NEW YORK – The Big East is headed for another break up. This time, the seven prominent basketball schools that don’t play FBS football are planning to break away from the ever-changing conference.
The divorce is expected to be complicated, maybe even contentious, with millions of dollars and possibly the future of the league at stake.
The Big East’s non-football members decided Thursday to separate from the conference, a person familiar with the decision told the Associated Press.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because officials from those schools are still sorting through details and trying to figure how best to split from the conference. No official announcement is imminent.
The seven schools that don’t play FBS-level football are St. John’s, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova. Officials at those schools have concerns about the direction of the conference and feel as if they have little power to influence it.
Commissioner Mike Aresco conferred by phone with the leaders of those seven schools earlier in the day, according to another person familiar with the situation, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
The current Big East football membership includes only four schools – South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati, Temple – that are committed to the league beyond 2013. But there are 11 schools with plans to join the Big East in the next three years, including Boise State and San Diego State for football only in 2013.
Because those schools won’t be members until next summer, the majority of the voting members of the Big East are basketball schools right now. Still, those schools aren’t in position to dissolve the conference. That would take the votes of at least two football members, according to the Big East bylaws.
The Catholic schools can leave without financial penalty. The Big East has provisions in its bylaws that allow a group of schools to leave without exit fees.
But what they would do remains unclear, as are the legal ramifications of their actions. There has been speculation those seven basketball schools could merge with the Atlantic 10 or possibly add schools from that league to create a basketball-only conference of smaller Catholic schools.
One of the many things that will need to be sorted out is who owns the rights to the name Big East. Will it stay with new members or go with the old. Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall and St John’s were among the original members of the conference when it was formed primarily for basketball in 1979. Villanova came in a year later. Marquette and DePaul came in 2005, the Big East’s last previous major expansion.
Most importantly there are of millions dollars that both sides will likely claim at least some ownership of, including NCAA tournament money that is paid out every five years based on appearances, about $70 million in exit fees the Big East has collected from the recent departures and future possible exit fees from the latest members to announce they are leaving – Rutgers and Louisville.
What would happen to the current and future football members also is unknown. They could simply stick together and continue on the path they are headed. But if the basketball side of the Big East is weakened it could decrease the value of the conference to television networks. The league is currently trying to negotiate a crucial TV contract, but instability has made it impossible.
The Big East had been hoping to sign a TV deal that could bring in as much as $100 million a year to its members, though some estimates have been a low as $60 million. If the TV money isn’t up to the Big East’s projections, it could cause some of the future members, especially Boise State and San Diego State, to reconsider joining.
The Mountain West and Conference USA have already lined up replacement members for the schools that have pledged to go to the Big East. Boise State and San Diego State would likely be able to slide right back into the Mountain West, but the seven current C-USA schools would have fewer options.
All of those schools, even though they have not participated in the Big East, could be on the hook for exit fees to the conference if they did change plans. Or not. At this point, everything could be up for debate or litigation.
The Big East’s long-term plan has been to form a 12- to 14-team football conference that spans coast to coast, starting next year, while also having a large basketball league with many of its traditional members.
But the most recent defections of Louisville and Rutgers, along with the additions of Tulane for all sports and East Carolina for football only in 2014, have convinced the basketball schools that it’s not worth sticking with the plan.
Conference realignment has whittled away the Big East, costing it many of its oldest and most prominent members in the last 16 months. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are going to the Atlantic Coast Conference next year. West Virginia has moved to the Big 12. Louisville is headed to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten, maybe as soon as 2014.
Money doesn’t seem to be driving the basketball schools away. The Big East non-football members currently get about $1.6 million from the league’s television deals, and that share goes up to about $3.5 million when NCAA basketball tournament money is included. The football members make about $6 million currently.
Even if the Big East doesn’t reach its goals with a new TV contract, the Big East basketball schools are not likely to earn much more on their own. Though the difference between what they get without the football schools and what they get with them might be small enough to justify leaving them behind and taking control back of their programs.
“What’s football going to look like in 15 years?” Marquette athletic director Larry Williams told ESPN Radio 540 in Milwaukee this week. “They may not be in the power position they are in today. How do we as an elite basketball program fit into the landscape of this football-dominated environment? I don’t have a complete answer for you, but that’s the question.”