Catholic Seven Exodus: What It Means for the ACCPosted by mpatton on December 19th, 2012
With last weekend’s announcement that the seven Catholic schools (DePaul, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence) voted unanimously to leave the Big East, conference realignment is still going strong. The good news for ACC fans is it doesn’t look like the change will directly impact the conference. Cincinnati and Connecticut would still love to join the ACC, but time isn’t of the essence for that unless the Big Ten gets antsy again.
However, the news will still have major ramifications going forward. First, the old Big East is dead. It was probably dead when Syracuse and Pittsburgh jumped ship, but now it’s truly an empty name describing a group of financially-connected schools. The paradigmatic schools are gone — save Connecticut — and they’re taking their basketball history with them. But the news isn’t all bad for college hoops fans. According to the New Jersey Star Ledger‘s Brendan Prunty, the schools are looking to start a new conference focused on basketball (related, this is the best recap of how and why the Catholic schools left, so read it). Right now they’re aiming for 12 schools, potentially including Gonzaga, Xavier and/or Butler. The conference would be financed largely by NCAA Tournament bid money instead of football money. If the concept works (i.e., the schools are consistently successful enough to financially sustain high level athletics), it would be revolutionary. But before looking too deeply into the concept, it’s important to understand the current landscape of realignment.
The Big Ten and ACC will probably sit back the next couple of years while they integrate their new members into the leagues and wait to see the benefits (and problems) of expansion. The Big 12 and Pac-12 are another story. They’ll likely sit tight too, as their current television deals don’t necessarily get better with expansion (in fact, the Big 12 would possibly lose money because its finite payout would have to be split more ways). The Pac-12 will probably work on developing its regional networks, which are key to its ludicrous deal, rather than adding new members to the mix. That said, if the Big 12 takes on one or even two ACC schools, realignment will be back in full force.
This “Pax Romana” of sorts doesn’t mean realignment is done for good. There are three possible ways I see realignment unfolding in the long run: (1) four 16-member super-conferences; (2) the end of the NCAA; or (3) the end of formal athletic conferences. Four super-conferences has been the popular future espoused by most credible sources since the beginning of realignment. Put simply, the Big 12 and ACC would merge (probably losing members from one or both conferences to the Big Ten and SEC in the process) to join the SEC, Pac-12 and Big Ten. This gives schools maximum bargaining leverage in the current television market, sets up a logical playoff system in football and puts the NCAA’s future in considerable flux. It also makes the gap between “major” conference schools and mid-majors even wider.
The last two options sound really extreme, but hear me out. The current television market is changing. As people move online, I expect more a la carte television service to become the norm. For instance, instead of subscribing to the basic, expanded or premium cable package, a consumer would pick and choose specific channels or teams to watch. We’re already seeing this in sports with the likes of NFL Sunday Ticket and NBA League Pass (ESPN3 is the extreme version). The Big Ten Network is already a step in this direction, but the Pac-12 regional networks are much closer to the future I envision.
Assuming the revenue gap continues to widen between major and mid-major conferences, look for FBS membership to become even more exclusive. In essence, with a playoff that pays leagues instead of the NCAA, the remaining major conferences will be incentivized to work together — like a massive single conference — to maximize postseason revenues. Also why stop the money-grab with just football? Basketball isn’t nearly the revenue producer that football is (for reference: the New Mexico Bowl on ESPN had a higher overnight rating than Butler’s upset of Indiana on CBS), but it’s still worth a ton of money. Currently, a plurality of that money goes to the NCAA (since the NCAA Tournament produces most of those dollars) and the schools receive a portion. What’s stopping the major conference schools from pulling out of the NCAA in basketball — crushing the NCAA in the process — and starting their own athletic organization? Take a step further from there: Why should Alabama subsidize Vanderbilt? The only thing the Commodores really offer to the SEC’s other schools is some decent basketball and great academics. Eventually, if money is at the center of everything, the NCAA will collapse and athletic conferences too may fall by the wayside. The latter may never happen, but the NCAA’s demise — or reform until the association looks completely different than its present incarnation — is inevitable.
Long story short: the departure of the Big East Catholic schools is a microcosm of the specialization we’re starting to see in media rights. It won’t affect the ACC in the short term and may exhibit a path to success for conference schools should the league eventually collapse, but it also shows that conference realignment is here to stay.