The harsh reality of life in the Big East for new commissioner Mike Aresco is a simple question of mathematics. He has more teams that fewer people want to see play.
Aresco, who came to the Big East from the world of television (CBS sports), has been in a scramble mode ever since he started the job in September.
His life has been dominated by: expansion, defection, expansion, defection Now he and Chris Bevilacqua, a consultant the Big East hired after Bevilacqua helped the Pac-12 receive a $3 billion, 12-year deal, are in the middle of negotiations for new television contract.
What makes it tough on the Big East is that ESPN had an offer on the table last season for $155 million a year. The Big East–with Rutgers, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and West Virginia leading the charge–turned down the offer.
According to published reports, the best offer the Big East will get is half of that amount. Even more intriguing is the make-up of the group which rejected the offer. All four schools leading the opposition have left or are in the process of leaving the Big East..
The Big East is neither denying nor confirming the accuracy of the projections because league officials say they simply do not know the final offers.
With the defection of Rutgers to the Big Ten and Louisville to the ACC as the latest example of conference raiding, Aresco and company have not been able to have serious discussions with ESPN, NBC, Comcast or anybody else for a variety or reasons.
One of the most salient reasons for the delay is also simple. No realistic bids can be made until the inventory that is being discussed is finalized.
Aresco says that the Big East is close to getting to that point. The Big East will add one more team in football–the most likely move will be to add a school from a group of BYU, Air Force, Nevada and Fresno State, which could bring the Big East to 14 teams, if you add Navy (2015) into the mix.
In basketball, the Big East could expand to 16 teams, which would mean picking up 2 more schools–Xavier, Dayton, George Mason could be potential targets.
That, however, begs a larger question. What is a Big East television package worth under any available configuration?
“What you have to understand,” said one person familiar with the talks, but not authorized to speak for the conference, “is that the original selling point of a Big East football and basketball package was based on two things. The Big East had an automatic BCS bid in football and the basketball conference was the best in the country. Neither of those situations currently exist.”
Aresco remains confident that the Big East trump card is that all the other major conferences have long-term deals. The Big East–under whatever configuration you use–is the only real game in town for a network such as NBC and Comcast which needs live sports events.
But the value of what the Big East is selling is not high enough for one network such as ESPN to offer what it did a year ago. Aresco and Bevilacqua are using a strategy of splitting the package among multiple networks to get prime dollars.
That is a nice concept, but the reality is that the Big East football looks very similar to a Conference USA configuration in 2004 with the addition of schools such as Houston, SMU, Memphis , Central Florida, Tulane and East Carolina, all who are currently in Conference USA and moving to the Big East.
In basketball, it is a matter of over saturation with games on television every night in a regular season which means less and less. Even networks looking for programming are reluctant to pay much for games that will not draw any extra viewers than the small base of each school’s fan base.
The other problem for the Big East is getting any kind of money for the second half of a split package. The Big East still has enough solid core teams in football and basketball to put together one reasonably attractive package. But when you split it, the other half doesn’t have much substance.
There are ways around this by selling the Big East basketball tournament–currently televised by ESPN–to one network, but selling the Big East Big Monday basketball package (also on ESPN) to the other network.
The same could be done in football with a mid-week prime time game, a new conference championship game and a Saturday afternoon game of the week.
But the more you split, the more you cheapen the product you are trying to sell, especially in football when there are few marginally Top 25 teams remaining in the Big East pool other than Boise State.
The irony of all of this is also obvious. Had their been no raids by the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten, Big East football, despite the jokes about how weak the conference was as an entity, provided some of the inventory for conferences to get better television deals.
Former Big East schools such as Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Miami, and Notre Dame, all had a national presence in football or basketball while they were members of the Big East.
Aresco and Bevilacqua are boxed in some regards simply because they have lost inventory and not replaced it with equal value in the minds of many people.
While the $60 million a year projections may be lower than the Big East will finally accept, the $155 million deal of a year ago also appears to be signficantly more than the Big East will be offered, unless someone over bids in a panic move simply to get live sports programming.
Few people expect that to happen.
© 2012, Mark. All rights reserved.