In 2011, the Big East Conference powers took a calculated risk. Rather than accept a nearly $1 billion deal with ESPN, the league hierarchy decided that the changing media landscape would produce an even better offer.
But a few months later, Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced that they were leaving for the Atlantic Coast Conference. West Virginia soon announced its intention to join the Big 12, and future member TCU pulled out of its commitment and also accepted a Big 12 offer.
Finally, Louisville won the ACC sweepstakes Wednesday.
As the dust settles, the Big East is no longer the conference that existed when administrators walked away from the $1 billion deal. So new commissioner Mike Aresco, a former executive at CBS Sports and ESPN, is left peddling a diminished product to networks.
Rather than pitching a venerable basketball conference consisting of healthy football programs such as West Virginia, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse, Aresco is left with a mix of football programs from throughout the country. Some of them have value (Boise State, San Diego State, Houston), but many are anonymous in the world of college football (Central Florida, Tulane, East Carolina, Memphis, SMU).
It's a daunting task for a man trying to keep his league together.
"There's a real diluted brand here," said Robert Gutkowski, the former Madison Square Garden president and television executive. "Schools like East Carolina … from a football standpoint, these are certainly not powerhouses. I don't think [Wednesday] was a good day for the Big East."
That's when the conference's most attractive football program said that it was leaving. In Connecticut, the announcement hurt on two levels — UConn was bypassed by the ACC and the school was left in a further diminished Big East.
Until another ACC opening emerges, UConn will remain in the same home that it has had since 1979. But how the Big East looks in the future is a mystery.
Boise State officials insist that the school remains committed to joining in 2013. But there have been reports that the school is wavering.
Navy, which is set to join the Big East as a football-only member in 2015, was rumored to be a peripheral candidate for the ACC after Maryland left for the Big Ten. The Academy hesitated before accepting the Big East's offer, and the school could change course.
"I'm nervous," Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told reporters this week. "When we made this decision to go into the Big East, I think we still weren't really sure."
Aresco must work to appease would-be members while pursuing other schools (Brigham Young?) and also negotiating a TV deal. He said Tuesday that he remains optimistic.
"The networks know we have a good product and good teams," Aresco said. "The Big East is a storied conference with great tradition."
Aresco points to the basketball history as a selling point, but the future losses of Syracuse and Louisville will hurt the basketball product. The Providence Journal recently reported that voting to dissolve the conference has been discussed among the seven non-football members (St. John's, Providence, DePaul, Marquette, Georgetown, Villanova and Seton Hall) and a basketball-only conference could be created. There have also been reports of a possible coast-to-coast basketball conference that could include the Big East schools, plus programs such as Xavier, Butler, Gonzaga, St. Louis and St. Mary's.
Aresco said Tuesday that Big East basketball schools are committed to the conference and are important to the next TV deal.
But industry sources say the Big East's basketball product won't drive the deal. The Big East's exclusive window to negotiate with ESPN expired on Oct. 31, and negotiations are open to other companies (NBC Sports, Fox Sports, CBS Sports).
The Big East's six-year, $200 million deal with ABC/ESPN expires next year. That deal actually reached $254 million because CBS spent $54 million for second-tier rights. The ACC secured a $3.6 billion deal with ESPN earlier this year and the Big East won't come close.
But even if the Big East falls short of its last deal that brought the conference $42.3 million a year, it will still exceed TV revenue of lesser conferences. Conference USA, where the Big East has found many of its future members, has five-year, $35 million deals with CBS College Sports and Fox that run through 2016.
"They still have some good schools, but mostly from a basketball standpoint," said Gutkowski, who runs the sports and entertainment division of New York-based Innovative Strategic Management. "But they're just all over the place in football. The question is, do they have enough here? Certainly they have content, and content is very important. But do they still have enough quality content that really represents the brand and will it make them attractive to a distributor?"
Gutkowski figures that the basketball side is still more attractive than the football side. But football is the economic engine in college athletics, so it's unclear if the conference's coast-to-coast football approach will result in a lucrative deal.
"This is another level of football," Gutkowski said. "I don't want to call it secondary, but it's certainly not the primary schools. I think there are hours of content, and networks need content. … But certainly the Big East as we knew it is not the same."