Realignment has struck once again in the landscape of college athletics, with conferences losing and adding members like a grandmothers’ bridge club over the past few months.
The winner of the past few months indisputably has been the Big 12. Like the Rocky of conferences, the Big 12 took knockout punches from Apollo Creed (Nebraska and Colorado leaving last year) and Clubber Lang (Missouri and Texas A&M leaving for the SEC) but still rose from uncertainty to solidify its security in a time of conference uncertainty.
In a transformation montage that makes the winter training scene in Rocky IV look like an elementary school field day, the Big 12 did some serious work to add on two schools (TCU, West Virginia) with strong athletic programs to secure the immediate, and perhaps long-term, future of the conference.
But where there’s a winner, there’s a loser, and its name is the Big East. Known for an extended period of time as the nation’s premier basketball conference, it’s not only losing member West Virginia to the Big 12 but also members Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC.
While West Virginia will get an opportunity to test its athletic mettle against the likes of Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State; Syracuse and Pittsburgh will get a chance to play football powers like Miami and Florida State while getting the chance to play the storied basketball dynasties at Duke and North Carolina.
So why are all these schools jumping off the Big East ship? When it comes down to it, the answer is simple: money. More money is found in the other major conferences compared to the Big East.
The Big East is a basketball cash cow. Last season, the Big East boasted four programs in the top 25 for revenue generated by college basketball, with Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Marquette all placing on the list. As far as overall revenue from male athletics goes, there is no conference in the country that receives a bigger chunk of its profit from the sport of men’s basketball than the Big East.
In a report from Forbes Magazine just a year ago, the Big East was revealed to generate almost 37 percent of its total revenue from men’s basketball, over 15 percent more than the second leading conference, the Big Ten.
In comparison, the Big East in 2011 was the highest men’s basketball revenue conference, followed by the ACC and Big 12. However, when it came to total revenue generated by men’s athletics, the Big East placed fifth overall at around $419 million, behind the other four major conferences.
Why? The Big East isn’t a football conference. In fact, it’s a laughingstock of a football conference. When we hear arguments against the automatic qualifiers for the major conferences, the Big East is used as a main argument. Compared to the other major conferences, the Big East’s football teams are like Pop Warner teams, especially now that three of their best schools are leaving.
Last year the king of athletic revenue was by far the SEC, which grossed over $760 million in profit from men’s athletics despite only grossing $124 million from men’s basketball. Compare that percentage for a second. Don’t fool yourself; football is the biggest moneymaker in college sports and America, which is why it makes perfect sense that teams are jumping into football-strong conferences.
The Big East finished this season with only two programs ranked in the top 25. The ACC finished with three, while the Big 12 finished with four. With the new additions to the Big 12 with TCU and West Virginia, the Big 12 can now claim its rights to five teams in the top 25, surely a strong draw to sell more tickets than ever before for the newcomer schools. With the addition of former Wisconsin Offensive Coordinator Paul Chryst at Pittsburgh and one of the stronger Big East football programs in Syracuse, the ACC must be more than happy to add two more football schools to its roster.
When it came to overall men’s basketball revenue per school, the Big East finished beneath other conferences as well. The Big Ten, ACC and SEC all make more revenue per school than the Big East does, perhaps explaining why traditional basketball powerhouses Syracuse and Pitt left for the ACC. Obviously the conference made the most money from basketball because it’s currently a 16-team conference, but when it came down to revenue sharing, the big name programs of the Big East felt they deserved a bigger piece of the pie they help make for the conference.
So what have we learned from this latest installment of “As the Conference World Turns”? Basically, cash and football is king. And the SEC continues to rule the college football world, thus dominating the overall cash flow of college athletics. This is why Missouri and Texas A&M left (besides the fact Texas has the Longhorn Network, a different issue entirely) and almost destroyed the Big 12 in the process.
It seems hard to imagine the Big East without Syracuse and Pittsburgh. Heck, you could make an argument that those two programs were the face of the Big East along with West Virginia. But with conference structure constantly fluctuating in the past two years, schools are getting out while the gettin’s good. The Big East tried to fill the hole left by these schools by adding Houston, Southern Methodist, Memphis and Central Florida for all sports while adding Navy, Boise State and San Diego State as football-only members. But these programs cannot hope to replace what is leaving. Boise State most likely would have joined the Big 12 if it would have received an offer.
But with the money generated by men’s college athletics being larger than ever, the conference landscapes will continue to change as mid-major schools are offered a chance to advance up the food chain and powerhouse schools try their hand in larger, cash-crop conferences.
Nick is a senior currently majoring in english, history and useless sports knowledge. Hate the column? Love the column? Let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org or try to follow him on twitter @nickkorger.