Big East basketball schools mulling best way to leave league


Georgetown’s Mikael Hopkins (3) shoots over Longwood’s Michael Kessens earlier this season. The Hoyas are considering leaving the Big East, along with six other Catholic schools currently basketball-only members of the conference. (Toni L. Sandys/THE WASHINGTON POST)
December 14, 2012

More than 24 hours after informing Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco they intended to leave the league, disillusioned by football-driven decisions that have emasculated a once-mighty basketball brand, Georgetown and its Catholic brethren stood pat Friday.

But people close to the process said the silence of the seven Catholic basketball schools had more to do with the complex, high-stakes ramifications of their breakaway rather than any change of heart.

Aresco informed the schools planning to join the league in the near future that he expected the seven Catholic schools to leave. As of Friday afternoon, the schools had given no formal notice and issued no public pronouncement, presumably still sorting out the legal and financial ramifications of any Big East divorce.

Barring an 11th-hour reconciliation, the Catholic schools would break away en masse rather than attempt to dissolve the league. By leaving as a group, the basketball schools wouldn’t have to pay the Big East’s $10 million exit fee. They also would be able to take the coveted NCAA “units” earned for past performance in the NCAA basketball tournament; they’re the currency used for computing schools’ financial windfalls from March Madness.

Still, vast pots of money are in question if the basketball schools depart. Would they forfeit their share of the incoming exit fees (roughly $70 million) from schools that are leaving for the ACC and Big Ten, such as Syracuse, Pitt, Rutgers and Louisville? The total dollar figure hasn’t even been computed yet because it’s unclear if Louisville will pay a premium to leave before the 27-month waiting period.

And each faction would want to keep the conference name and stage its basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden, worth millions in media exposure.

But the most critical question is whether broadcast rights for a basketball-only conference could deliver as much money as Georgetown and its brethren would receive by staying with the football schools.

It’s difficult to quantify the revenue the Big East lost once Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville announced they were departing. CBS Sports.com recently reported that the value was slashed roughly in half, from the $100-$150 million a year reportedly on the table in spring 2011 to $60-$80 million.

Broadcast consultant Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, wouldn’t hazard a guess but confirmed that TV revenue represented the biggest issue and greatest unknown facing a potential breakaway group of basketball schools.

“As just a seven-school basketball conference, they may be too small to command significant rights fees, but they are a prestigious group of seven,” Pilson said. “Rather than joining the Atlantic 10 [as has been rumored], they could invite members of the Atlantic 10 to join them, which could bring their numbers up to 12. Then, as a basketball conference they might be able to generate more money than they would get as members of a football-basketball Big East conference.”

The key, Pilson added, was constructing a “credible package” of sufficient teams with strong basketball reputations. If the departing schools could do that, they could market their broadcast rights as both a national and regional cable product in what Pilson characterized as a “very strong, competitive marketplace for major sport properties.”

Among the schools the Big East may pursue in rounding out its ranks, Xavier and Butler would do the most to bolster its basketball reputation, according to college basketball analyst Jerry Palm of CBS Sports.com

Xavier reached the NCAA tournament’s regional finals in 2004 and 2008 and went to the round of 16 four of the past five years (2008-10, 2012).

Butler was the NCAA tournament runner-up in both 2010 and 2011. Located in Indianapolis, it would help replace a bit of the Indiana market lost with Notre Dame’s departure for the ACC although no school could compensate for the national audience the Irish will take with them.

While a nine-team league is workable, Palm believes a 12-team league makes more sense. And that could force the seven to add schools with less impressive basketball pedigrees, such as Creighton, Dayton and Saint Louis.

None, in short, would compensate for the basketball cachet the Big East lost with the departure of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville.

“When I think of the Big East, I think of Syracuse because of their success in the [NCAA] tournament and the rivalry with Georgetown,” Palm said. “Losing Syracuse, losing Louisville and Rick Pitino, and losing Pitt and Notre Dame — that’s a big blow.”

Nonetheless, East Carolina Athletic Director Terry Holland said Friday that nothing had dampened his school’s enthusiasm for joining the Big East in football.

“There is no safe haven from the anxiety and instability that is a part of intercollegiate athletics today, but that instability is not particular to the Big East,” said Holland, who compiled a 326-173 record as basketball coach at Virginia. “It would be disappointing to lose any institutions at this time, but we are confident that the Big East will survive and eventually thrive. And we are committed to doing our part in that endeavor.”

And on the Hilltop, Coach John Thompson III voiced similar confidence this week, insisting that Georgetown basketball was far too established and respected to be damaged by whatever addition, subtraction or realignment is in store for the Big East.

“We’re Georgetown,” Thompson told reporters following practice at McDonough Arena. “Go down to the equipment room down the hall, and every jersey in there says ‘Georgetown.’ That’s who we are. People are clumping the [Big East] basketball schools together. [But] we are Georgetown. And I think that we are unique and different than every other school in many different ways.”

Liz Clarke currently covers the Washington Redskins for The Washington Post, she has also covered five Olympic Games, two World Cups and written extensively about college sports, tennis and auto racing.
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