How Ditching Football Saved Big East Basketball
By Dom Cosentino
In the big-is-better, football-is-king world of modern college athletics, a group of regional Catholic schools four years ago tried something radical: a conference focused primarily on basketball.
And it seems the experiment is actually working.
The new Big East currently has three schools—Villanova (No. 2), Butler (No. 22) and Creighton (No. 23) ranked in the AP Top 25. Four others—Xavier, Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence—also have a chance to join their rivals at next month’s NCAA tournament, In 2015 and ‘16, the league placed at least five teams—or half its membership—in the NCAAs. And Villanova is the defending national champion.
Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN, said he would rank the Big East among the top leagues in the country, with the Atlantic Coast Conference still at No. 1. The Big East, he said, is comprised of “a great collection of basketball brands” with real rivalries and at least some geographic cohesion.
“The Big East is still a league, it’s a conference,” Bilas said. “The ACC and some of these other quote-unquote leagues are really just media-rights consortiums.”
Maybe so, but those consortiums are also cash cows, powered by gargantuan football revenues. The Big East is gambling that its hoops successes will pay dividends outstripping the football revenues the schools left behind.
“Frankly, because we don’t have football and all that brings in terms of distractions and the resources that go into it, we can focus on basketball,” said Val Ackerman, the Big East commissioner.
The only question is whether this current run of success will last.
Founded in 1979 as a collection of basketball-centric schools in urban northeast media markets, the Big East grew into a hoops powerhouse in the 1980s while also providing a blueprint for the conference consolidation that later swept the country. But the continued expansion—the league eventually sponsored football and morphed into a hybrid arrangement of 16 schools, including seven that didn't play football at the Football Bowl Subdivision level—also brought the Big East to the brink of collapse.
“No disrespect to football, but it kind of ruined the original Big East,” said Chris Mullin, the St. John’s head coach and one of the league’s earliest star players.
By the early 2010s, the tensions between the football and basketball schools became untenable. Bowl and television revenues for football kept growing exponentially, and several Big East programs departed in pursuit of more lucrative arrangements with other leagues. The Big East sought to fill the void by adding a handful of geographic misfits.
“We were taking in the best football schools that we could, but they weren’t good basketball schools,” said the Rev. Brian Shanley, the president of Providence College, one of the Big East’s basketball-centric charter members. Some of the schools, Shanley added, concluded they were “degrading our basketball product, which was the thing we cared about the most.”
The so-called Catholic 7 schools—Providence, Villanova, Marquette, Georgetown, DePaul, Seton Hall, St. John’s—decided to go their own way and return to the initial ideal that underpinned the Big East’s founding.
The remaining non-Catholic 7 schools went on to team up with several others in what is now the American Athletic Conference. Fr. Shanley described the Big East’s split from the AAC as an “amicable divorce,” complete with a division of assets.
The Catholic 7 insisted on two things: keeping the Big East name, which had long been associated more with basketball than football; and retaining the right to hold its annual conference tournament at Madison Square Garden, the venue that helped establish the league during its 1980s heyday.
In exchange, Fr. Shanley acknowledged, the Catholic 7 “left money behind.” This included a substantial portion of entry and exit fees from the various members that kept joining and leaving, plus a windfall of bowl and television revenues generated by football, and even a share of basketball money generated by non-Catholic 7 schools.
The next step was to expand by adding three schools in urban markets with basketball pedigrees: Creighton, Butler, and Xavier. This brought the league to 10 members, which allows for an 18-game, home-and-home conference schedule. Ackerman said the conference has no plans to expand further.
“I have to say after being in the old league for a long time, it’s nice to have a really shared sense of purpose among all the schools,” Fr. Shanley said. “If you play football, it just dominates; every decision you make has a hold on football.”
But consider that the Big East’s television deal with Fox Sports—in which every in-conference men’s game is aired on one of the Fox channels—averages around $42 million per season. In 2011, before the league disbanded, it was widely reported that the league turned down a nine-year contract with ESPN worth an estimated $133 million annually.
For now, the schools say they don’t feel they are at a disadvantage. Even though the big football schools have fatter athletic budgets, said Creighton head coach Greg McDermott, those schools tend to spend most of their football revenue on football.
“We’re all flying around in private jets recruiting,” McDermott said.
The league also benefits from unusual coaching stability: Six of the league’s 10 head coaches have been with their respective programs for at least six seasons. Villanova’s championship last year, in the new Big East’s third season, also went a long way toward giving the league renewed credibility, said ESPN’s Bilas.
Success is often cyclical, of course. As recently as 2014, the Big East placed just four teams in the NCAA tournament, with none advancing past the Round of 32. The pendulum can always swing back. But the Big East schools have no regrets, at least for now.