Tuesday October 3, 2023

A Basketball Conference Can Still Survive and Thrive in the NCAA

  • Since being picked apart a decade ago, the Big East is thriving.
  • Its lack of football has proven to be an asset, rather than a liability.
DePaul and Xavier face off during the 2023 Big East tournament.
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NEW YORK — Starting with its formation in 1979, the Big East rose to become the most iconic conference in college basketball. But by 2013, football had torn it apart.

A media rights deal with ESPN fell through. Several football-playing schools left for Power 5 conferences, lured by television revenue and the possibility of getting into the new four-team College Football Playoff.

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But the “Catholic 7” basketball-centric schools like Georgetown and Villanova refused to give up. They decided to try to rebuild a new Big East that eschewed the most lucrative sport in the NCAA.

A decade later, the Big East is hosting its 41st annual men’s tournament at Madison Square Garden to sellout crowds. The conference is slated to send at least five teams to men’s March Madness, and four to the women’s — including perennial championship contender UConn, which Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman lured back to the conference in 2019. During the latest vicious round of realignment, the Big East remained unscathed — and could even add new members.

In 2023, big-time college football reigns supreme — but the Big East is better off without it. 

“We don’t have sort of [realignment] ‘flight risks,’ we don’t have the distractions, we don’t have the expenses that go into supporting football,” Ackerman told Front Office Sports in between Big East Tournament games on Thursday. “What we’ve got now suits us. This is who we are. We’re basketball schools.”

A Startup Conference

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman speaks to the conference.
Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman. Credit: Big East

A decade ago, the Big East decided to lean into basketball, not because it was a smart business decision — they didn’t have a choice.

Starting in the early 2000s, the conference, which at the time had begun building a BCS football league, started to hemorrhage football-centric members. 

Schools like Louisville and Syracuse bolted for the ACC. The conference was left with a haphazard group of basketball-centric schools and restless football programs, and was unsuccessful in luring members like Boise State or San Diego State to fill out a football schedule.

By March 2013, the university presidents of the Catholic 7 basketball schools had had enough of football controlling their destiny. 

They decided to break away from their football-playing comrades to form a completely new conference. They were able to convince then-Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco to allow them to bring the name “Big East” with them. So the old Big East became the American Athletic Conference — still headed by Aresco to this day. 

The “new” Big East schools then set off on their own. 

The schools were able to gain financial footing by signing a deal with Fox, which needed programming for its new channel: FS1. 

They added three new basketball schools: Xavier, Creighton, and Butler. 

They also inked a new deal with Madison Square Garden to keep the men’s conference tournament in New York City. MSG stayed loyal — warding off bids from the Big Ten and ACC to accommodate their longtime partner, MSG Head of College Basketball Joel Fisher told FOS.

“It was actually a courageous decision by the presidents of the schools that withdrew at that time to, in effect, make the decision to go back to their roots — which is what they did with a basketball-centric focus,” Ackerman said. 

The whole process happened within a span of 90 days in 2013, according to Ackerman, who was hired in June of that year. As the WNBA’s first commissioner, she was the perfect fit to lead a basketball conference.

The conference began official operations on July 1 of that year. “We were essentially a startup,” Ackerman said of her early days. The AAC had “all the infrastructure.” The new Big East had no office, website, email address, bank accounts, or benefits plans. The AAC even took the Big East nonprofit entity and renamed it. The new Big East had to re-file with the IRS.

Ackerman said that she was hiring employees every week just to keep the conference afloat. “It was exhausting.” 

But the conference rode the coattails of its basketball powerhouses — and at this point, it doesn’t appear to miss its football league at all. 

Building A ‘Power 6’

Mar 9, 2023; New York, NY, USA; Creighton Bluejays guard Ryan Nembhard (2) drives to the basket against Villanova Wildcats forward Brandon Slater (34) during the second half at Madison Square Garden.
The Creighton Bluejays beat the Villanova Wildcats in the 2023 Big East Quarterfinal. Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Big East looks different than it did in the “glory days” of the 1980s.

The “new” iteration doesn’t have the big men or the ultra-physical style of play that characterized it in the past. It doesn’t boast Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing and St. John’s Chris Mullin. In fact, the schools hired the two former players to coach, seemingly to bring back the good old days. Both have since been fired.

But the men’s Big East Tournament is still one of the best products in all sports, played in front of the most knowledgeable fans at the Mecca of Basketball. 

During the first round on Wednesday, legendary Fox Sports announcer Bill Raftery marveled at the quality of play.

“The restructuring is just magnificent,” he remarked during a DePaul-Seton Hall matchup that ended up going right down to the buzzer.

A noon ET quarterfinal between St. John’s and Marquette drew a raucous crowd on a Thursday. UConn didn’t tip off until three hours later, but that didn’t stop the team’s fans from showing up early to drink overpriced beers and groan at Marquette’s missed buzzer-beater at the end of regulation. The Garden stayed packed late into the night. 

And it doesn’t stop after the tournament final on Saturday night between Marquette and Xavier. Dubbed part of the “Power 6,” the conference routinely sends around half its members to men’s March Madness. Villanova captured not one but two of the last six national championships.

“I wasn’t surprised by the success — but maybe the peak of that success,” Butler athletic director Barry Collier, who has held the role since 2006, told Front Office Sports. “It’s so hard to win a national championship that I wouldn’t have necessarily predicted two of them.”

And on the women’s side, the conference not only sends multiple teams as well, but has UConn. The Huskies have 11 national championships — tied for the winningest D-I basketball program, men’s or women’s.

The track record is particularly impressive given the Big East’s deal with Fox isn’t making any of the schools rich. It contributes to payouts lower than $6 million, just a fraction of what Power 5 programs receive thanks to their football teams.

Ackerman acknowledged that more money is always a good thing, but the Big East schools “have enough resources to be successful in basketball.” 

When it comes to Power 5 conferences, Ackerman said: “A lot of that [conference] money is coming in because of football, and it’s going back out to football. I mean, football is a high-expense sport. Basketball is a much lower-expense sport.”

The conference even earns prize money for success in the men’s tournament, as the NCAA bases close to $200 million of its annual distributions on how many of a conference’s teams make March Madness and how far they progress.

A Position of Strength

The UConn Huskies celebrate winning the 2023 Big East Tournament.
The UConn Huskies celebrate winning the 2023 Big East Tournament. Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike a decade ago, the conference didn’t lose multiple members in its latest round of realignment. On the contrary, it’s become one of the most stable conferences in Division I.

“There’s an irony here, with respect to our stability,” Ackerman said. “Because the Big East was one of the hardest-hit conferences of all time back 15-20 years ago when schools started leaving, mostly to go to the ACC, because of football.”

In 2019, UConn returned, thanks in large part to Ackerman’s effort. Collier called it perhaps “the biggest impact” as far as the conference’s current success — not just with a men’s program that has gone through a rebuild, but with a women’s program that remains a championship threat.

Now, they may not have to play poacher. There are schools interested in joining the Big East, Collier confirmed.

As for inking a more competitive media rights contract, the current deal with Fox isn’t up until 2025. But Ackerman said she hopes to start talks with Fox before the official renewal negotiating window starts next February.

“It’s too early to say where that deal will land — and how we adapt to the changing media landscape,” Ackerman said. “Because it’s not the same as it was 10 years ago. There’s players now that didn’t exist. We’re now into a world of streaming.”

A representative from the network was unavailable to comment for this story, but a spokesperson sent the following stats: The men’s regular-season games averaged 779,000 viewers — a tie for the most-watched regular season ever on Fox. The women’s season averaged 285,000 viewers, the most across networks ever. 

Fox would be hard-pressed not to at least consider a renewal.

Ackerman said she doesn’t often think about her early days at the Big East, given the whirlwind of changes the industry currently faces. But she agrees the conference is dealing from a position of strength — particularly compared to its rebirth a decade ago.

“I just sort of say, ‘God, I’m glad we got through all of that,’” Ackerman said. “I’m glad, to the extent there were naysayers, our schools proved them wrong. That’s satisfying.”

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