When Georgetown and its six basketball-playing brethren announced in December their intent to start a league based around the sport, it represented a major statement of self-determination.
It also touched off an arduous legal and logistical process that had to be completed in less than eight months. Among the “to-do” items tackled:
● Negotiating a severance from the original Big East that allowed the breakaway schools to keep the conference name.
● Expanding its roster by adding Butler, Creighton and Xavier to the core group of Georgetown, DePaul, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova.
● Brokering a 12-year, $500 million broadcast deal with Fox Sports.
●Hiring a commissioner, Val Ackerman, who was introduced just five days before the league’s July 1 debut.
● Scheduling fall sports for an orderly start to the inaugural season.
The fact that the NCAA’s 32nd Division I conference will be up and running for the 2013-14 college season is largely due to two factors: The high degree of collegiality among the schools’ athletic directors, who each took responsibility for the scheduling and logistics of a sport (in some cases, two sports), and the high energy of Ackerman, a former college basketball standout and founding commissioner of the WNBA who is no stranger to the long hours involved with launching a start-up.
Before Ackerman was hired, the seven athletic directors worked with consultant Dan Beebe, the former Big 12 commissioner, to tackle the day-to-day duties normally handled by a league office. They held weekly conference calls and mapped out the collective workflow, much like a construction manager does in planning the building of a house from site preparation to completion.
“We listed all of the things that we thought we needed to address, down to the nitty-gritty, to be up and running in the summer for the new league,” Georgetown Athletic Director Lee Reed said. “Then we prioritized the list so our work was done at the right time.”
Once Butler, Creighton and Xavier joined, the athletic directors’ working group grew to 10, and each was assigned a sport to plan.
Reed took on men’s soccer, working with coaches to make sure everything was in place for the fall season. That included crafting the conference schedule, choosing a championship site, fine-tuning the bylaws and lining up someone outside the league to assign game-day officials. That process was replicated by all the athletic directors until all sports were organized.
“It was extremely efficient, and in a lot of ways it was fun,” Reed says. “You don’t get an opportunity to work with your coaches in those groups at a grass-roots level. I led multiple conference calls with a group of 10 soccer coaches, and I would never have spent that much time with them if we had a league staff and commissioner in place.”
The schedule for men’s basketball is coming together as it has in past years, largely mapped out but awaiting the NBA and NHL schedules that dictate available home dates for schools such as Georgetown that compete in pro arenas. What’s certain, Reed said, is that the Hoyas will host nine Big East games at Verizon Center between late December and early March.
Men’s basketball will be the calling card and chief revenue source of the new Big East, just as it was in 1979, when the original league was formed among seven schools in urban markets that prized the sport.
Over time, the Big East added schools that also played big-time football, such as Pittsburgh and West Virginia. But as the cost of competing at the top ranks of college football escalated, holding the hybrid league together became untenable. In a 15-month span, six Big East schools defected — Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Louisville, among them — to higher-profile football conferences.
“When you’re in a conference and not playing all the sports, and one of them is a big-money sport, that’s an awkward situation. It’s tough on the commissioner’s office; it’s tough on the individuals,” former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan said. “What the Big East basketball schools did [in breaking away] was the best thing in the world for them.”
But the revamped Big East intends to be more than a paean to a glorious past. It will leverage that past, which is why the presidents fought to keep the Big East name and the right to continue staging the men’s conference tournament at Madison Square Garden in New York. But it will be a challenge to draw the same, passionate crowds without Syracuse or Connecticut.
“We have work to do to make sure we get the good crowds the Big East is accustomed to,” Ackerman said. “I think we can build around that event — make it more than a series of basketball games and package it with other events leading in.”
Ackerman has hired two former Big East officials, including veteran spokesman John Paquette. Deluged with résumés from job seekers, she hopes to complete the conference staff in the next 30 to 60 days. It will include a business division that will focus on marketing, branding, communication and cultivating corporate sponsors. Among its more pressing tasks is launching the league’s Web site, which had been postponed until a commissioner was hired.
Once the fall semester starts, Ackerman plans to visit each of the 10 Big East campuses to get better acquainted with its coaches, administrators and athletes.
“They could not have hired a better person,” Corrigan said. “She has been at the highest level of athletics in the United States. She’s a former college athlete and smart as she can be. She’s not a person who’s going to be operating out of fear.”
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