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Should The Big East Expand?

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Commissioner Val Ackerman opened the door to adding a school (or schools?) to the conference this week. But is it a good idea?

2021 Basketball Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony
Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman at her Basketball Hall Of Fame Enshrinement
Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s been almost nine years since The Catholic Seven announced their intent to break up the Big East and invited Butler, Creighton, and Xavier to join them. It’s been just over two years since the news broke that UConn was returning to the Big East and a shade over a year since the Huskies actually rejoined the league. When The Reformation happened, I never really thought that the Big East would expand to 12 members, even if Fox Sports apparently left a clause in the television contract to automatically jump the money up to keep the payouts even if it happened. As Connecticut’s travails in the American Athletic Conference continued, it seemed more and more likely that the Huskies would eventually pry their way out with an eye on restoring their legacy rivalries.... but as it had been for the years in between The Reformation and the return of Prodigal UConn, it did not appear that there was a logical candidate to join the Huskies as the 12th program in the league.

Or, rather, that was the case until earlier this week when Big East Commissioner and Naismith Hall Of Famer Val Ackerman officially cracked the door open to the possibility of expansion in a conversation with The Athletic’s Dana O’Neil.

That was the pull quote from O’Neil’s article in The Athletic ($), so let’s let O’Neil expand on it:

The league’s 12-year deal with Fox expires in 2025 and no league — one concentrated on basketball or football — is immune to the finances of a media deal. Ackerman told The Athletic that the league already has had “counseling” from prominent sports media consultants about what’s needed to secure a solid deal, and she plans to soon engage her presidents in the very beginnings of a conversation about expansion. “(The end of the Fox deal is) in the back of our minds,’’ Ackerman says. “What keeps us in a prime position in respect to our media rights? It’s about quality basketball programming. What school would help us with our basketball aspirations, men’s and women’s? What school lines up with our existing values? What school would help us with respect to our primary revenue stream, and national TV revenue?”

Okay, so before we go any farther here, let’s address the primary issues in the room.

  1. The current deal with Fox Sports pays each Big East team about $4 million a year.
  2. The current 11 team configuration of the Big East allows men’s and women’s basketball to schedule a full 20 game round robin where everyone plays everyone else twice, once at home, once on the road.
  3. Adding a 12th full member to the conference has to mean a notable upgrade on that $4 million price tag, more than the league would get just for renewing the deal with Fox just because the league has been a good partner for the length of the current contract. If we’re talking about the difference between $5 million for 11 programs and $6 million for 12, I don’t know if it’s actually worth pulling the trigger because......
  4. Adding a 12th full member would mean either A) a 22 game league schedule for men’s and women’s basketball or B) a different scheduling format where everyone does not play everyone twice. Whether that’s you play most teams twice but not everyone or a swap to a divisional format, that’s for smarter people than me to decide.

Based on Commissioner Ackerman’s comments above and the things we know about the existing contract, I think any expansion to the league has to hit all of the following buttons:

  • Do they make the Big East better or at the very least deeper, especially in men’s basketball?
  • Are they a basketball-first athletic department?
  • Are they a big enough addition that would make television executives open up their wallet a little bit wider?

If you go into O’Neil’s article in The Athletic, you’ll see that she dives into possible additions to the Big East. However, O’Neil merely attacks the question from a “if they’re going to expand, this is where they should look” perspective. And she should!

But we’re Big East fans here. We’re looking at whether not we want to invite someone to our party, which is the best basketball-focused party in the country. Sometimes you have to have a bouncer at the door to your party, and that’s what we’re doing here.

Let’s talk some potential candidates, shall we?

Gonzaga

I mean, we’d be stupid to not consider it. I think we can safely say that Gonzaga is the best basketball-focused athletic program in the country that isn’t already in the Big East. Their success in men’s basketball for the past two decades is unquestionable, and their women’s basketball program has been on a bit of a heater of their own over the past 15 years or so. Gonzaga absolutely checks all three boxes I outlined above, and they have the added bonus of being a private school like 10 of the 11 members of the Big East.

They’re also in Eastern Washington State. Quite honestly, if Gonzaga was in Eastern North Dakota, they’d be in the Big East right now. I honestly don’t think it’s much of a problem for the current members of the Big East to travel to Spokane for a game once a year.... or even less than that if the round robin is abandoned. I think the travel is prohibitive for Gonzaga. Sure, as CBS’s Gary Parrish has said repeatedly on his podcast recently, once you get on a plane, what’s an extra hour? But one of the reasons why UConn wanted back in to the Big East is because they added three conference rivals that were closer than their nearest AAC neighbor. UConn can honestly bus to Providence, St. John’s, and Seton Hall. But those — and Villanova and Georgetown — are cross country flights for Gonzaga, and we’re talking about doing one of those nearly every single week of the regular season.

And then we get into the discussion about whether it’s smart for the Bulldogs to start toting their soccer and volleyball teams around the country like that. The WCC sure as hell isn’t going to be amenable to keeping track of Gonzaga baseball if the money from Gonzaga basketball isn’t around any more, and I doubt that the Big West or the Big Sky is interested in being a halfway house.

If we’re talking about Fox busting open the checkbook to the tune of $10 million a year per team if the 12th program is Gonzaga? Well, I bet that solves a lot of issues for Gonzaga... but I don’t know if it’s in the best interest of their athletes to be doing this. At the end of the day, Gonzaga knows they can be capital-G Gonzaga where they are. How much do they really benefit from taking two or three conference losses a year, especially if maybe some of those losses are because of a travel schedule that really stinks?

Kansas

We talked at length about why the Jayhawks should join the Big East already. That article pre-addressed the now official additions of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, so nothing about that has changed. The Jayhawks check all three boxes, because their football team is hilariously awful and will be for what appears for the rest of eternity.

Oh, and the Kansas athletic director already said he’s going to do what’s best for KU after the Big 12’s expansion was official.

“What’s best for Kansas doesn’t change, regardless of conference discussion or speculation,” Goff said. “It’s still what’s best for KU and it still puts us in the most positive strength and position we can be in the league we’re in most importantly and for all the unknowns that are out there.”

C’mon, Travis Goff, pull the trigger.


And that’s it. I honestly think those are the only two candidates that check all three boxes. Look at it this way:

  • Any other Big 12/ACC/Big Ten/SEC school is way too dedicated to football and the paycheck that they get from it. If you wanted to tell me that Vanderbilt is interested in throwing their football team under the bus, I’d believe you, but man, that SEC TV check is just too big for them to do it.
  • The entire Pac-12 has the same travel problems that Gonzaga has AND is too dedicated to football/the paycheck.
  • The American Athletic Conference is now made up of programs that the Catholic 7 openly turned their back on once already, with the exception of Wichita State and let’s be honest: they’re not worth gambling on being good without Gregg Marshall.
  • No one in the Atlantic 10 makes the Big East notably better or deeper, nor do they inspire television executives to throw money around like confetti. Yes, that includes Dayton, VCU, Saint Louis, and what the heck, yes, even Davidson.
  • “Mom, can we get Loyola Chicago?” “We have Loyola Chicago at home.” Yeah, they’re just DePaul without years of failing on a big stage.
  • Anyone else in the Valley? Drake? Valparaiso? Nah.
  • Mountain West programs? Too interested in football and/or veering off into being a travel problem.
  • Denver! The Pioneers are already Big East friends for men’s and women’s lacrosse. Only hang up? They’ve only been in Division 1 for men’s hoops since 1998 and they’ve never made the NCAA tournament..... and have only had nine winning seasons.

I’m not considering anyone else. You get the idea here. Anyone other than Kansas or Gonzaga doesn’t hit all the points that the Big East needs to actually make this make sense for television contract reasons. Don’t get me wrong: If Fox Sports tells Val Ackerman that they’re going to pay the Big East $12 million per team per year as long as they add a 12th member and that they don’t care who the 12th is? Do it, and do it tomorrow. Take the money at the expense of adding a near permanent doormat.

I think expanding the Big East is a dead issue. Worth discussing amongst the presidents, because making sure you’re all on the same page is always good, but dead other than that.