Guest author: Dr. Michael Lorenzen
Dr. Michael Lorenzen is the principal owner of Collegiate Athletics Strategy Advising, a firm that provides advisement services to collegiate athletics administrators.
This is the second part of a two-part series on Memphis’ move to the Big East. You can read Part 1 here.
The Big East is one of the older and more established conferences, though it does not have the weighty history of some of its more senior BCS brethren. It is also distinguished by the nature of its origin–it was founded primarily to be a gathering of basketball affiliated schools.
However, much of the last thirty year history of the conference has been characterized by a nearly annual ritual of wrestling with a vision for how to be successful in football as a complimentary activity to its primary mission. There has always been an inherent tension within the conference as a result of its diversity, with the much smaller, largely private institutions that have long since given up on football at odds with the needs of the larger, all-sport schools that aspire to financial freedom through football.
The result of the football dilemma has been a regular acquisition of schools from lesser conferences that have become virtual farm teams for the power conferences seeking expansion. For example, nine current members of the Big East have moved over from C-USA, which is also the victim of Memphis’ departure. With consolidation and stability seemingly having arrived for the Big Ten, the Pac 12, the Big 12, the SEC and the ACC, it is left to the remaining conferences to find a path to financial sustainability with a model that does not rely upon 100,000 seat stadiums, monolithic regional fan bases, 100 year old rivalries, and geographic isolation from professional sport competitors.
While Conference USA and the Mountain West appear to be on the verge of a full merger for all sports that would span the nation, perhaps the Big East has stumbled into a strategic evolution that will create a unique and sustainable competitive position for the future, albeit with a model that is distinct from the traditional power conferences. “Stumbled” because it is hard to look at the Big East’s rejection of the $1 billion offer from ESPN prior to the loss of valuable football properties like Syracuse, Pitt, and West Virginia as a brilliant tactical move in retrospect, but it may yet work out.
If we let go of all preconceived notions of what an intercollegiate athletic conference should be, and accept the premise that they are really the ultimate expression of college sports as a fully commercial entertainment enterprise, then it may be possible to define this new position that the Big East will occupy. As an example, there was a day when media outlets were largely independent or collected into groupings of common geography, size, vision, editorial bent, etc. Technology, economics and culture dictated that at some point consolidation entered the picture and the geographic footprint expanded as media conglomerates bought up smaller players, diversified their offerings, and gobbled up greater share of more markets.
It is not inconceivable that a similar transition will work for athletic conferences. The power conferences have tremendous share in local markets, and they have tremendous fan and alumni bases across the country that boost ratings in even the largest media markets. But they don’t have much of an actual, local presence in those media markets. The SEC has Atlanta, Orlando, New Orleans…and not much else. The Big 12 has Dallas…and not much else. The Big 10? Chicago. The Pac 12? Los Angeles, San Francisco, Phoenix…and not much else.
Those conferences are largely comprised of schools located in small college towns that benefit from their isolation and the lack of competition for attention with professional sports franchises. They are attractive in a regional and sometimes national sense to big media players and sponsors because of their national fan bases, the highest level of performance (great recruits follow big budgets and media glory) great marketing and branding, and a love of big-stage tradition among sports followers. But they don’t have significant local representation in any of the major media markets.
At the other end of the media spectrum, the 2015 iteration of the Big East will have access to more than 30 million television households and a presence in major media markets unmatched by any other conference. It will also have the advantage of national representation that creates some interesting possibilities on the programming front. Picture a Saturday football lineup of four sequential games, no overlaps, running from morning into the wee hours.
While no one will argue that teams ranked in the 40s and 50s will generate the kind of buzz that the Red River Shootout or Ohio State vs. Michigan do every year, perhaps there is a cumulative benefit to having a number of competitive teams in a variety of large markets that advertisers and sponsors will find compelling. If football almost becomes a loss leader that attracts media customers who are interested in being a part of the nation’s most powerful basketball conference, with the biggest basketball attendance, most of which is happening in major urban centers, maybe the Big East will have carved out a unique and interesting niche in the market place.
The new conference will have remarkable diversity in size of institutions, public and private status, cultural norms, levels of spending, and academic standards. The majority of them have no historic rivalries within the conference and may have non-conference matches that have greater appeal to fans than brand new rivalries. The non-revenue sports are surely to face economic challenges with increased travel expenses and the football and basketball players will almost certainly have more missed class days as they traverse the country during conference play.
The uncertainty of the future of the BCS automatic berth could present a major hit in both prestige and financial terms. The loss of the automatic $22 million payout and the potential of another $6 million for a second team would be painful.
But Memphis has the opportunity to contribute to this new conference model in some meaningful ways that might help explain why they are a good acquisition. The Tigers did qualify to five bowl games from 2003-08 and have enough of a foundation and history that they could be competitive in football. The Tiger basketball program lends significant prestige and instant rivalry possibilities within the region. It also places the Big East on the doorstep of both SEC and Big 12 country, which may open some recruiting doors for northeastern and midwestern schools.
If the Big East can package all of the diversity and unique features of their membership and sell it well to an oversaturated college basketball market, then there could be additional upside that might eventually match the $15 – 20 million annual upside realized by the other conferences. Added on to a $40 million current budget for Memphis and you’re in the range where schools seem to have the ability to suddenly turn their athletic entertainment business into a serious generator of profits that could ultimately be self-sustaining. That is the pot of gold for which every athletic director pines and if it all works out, RC Johnson and the Big East Commissioner will look like geniuses.