Big East Teams Leave Conference for Sports Allies With Lucrative TV Market

Big East Conference officials pointed 3,000 miles away to explain why they rejected an offer from ESPN this year that would have quadrupled the league’s annual television haul to about $155 million.

“The Pac-12 deal, which has just shocked all of us, has changed the way we look at our future,” Big East Commissioner John Marinatto, 53, said at the conference’s media day last month. “We’re going to take advantage of the landscape they helped create.”

What the Pac-12 Conference helped to create with its $2.7 billion TV deal is a situation in which the Big East is being raided by another league with the stated goal of blanketing the East Coast, including New York, the nation’s No. 1 media market.

The University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University, which on Manhattan taxi cabs bills itself as New York’s college team, left the Big East this week to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, whose commissioner said he’s working to stage its postseason basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Big East has staged its tournament at the landmark arena for the past 28 years, the longest such streak in the country.

“Clearly, these discussions have all been around land grabs,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, a member of the Walnut Creek, California-based Pac-12, which has a $225 million annual television contract with ESPN, a unit of Walt Disney Co. (DIS), and News Corp. (NWS)’s Fox. “The most valuable land is the one with the most televisions.”

Tradition Gone

Conferences and universities are scrapping decades of tradition, geography and rivalries in exchange for the stability afforded by expanding conferences and their ability to command billion-dollar television contracts.

Marinatto said last night, following a three-hour meeting with presidents and athletic directors from the Big East’s football schools, that all the members of the conference are committed to staying together, the AP reported.

Marinatto didn’t return e-mails yesterday seeking comment on the future of the Big East, and conference spokesman John Paquette declined to comment in an e-mail. Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim, speaking at an event in Alabama on Sept. 19, said the league faces the prospect of also losing Connecticut, the national men’s basketball champion, and Rutgers, which is about 35 miles from Manhattan, to the ACC, the Birmingham News reported. Syracuse will play one home football game at MetLife Stadium, home of the National Football League’s New York Jets and Giants, in 2012, 2014 and 2016.

Rutgers is “engaged in discussions with several parties to explore all of our options,” athletic director Tim Pernetti said in an e-mailed statement. He didn’t mention any conference by name.

Connecticut President Susan Herbst said in a statement that the Huskies were also in discussions with “counterparts from around the country.” University spokesman Mike Enright declined to provide additional comment.

Big 12 Merger

The Big East, in response to the defections, is talking with the Irving, Texas-based Big 12 Conference about a merger, the Associated Press said, citing people it didn’t identify. The Big 12 might lose Texas and Oklahoma, both of which were being courted by the Pac-12 -- whose school presidents and chancellors voted last night to not expand further for now.

The loss of Pitt and Syracuse, basketball powers with football histories and large-market bases, puts the Big East at a disadvantage when television partners make their next offers, said former Madison Square Garden President Bob Gutkowski, a partner in the New York-based sports consulting firm Innovative Strategic Management.

“The question for the Big East is: How do you replace those two schools?” Gutkowski said in a telephone interview. “Even if you do, they’re not going to be equal types of schools located in this area.”

Network Interest

Officials from ESPN, Fox and Comcast Corp. (CMCSA)’s NBC and NBC Sports Network, which will be rebranded from Versus in January, attended last month’s Big East media day in Newport, Rhode Island. Spokesmen for the networks said their executives wouldn’t comment on the value of the Big East without Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

The departures leave the Big East with seven teams in football and 15 in basketball, including Texas Christian University, which is scheduled to join next season from the Mountain West Conference.

Athletic Director Chris Del Conte said, when asked whether the agreement with the Big East allows TCU to reconsider the move, that he’s “actively engaged in conversations with colleagues across the country to protect TCU’s best interests.”

The additions expand the ACC, which includes universities such as Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, Miami and Boston College, to “virtually the entire eastern seaboard of the United States,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said in a conference call to announce the newest members on Sept. 18.

Renegotiate Deal

Expansion has another benefit for the ACC. It now has the right to renegotiate its contract with ESPN, which pays the conference about $155 million a year under a 12-year deal that began this season.

“The ACC now reaches 90 million people,” said Harvey Schiller, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference from 1986 to 1990. “That’s a lot of people, and that’s attractive to networks and cable operators.”

Neither Gutkowski, Swangard, Schiller nor Scarsdale, New York-based television consultant Lee Berke, whose clients include Pittsburgh and Oklahoma, would speculate how much the ACC would get in a reworked agreement or how much the Big East would be able to command until conference realignments are completed.

Those changes are happening quickly.

Officials at Texas and Oklahoma have given their presidents permission to seek new conference affiliations, taking them a step closer to a possible departure.

Fast Decision

“As they make their announcements, it accelerates the need for other schools, whether it’s a Rutgers, a UConn, a Notre Dame to make a fast decision,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.

Working against the Big East from a TV perspective is its emphasis on a sport other than football. It’s the only major conference that generates more revenue from basketball than football, the preferred sport of television executives, Berke said.

“For the Big East to survive and prosper, they’re going to need football schools,” Berke said. “Scrambling is the operative word.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Scott Soshnick in New York at ssoshnick@bloomberg.net; Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net

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