A basketball conference can still survive and advance in the NCAA

NEW YORK – Since its inception in 1979, the Big East has become the most famous conference in college basketball. But by 2013, football had torn him apart.

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

But basketball-focused “Catholic 7” schools like Georgetown and Villanova refused to back down. They decided to try to rebuild a new Big East that avoided the most lucrative sport in the NCAA.

A decade later, the Big East hosts its 41st annual men’s tournament at Madison Square Garden in front of a sellout crowd. The conference is projected to send at least five teams to men’s March Madness and four to women’s — including perennial championship contender UConn, who 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 dominates — but the Big East is better off without it.

“We don’t have a kind [realignment] ‘flying risks,’ we don’t have the distractions, we don’t have the costs that go into supporting football,” Ackerman told Front Office Sports between Thursday’s Big East Tournament games. “What we have now suits us. This is us. We are a basketball school.”

Startup conference

Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman. Credit: Big East

Ten years ago, the Big East decided to turn to basketball, not because it was a smart business decision – they had no choice.

Beginning in the early 2000s, the conference, which at the time was beginning to build a BCS football league, began to bleed football-focused members.

Schools like Louisville and Syracuse made a run for the ACC. The conference was left with a haphazard group of basketball-focused schools and struggling football programs, and was unsuccessful in attracting members like Boise State or San Diego State to fill the football schedule.

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

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

The “new” Big East schools then started out on their own.

Schools were able to gain financial support by signing a contract with Fox, which needed programming for its new channel: FS1.

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

They also signed a new deal with Madison Square Garden to keep the men’s conference tournament in New York. MSG stayed true — turning down offers from the Big Ten and ACC to embrace its longtime partner, MSG head of college basketball Joel Fisher told FOS.

“It was actually a brave decision by the presidents of the schools that stepped back at the time to actually make the decision to go back to their roots — which they did with a focus on basketball,” Ackerman said.

The entire process took place in the span of 90 days in 2013, according to Ackerman, who was hired in June of that year. As the first commissioner of the WNBA, she was the perfect fit to lead the basketball conference.

The conference officially started on July 1 of that year. “We were basically a startup,” Ackerman said of her early days. AAC had “all the infrastructure”. The new Big East had no office, website, email address, bank accounts or benefit plans. The AAC even took over the non-profit Big East and renamed it. The new Big East had to resubmit its return to the IRS.

Ackerman said she hires staff every week just to keep the conference afloat. “It was exhausting.”

But the conference carried its basketball powerhouses — and at this point, it doesn’t seem to be missing a football league at all.

Construction of ‘Power 6’

March 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.
Creighton Bluejays beat Villanova Wildcats in 2023 Big East quarterfinals 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 Patrick Ewing of Georgetown and Chris Mullin of St. John. In fact, the schools hired two former players as coaches, seemingly to bring back the good old days. Both of them were fired in the meantime.

But the men’s Big East Tournament remains one of the best products in all of sports, played in front of the most knowledgeable fans in the Mecca of basketball.

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

“The restructuring is just magnificent,” he remarked during the DePaul-Seton Hall game that ended just before the buzzer.

Quarterfinals at noon ET between St. John’s and Marquette drew raucous crowds Thursday. UConn didn’t answer until three hours later, but that didn’t stop the team’s fans from showing up early to drink overpriced beers and moan about Marquette’s missed buzzer beater at the end of regulation. The Garden remained packed late into the night.

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

“I wasn’t surprised by the success — but maybe it’s the pinnacle 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 necessarily predict two.”

And on the women’s side, the conference not only sends more teams, but also has UConn. The Huskies have 11 national championships — tied for the most successful DI basketball program, men’s or women’s.

The results so far are particularly impressive given that the Big East’s deal with Fox has not enriched either school. It contributes just under $6 million in payouts, a fraction of what Power 5 programs receive thanks to their football teams.

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

When it comes to the Power 5 conferences, Ackerman said, “A lot of it [conference] money comes for football and goes back to football. I mean, football is an expensive sport. Basketball is a much cheaper sport.”

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

Position of power

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

Unlike ten years ago, the conference did not lose more members in its latest round of realignment. On the contrary, it has become one of the most stable conferences in Division I.

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

In 2019, UConn bounced back, thanks in large part to Ackerman’s efforts. Collier called it perhaps the “biggest impact” as far as the conference’s current success — not only with the men’s program going through a rebuild, but also with the women’s program remaining a championship threat.

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

As for signing a more competitive media rights deal, Fox’s current deal isn’t until 2025. But Ackerman said she hopes to begin talks with Fox before the official renewal negotiation window next February.

“It’s too early to say where that deal will play out — and how we’ll adapt to the changing media landscape,” Ackerman said. “Because it’s not the same as 10 years ago. Now there are players who didn’t exist. Now we’re in the world of streaming.”

A network representative could not be reached for comment for this story, but a spokesperson provided the following statistics: Men’s regular-season games averaged 779,000 viewers — tied for the most-watched regular season ever on Fox. The women’s season averaged 285,000 viewers, the most of any network ever.

It would be hard for Fox not to at least consider a renewal.

Ackerman said she doesn’t think back often to her early days in the Big East, given the whirlwind of change the industry is currently facing. But she agrees that the conference is being approached from a position of strength – especially compared to its rebirth a decade ago.

“I just kind of say, ‘Gosh, I’m glad we went through all that,'” Ackerman said. “I’m glad, to the extent that there were skeptics, our schools proved them wrong. That’s satisfying.”

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