Expected Big Ten expansion could affect Big East, Georgetown

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; D01

There are few things Georgetown basketball fans hate more than losing to Syracuse. Surely among them: The prospect of no longer having Syracuse to hate.

That's among the scenarios that could result if the Big Ten conference expands, as expected, and does so, in part, by plucking Georgetown's most storied rival from the Big East.

The Big East's Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh are among the universities (along with Missouri and Nebraska of the Big 12) reportedly on the shopping list of the 11-member Big Ten, which aspires to an even number (likely, the bigger the better) in order to stage a postseason football championship and extend the audience of its Big Ten Network.

Whatever happens in the coming months will be driven by college sports' seemingly insatiable quest for more revenue. Specifically, it will be driven by the demands of big-time college football.

But at Georgetown, the heart of this very unsettled and unsettling matter is men's basketball and, by extension, the viability of the conference the Hoyas helped found in 1979 and build into the nation's preeminent basketball league, along with Syracuse, Connecticut and Villanova.

After weeks of being portrayed as essentially powerless in the face of the Big Ten's ambitions, Big East officials and coaches are now taking a more bullish tack toward preserving and, ideally, strengthening their 16-team league.

On April 21, the conference tapped former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, a 1962 Georgetown graduate and former captain of the Hoyas basketball team, to advise on navigating a potentially rocky future. And normally circumspect coaches, as well as Big East Commissioner John Marinatto, are making it clear they don't intend to sit idly by as their brethren get gobbled up.

"We just refuse to think negatively," Marinatto said in a telephone interview. "Our whole goal has been to continually improve what we are and to sustain that, whatever the future holds.

"Everything is on the table for us," Marinatto added when asked if the Big East was contemplating its own cable network. "That's what we're undertaking with Paul [Tagliabue]: An analysis of all of our assets to determine what is the best route for us to go to position ourselves -- not only in the short term but beyond the horizon."

There's no shortage of pundits forecasting what lies ahead for the Big East.

At one extreme is the doomsday scenario, in which Big Ten expansion triggers an expansion binge among its chief rivals. The end game is a college sports landscape ruled by 16-team "super-conferences." The Big East, in this view, gets cannibalized in the process.

A less dire scenario envisions the Big Ten poaching one or maybe three of the Big East's major football-playing schools but leaving behind a viable league that's anchored in basketball, its historical strength.

It's also possible the Big East emerges essentially intact, with the Big Ten adding only Notre Dame or a Big 12 power.

Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim questions whether the Orange would be a "fit" for the Big Ten. He also wonders how the move would help Syracuse recruit in basketball hotbeds such as New York and Philadelphia.

"Generally, kids like to play closer to their home towns, where people can see them play -- not only for home games, but road games, as well," Boeheim says. "I'm always skeptical of change. What has been good for us is this [Big East] conference and the schools we have played for the last 30 years."

Georgetown Coach John Thompson III believes it's foolish to speculate on any scenario, given the uncertainty. The bigger point, he argues, is that the Big East will endure.

"We're not afraid of change, nor are we simply sitting by waiting to react," Thompson said. "The Big East has great tradition, great rivalries and, for 30 years, a wealth of assets. What the Big East looks like in the future, I don't know. But I'm confident that we're going to be standing -- and standing strong."

The Big East has been counted out before, most notably when the Atlantic Coast Conference moved to raise its football profile by raiding Boston College, five-time national champion Miami and Virginia Tech in 2003.

The Big East countered by adding Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida to become the nation's largest conference, with 16 members.

"Everybody said, 'It'll never work,' but it has been very, very successful," Villanova Coach Jay Wright noted. "Now everyone, it seems, is trying to copy that. It just shows the value of our universities, of our programs and of our markets."

That's what Marinatto hopes to leverage, noting that nine Big East schools are in the nation's top 34 media markets, including New York, Philadelphia, Washington and Chicago.

"We've positioned ourselves as we have in order to monetize and exploit the opportunities that are out there -- particularly in the world of media," Marinatto says. "Everyone was writing about the demise of the Big East five years ago, and quite the opposite has been the reality."

Indeed, the Big East's major markets are precisely what appeals to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.

It's not that his league is cash-strapped. Ohio State, dubbed "college sports' biggest money machine" by the Wall Street Journal, was the first university with an annual athletic department budget of $100 million. It's roughly $120 million today, which is about four times as much as Georgetown's.

"It takes money to make money," television consultant Mike Trager said. "You have to spend money on your program to make sure it remains one of the elite."

That's what drives Delany, and it's the same factor that led the NCAA to expand its men's basketball tournament from 65 to 68. Any increase in content equates to more revenue when TV deals are struck. And the NCAA recently struck gold, selling its gently expanded men's basketball tournament to CBS and Turner Broadcasting for $10.8 billion over 14 years.

The trick for the Big Ten is to add schools capable of growing its financial pie rather than diluting it.

Even without a playoff, the Big Ten doles out $22 million apiece to its 11 schools from its TV network proceeds. (That's more than three times the Big East's $7 million TV payout to members.)

And there's no doubt that adding Notre Dame and its legion of potential Big Ten Network subscribers would translate to a financial windfall.

But Rutgers? It's a stretch to assume that adding Rutgers, simply because of its proximity to New York, would reel in New York's coveted TV market.

The ACC, for example, hasn't exactly converted Boston to college basketball's Tobacco Road North just by adding Boston College. Boston remains a resolute pro town, and Boston College basketball has suffered for its flight south.

Also overlooked in the financial models driving expansion is the notion that conferences should be rooted in a commonality of purpose and geography.

"In the Big East, the attraction was always that the schools were very similar, they were close by, and you had some real characters as coaches -- Rollie [Massimino], John [Thompson Jr.], Lou Carnesecca," says Father Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit and Catholic Universities and a former Georgetown professor. "It was almost a family experience with those folks. Now, everything seems to be driven by what generates the most revenue, and the names seem to go by the board. To have a Big Ten that has 11 members? A Big East that's [geographically] all over the place? The criteria for a conference seem to be more, 'How can we maximize the revenue?' rather than 'Do these schools fit together?' "

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