Pitt, Syracuse elope with the ACC; why St. John's should worry about realignment

Well, this isn't good news for the Big East and conference expansion:

Pittsburgh and Syracuse submitted letters of application to the Atlantic Coast Conference and are "likely gone" from the Big East, high ranking ACC and Big East officials told CBSSports.com....

"There is no scenario where a president applies to a league and isn't admitted," a Big East official told CBSSports.com.

And today, it's official. Pittsburgh and Syracuse have left the Big East for the ACC.

A number of other schools have reportedly expressed interest in becoming members of the Atlantic Coast Conference, who also raised their exit fee to $20 million to assure their members won't be poached by the Southeastern Conference (or anyone else). Texas is rumored to have inquired about the ACC, and the ACC reports that a total of ten teams have reached out with inquiries.

I have been hoping to not have to write about conference expansion, but it's at the Red Storm's door. This is bad news for the monster that is Big East basketball, for St. John's, and possibly even for the Red Storm's resurgence. More, below the fold.

I. The situation in a nutshell

The Big East football conference has an automatic bid to the contrivance that is the BCS bowl system. That's fortunate, because Big East football isn't actually very good. The league has scuffled along as a hybrid basketball/ football conference, with charter members without top division D-1 football teams.

The Atlantic Coast Conference came raiding in 2005, snatching Virginia Tech, Miami, and Boston College. The Big East responded with a snatch of its own, taking South Florida, Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette, and DePaul from Conference USA to remain a viable football conference. Connecticut had moved up to high-level football as well, and Rutgers made a real attempt to not be the worst football program in Division I.

But alas, the other conferences have better television deals, better competition, better cachet. Every year, the top teams are in the south and midwest. The conference has continued to scuffle in football, where the biggest revenues are earned from fans and TV contracts.

The Big East has looked at some other schools to add, but the conference members haven't been able to agree on allowing Villanova to move into bowl-level Division I play with the rest of the league. The league has also looked at schools with little name recognition such as Central Florida. All the while, the BE has been trying to angle for a richer television deal with ESPN or someone else, even turning down a deal this year.

II. Whoops

I posted a look at what a fanciful 20-team Big East basketball conference would look like (with a Google Map) in a world where Pitt, Cuse, and West Virginia stayed, Missouri, Kansas, and Kansas State were available, and Pitt and Syracuse didn't skedaddle. It also included a possible Iowa State. 

It made for a nice hoops league and a viable football conference before yesterday's news.

News that Pittsburgh and Syracuse would simply pack their bags one bright and sunny fall day means that any team could do the same; the Big East is a bit of a revolving door. Even though Oklahoma and Texas looking east and west for new homes, even though Cincinnati would rather stay in the Big East, even though Baylor is rumored to have inquired about joining the Big East, there is little guarantee of security.

The Big XII may try to survive as Texas, the midwestern schools (Missouri, Kansas, etc.), and some decent Conference USA squads. In fact, if the Big XII survives, the conference could choose to snag the strong Louisville and Cincinnati programs. That would leave the "Big East" with South Florida, Connecticut, Rutgers, and West Virginia, who would be whispering sweet nothings to any conference that will take them home. And Texas Christian.

Geographically, logistically, emotionally, losing two members of the already-small Big East is a reason to sound the alarm. The chain of events is speculative, but logical; the Big East is on shifting sands without anything stable to hang on to. If the Big XII teams want to join the Big East in a geographically misnamed conference, it's probably the best for all involved; but it seems like an unwise move for them.

III. The basketball problem

College hoops is the strength of the 16-team Big East.

College hoops doesn't earn as much money as fall football games, even in a region where college football is simply not as big of a deal as it is in Ohio or Texas.

Chances are that today's news makes the idea of a split between the football playing schools and the basketball schools more feasible.

After all, St. John's, Seton Hall, Providence, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, DePaul, and even Notre Dame have different priorities. They're Catholic schools, mostly in urban bases, and none are going to start a top level football team anytime soon, except for possibly Villanova. Watching football drive the changes in the conference's competition has to give many of these schools pause.

The number of basketball-only schools also limits the feasible size of an all-sports conference. There are only so many teams one can play in a conference season in hoops; the schedule is already unbalanced, and only so many additions can be added.

IV. The problem for St. John's

A divorce between the football and the basketball-only sides would be welcome by many who prefer basketball. But if basketball doesn't make the money, or bring eyeballs to the screen, which media outlet buys basketball? How would the games be shown? If the games aren't regularly on ESPN or a network with similar reach, the contract for the games would be less.

And in a few years, the money coming to the universities would shrink.

Which means the coaching staff money would shrink. The recruiting budgets would shrink. The perks budget would shrink. 

Then you have the Atlantic 10 - good basketball without the selling point of television exposure and a twice-weekly lovefest from the mainstream media. Even a strength in New York may not be enough to get the media income the basketball teams are accustomed to.

And the loss of the rivalries! No Georgetown/Syracuse? No St. John's/ Rutgers? Fewer big games in Madison Square Garden?

Some will say that Syracuse won't be able to schedule as many games in New York City, or that Pitt will lose its recruiting base in New York.

Why?

Cuse can still play the big tournaments in New York (Coaches vs. Cancer and the like), schedule a home game against Duke (who also love reasons to come to New York), and start series with the New York area Big East teams. Pitt can do the same. Both schools already recruit nationally and/ or in the DMV (DC/ Maryland/ Virginia) area. They are strong programs in basketball, they will have no trouble adapting.

V. The endgame

One of the reasons Steve Lavin accepted the job at St. John's is because the school decided to spend like an honest-to-goodness Big East team, to pay for charters, and to pay top dollar for top assistants. 

Without that money, it'll be hard to keep Steve Lavin - or any high quality coach - from jumping to a conference with a basketball team that's helped out by football money. At best, a basketball-only conference can have teams with the cachet of the Atlantic-10, where teams can pay to keep their coaches, but still isn't seen as a final destination. 

St. John's basketball has New York, has history, and it will find a home. It won't likely be joining the Atlantic-10, which would be a downgrade - the A-10 is very hard to find on television, after all.

But the best-case scenario is a diluted basketball conference with too many teams, at best. The worse case scenarios will make money harder to come by for the school's sports teams. 

We will be monitoring the rumors and movements. What are your thoughts?

 

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