big East through the end of October, suggests that the conference can still land a lucrative TV contract without Notre Dame (of course, there's speculation on UH message boards that Notre Dame's move to the ACC was facilitated by ESPN as part of a long-running conspiracy by the network to undermine, or at the very least strong-arm, the Big East; I have no idea how true this might be).

The bottom line is this: Notre Dame's departure does not substantially hurt the Big East. If anything, it eliminates the distraction of a school that reaped the benefits of membership in the Big East for basketball and non-revenue sports while simultaneously depriving that conference of its greatest asset: Fightin' Irish football. That, in turn, makes the revamped conference that much more cohesive as it continues to navigate through the ever-changing world of collegiate athletics.

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