Big East faces two big issues at once

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NEWPORT, R.I. -- Big East Conference television revenue and league expansion taken together are a brain-teaser: which comes first, more TV money to entice attractive members, or more attractive members to boost the broadcast payday?

Athletic directors Steve Pederson of Pitt, Oliver Luck of West Virginia and Tim Pernetti of Rutgers have their opinion and are leading a push to expand the Big East Conference's football membership to 12 teams. They believe the league can get a big boost in broadcast rights fees next year, largely because Comcast has bought NBC and actively is searching for college sports programming for the Versus Network, which will become NBC Sports Network.

That means there are more suitors now -- and with only one major conference left without a long-term deal -- the Big East -- that can offer programming, the price has just gone up.

Under the current combined football/basketball TV contract that expires in 2013, Big East football members get $11 million annually, far less than the $20 to $23 million annually the Pac-12, Big Ten and SEC members get from their combined football/basketball deals. ACC members get about $14 million from their combined contract.

Big East commissioner John Marinatto said there were mixed feelings about turning down ESPN's deal initially -- and the divide was pretty much between the so-called basketball members and the football members -- but the announcement of the Pac-12's lucrative deal ($3 billion over 12 years) convinced them all it was the right move.

"The [price of programming] dramatically changed when the Pac-12 announced its deal," Marinatto said. "And we were unanimous. There was splintering before that, but, on that day, we were unanimous 'we're walking away.' College football has firmly been implanted as the No. 2 most popular sport.

"What we bring to the table in terms of assets is very unique and going last and having last at-bats [among the major conferences negotiating new TV deals] provide us the opportunity to evaluate what everyone else has done."

The assets of the Big East are open to discussion, which is why Pederson and company are pushing so hard for the league to add more football playing members.

That is why Big East expansion and TV contracts are so strategically interlocked.

But there is a lot of discussion about whether the league needs to expand first or needs a new, more lucrative TV deal in order to entice the kind of members it wants.

And a significant underlying issue also remains: how long can the league exist in current form with only half the member schools playing Division I-A football?

Pederson said he, along with the other athletic directors from football-playing schools, believes the league can exist in its current form but will always be vulnerable to raids. He said the addition of TCU as a ninth football team (next year) takes some of the immediate pressure off the conference to expand because it adds aTop 10 team, an excellent TV market (Dallas-Fort Worth) and solves the unbalanced scheduling issue.

But he, along with Marinatto and the rest of the league's power brokers, agree that there has to be some resolution to the issue before next September when the league will have a 60-day exclusive window to negotiate with ESPN.

"There is a great opportunity when we renegotiate our next television contract to solidify this league by being paid competitively with the other big conference," Pederson said.

"Nothing solidifies the league like having a strong revenue stream. So, this is a pretty key negotiation with us, and that also means you have to make a decision [on expansion] on what you want to do going forward in a reasonable time period.

"We all want to do what is best for the league long term and we are in that phase right now where we are trying to figure out what it is that we think puts this league in the best position possible for the long term."

Nobody involved would speak on the record about particular schools, but behind closed doors there are many possibilities, and Marinatto admitted TCU's addition opened the discussion for adding more schools that might not be geographically aligned with the rest of the conference. Some, such as Central Florida, Navy, Army and Memphis, seem to have varying degrees of support from current members, but none seems to have full or overwhelming support.

Such teams always seem to be in the discussion, but, with a boost in the TV revenue, others such as Boston College, Maryland, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri might be enticed to move into the Big East.

Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri are part of a divided Big 12 because of financial and recruiting windfalls for Texas from its new TV network.

Paul Zeise: or 412-263-1720.


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