I hate the expression about the elephant in the room. It’s incredibly overplayed in all facets of 21st century communication whether it be conversational, journalistic or on social media. It’s the “Happy” of colloquialisms. If it went away, I wouldn’t miss it.
That being said, there is an elephant in the room anytime you talk about the future of the Atlantic 10. We’ve been able to ignore it the past seven months following the best season the league has seen in it’s thirty – eight year history, but the possibility of a Big East raid will always be lurking around the corner.
Or will it?
When it comes to basketball only conferences, the Big East is clearly in the drivers seat at the moment. They have the big TV contract, $500 million over 12 years. They’re a winter anchor of an entire sports network.The Atlantic 10’s pales in comparison with the individual team members earning less than ten percent of what their bigger counterpart does. On top of that, they have the unmistakable brand that the Big East carries. They have some great individual schools with wonderful support in excellent markets. However, there are a few things they had before, football, ESPN and public schools, that are missing now.
I always envisioned a day where the Big East would split between it’s basketball and football schools but I never dreamed that the hoops only Catholics would be the ones splitting off. Ultimately, the circumstances arose and the money was right to where they could escape the watering down of the now American with weaker basketball programs while keeping a similar pay check. They’ve still got eleven years remaining on their current deal with Fox Sports 1, but it’s difficult to imagine basketball alone will keep the lights on especially after the early rating are in. The 2014 Big East title game drew a quarter of the viewers as it did in 2013, the largest dip among any of the top tier basketball conferences. Regular season games trended downwards as well. With college football, the basketball coverage became a bonus for the networks. With the basketball side struggling on it’s own, the Big East will have nothing to fall back on.
I noticed a piece in SBNation shortly after the Big East officially formed stated that Fox was taking a gamble on the Big East. I think you could just as easily say the conference gambled on the network. They have a lot of room to grow but so far, FS1 does about as well as ESPNU. While FS1 might be paying cash, no one is seeing the games and the Big East has lost the exposure it would have gotten on “the World Wide Leader.” And there’s another thing. ESPN pitches it’s media properties. Is it just me or did it feel like the A-10 had a lot more plays turn up on the #SCTop10? Not only will they lose out on the established presence on the ESPN family on cable, they’re going to miss out on the marketing it provides to its own.
The mostly Catholic, all private Big East might please some cardinals and the Pope, but it creates a long term problem by excluding publics and the masses of alums they produce. For a point of comparison, the former Big East misfit children, UConn and South Florida whom the BCS rejected outright plus Temple who the Big East once spurned, have a combined enrollment of about 6,000 more undergraduates than the entire basketball Big East combined. Over the remaining 11 years of the Big East television deal, the A-10 will graduate approximately 170,000 more four year students than the Big East.
So what is the course of action for the Atlantic 10 to stave off another invasion. The first option is to do exactly what they’re doing right now. If the league stays competitive and keeps churning out loads of NCAA money, the financial playing field for the top teams in the Atlantic 10 might begin to catch up with Big East. They’ll enjoy the exposure they’re getting on ESPN and hopefully, they’ll be able to renew into a better deal with ESPN and NBC prior to the current contract expiring. Sure ratings fell last year for the A10 championship game, but they didn’t fall as fast as most others did. On top of that they’ll be pumping out loads of graduates during the height of the league’s popularity. The rising tide might simply catch them up to the Big East and level the competitive playing field enough to where jumping ship might not make as much sense.
Expansion might also make more sense for the Atlantic 10 than it does for the Big East in the short term. Maybe, strike while the iron is hot? Hunt or be hunted? Afterall, their TV deal expires sooner and they might feel compelled to spruce things up to get even more money. If the A-10 adds two more teams to the conference, it would only cost the existing schools about $45,000 per year in TV money. That money could potentially be recouped in a more lucrative deal. The price of adding two more teams to the Big East would run up to $700,000 as season. That equates to roughly 10% of Providence’s men’s basketball budget from last year. Of course, the Atlantic 10 would likely need to dramatically leave its geographic footprint, namely Wichita, KS, if it were to add a program that truly improved the league’s stature to where current member might think twice about leaving.
The Atlantic 10 can make some moves, but even with them, the Big East’s slow decline could be the biggest factor to keep the league whole. Basketball prestige for the Atlantic 10 relative to the Big East isn’t necessarily a zero sum game, but it does feel like a “what’s bad for them is good for us” type scenario. Over the course of the next five years, the Atlantic 10 probably isn’t going to get to the where the Big East is now or to a point where the conference would no longer be vulnerable to another raid without the nine Catholics plus Butler also losing some steam. Expansion could help, but the league just needs to compete and keep doing what they do while hoping some bad choices come back to haunt the Big East