ESPN’s 30 for 30 on the BIG EAST Conference is outstanding — to a point. The parts covering the conference’s origins, huge matchups in the 80’s and the way the league changed the college basketball landscape are a must-watch for anyone who wants to understand the history of the game. The documentary went astray, however, in a big way: It attempted to write a death certificate for the brand because the football schools were keeping the charter and renaming themselves the American Athletic Conference, while seven Catholic basketball-only schools ran off with the name and three friends.
The BIG EAST may have been dead to ESPN at that point, since the network wasn’t interested in broadcasting the re-formed* league’s basketball games, or at least not as interested as FS1 was money-wise. At the time, ESPN had reason to think it would be right. It’s easy to forget, but football’s dominance the most plausible reason Buzz Williams bolted for Virginia Tech following the 2013-14 season, beside any issues with the Marquette athletic department and its management.
* - Note the hyphen. They’re (mostly) Catholic colleges. Without the hyphen, they’d be Protestant .
Thing is, though, the BIG EAST did not die. If anything, it’s thrived. Marquette is perhaps the best example: Beyond joining the Bucks in a new NBA arena, they’ve added lacrosse and had rapid success on the men’s side. That’s led to new facilities, like a soccer stadium, a climate-controlled winter bubble, and the coming Athletic & Human Performance Research Center. Last week, it became the first school in the nation to add varsity esports . Villanova, meanwhile, has won two national titles and just spent $65 million revamping its basketball facility . Even lowly DePaul has a new arena . Those aren’t enhancements struggling athletic departments make. The current BIG EAST, and its schools, are doing just fine.
You can’t say the same for former BIG EAST mainstay Connecticut, however. UConn perhaps drew the worst odds in the conference realignment Hunger Games. Unable to take its tradition of basketball success to the Atlantic Coast Conference like Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, but clinging to a football program that moved to the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1997, UConn had to follow the fates of The American, as the schools holding onto the BIG EAST name made a point to rid themselves of the FBS. In 2014, UConn seemed to have the right idea. Recent developments, however, have shown otherwise. UConn’s athletic department is not doing well , and The American has a lot to do with that. While it’s common for athletic departments to not make back every dollar spent, only earning half of them is a big problem. UConn football hasn’t sold out a game since 2013 and its average paid attendance is about half what its stadium holds. Other sports are being bogged down by lower visibility and the costs involved with traversing half the country, as UConn is has to regularly visit six schools in The American that are either west of or near the Mississippi River.
Those who gambled on the growth potential of the oblong ball, save maybe Clemson and the Southeastern Conference, haven’t gotten their planned return on investment. As cord-cutting continues, the viability of network and rights fees growing ever larger has become questionable. The College Football Playoff has made it look like only a handful of teams are truly viable national title contenders. For the rest, the sport has lost some meaning. Attendance nationwide is down, with both HDTV and the temptation of whatever else might be on one’s devices in the comfort of home defeating the futility of sitting in the cold and watching two teams of questionable quality play for the right to go to an ultimately meaningless bowl game with a weird corporate title .
Many answers for UConn’s balance sheet have been theorized, but one that makes sense is for the Huskies to return to the Football Championship Subdivision . It would instantly reduce costs, and while it would impact football attendance and television revenue, it would also allow UConn to investigate other ways to save money, perhaps by seeking a “new” conference home … like the BIG EAST.
While football seems anathema to the current iteration of the BIG EAST, it’s not a totally foreign thing. Butler, Georgetown and Villanova play at the FCS level. For many other sports, though, UConn being back would work. It would add another powerhouse to men’s basketball, and goodness knows UConn’s women’s team is the nation’s premier program. It’s a quality athletic program that would be able to solve a lot of its financial problems if it only had to go as far west as Creighton occasionally, as opposed to Houston, SMU, Tulsa, Wichita State, Memphis and Tulane.
Oddly enough, the move may make more sense for UConn than it would for the rest of the BIG EAST. UConn would be an exception to their all-private club, plus it would be another school taking a slice of the TV revenue pie. But I think some of that would be mitigated by the great matchups it could create, bringing more eyeballs and a larger pie to slice up. Think back to Marquette’s thrilling win over then-No. 2 UConn in its first-ever BIG EAST game, or the 2009 game where Dominic James’ foot injury derailed MU’s hopes to compete with UConn for a national title. Additional interest surely has some value.
Perhaps the best case for UConn to the BIG EAST is the fact the Huskies reinforce the conference’s presence (St. John’s) in the coveted New York market, as many commute back and forth between Gotham and the Nutmeg State. This could further be aided if the conference picked a 12th school to help the cause. If you’re strengthening your footprint in Market No. 1, why not also do so in Market No. 3 by adding Loyola Chicago , fresh off the heels of its Butler-like Final Four berth? Detroit Mercy, meanwhile, isn’t tremendously savory, in part because its basketball hasn’t been all that great since the days of Dick Vitale and Dave DeBusschere , as well as because its campus is in a part of the Motor City many find frightening . But it is another private, basketball-minded school, and would add another city to the conference’s TV coverage. It even has lacrosse. Seeing how the rising tide lifted other boats in the BIG EAST, it’s difficult not to think that a speculative addition might not help those schools bolster their athletic departments, particularly Loyola, fresh off the interest last year created.
The big message UConn’s return to the BIG EAST would send is that it’s smart to for college sports to embrace their regional nature. As more and more people kind of “do their own thing” entertainment-wise, that’s OK. Baseball, for instance, is struggling on national TV, but still thriving in home markets. We all felt like conference realignment was kind of crazy when it happened. It was. This would restore some sanity and be good for the bottom line. UConn’s fans have largely lamented being in The American. Other school’s fans would only dislike the move because UConn could steal wins and titles; however, the Huskies would also help NET and RPI rankings. And you can’t tell me FS1 wouldn’t like having UConn/St. John’s on its screens. I can see it. Just laying it out there.
THE WHOLE DARN BLOG: This week’s blog could have been about one of 12 topics from the last week, ranging from Marquette cracking the top 10, to how Xavier basically followed my plan to beat Marquette and still lost, to how Matt Heldt played out of his gourd this past weekend, prompting Steve Wojciechowski to get teary-eyed . However, the UConn piece needed to be stated. We’ll hopefully do something more Marquette-centric next week after MU plays at Butler Wednesday evening.