Big East’s March Madness Wins Key to Keeping Up With Football Powers

BOSTON — The Big East has more teams in the Sweet Sixteen this year than the Big Ten and more championships over the last 10 tournaments than the Big 12. If Connecticut continues its dominant run for four more games, the conference will also boast the first repeat NCAA men’s basketball title winner since 2007. The Huskies have only lost 11 times over the last two years; 10 of those defeats have been to Big East competitors. And yet, the conference still seems to be fighting for respect.

Coaches rightfully felt snubbed when only three Big East teams made this year’s NCAA Tournament—UConn, Creighton and Marquette, all of which are still alive. Three others—St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence—were notably left out, leading to howling criticism of the tournament selection committee. In this moment of seismic realignment and unlimited uncertainty, such slights take on an existential flavor.

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In the wake of the Pac-12’s collapse, could the Big East be the next conference unable to keep up with today’s power players? Or, by continuing to embrace basketball, can the conference ensure stability amid the tumult? NCAA Tournament results—along with ongoing media talks—will both be pivotal in answering those questions.

The Big East knows what it’s like to be torn asunder. Back in 2013, the so-called Catholic 7—DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and Villanova—split off from the Big East to form their own conference, later gaining control of the conference name. After decades of battling with football-mad schools going all the way back to a rejection of Penn State’s bid to join the conference in 1982, the septet had had enough, swearing off gridiron cash for good.

The “New Big East” would add Butler, Creighton and Xavier (UConn would rejoin in 2020) and instead base the financial success of the venture on a long-term, basketball-driven TV tie-up with Fox and its newly launched Fox Sports 1 Channel. CBS reached a deal to televise games as well.

NCAA payouts, based on tournament performance, would also be critical to keeping up with conferences seeing larger paychecks for football media rights, including the College Football Playoff disbursements that the Big East’s teams miss out on. The CFP distributed more than $500 million to conferences this past year, and that number is set to grow.

“I can’t say I was optimistic,” former Villanova coach Jay Wright said last year of his feeling a decade prior. “But I did know we had to make it work.”

So where does a dominant basketball conference that doesn’t offer football fit into the economics of college sports? The Big East reported $88 million in revenue in 2021-22, according to its tax filings, well below even the lowest Power Five conference (the Big 12 at $481 million). It also trailed the American ($183 million), but was the next richest NCAA conference by revenue, coming in ahead of the Mountain West ($79 million).

Had it not been for the Big East’s past March Madness success, those comparisons would’ve been less favorable.

The Big East made roughly $50 million in media revenue that year. Another $23 million came from the NCAA, largely due to the NCAA Tournament's unit-based payout structure which rewards teams for results over the previous six years. In this case that included two Wildcats title runs. Revenue from the league’s own tournament at Madison Square Garden represents its third biggest line of business.

Keep winning in March, and those checks will keep coming. At a time when coaches regularly refer to the current combination of transfer freedom and NIL opportunities as “free agency,” any slip in financial footing could cause a spiral in on-court relevance. Tournament success also puts teams in better position for future at-large bids, considering that the only thing that talks louder than money is results. More competitive depth in the conference and marquee wins outside league play wouldn’t hurt, either.

“The three teams from the Big East conference that got bids … have as good a chance to win a national title as anyone else, which just goes to show how strong the conference was this year,” UConn guard Hassan Diarra said Wednesday. “It’s tragic that some teams missed out.”

As for the media piece, the Big East’s rights become available again starting in 2025. UConn’s current form couldn’t come at a better time for a conference attempting to ensure its long-term security.

“We’re in a very active stage” of rights negotiations, Big East commissioner Val Ackerman said. As new deals get closer to the finish line, incumbents Fox and CBS are currently expected to hold onto large parts of the package. Fox has expanded its basketball programming in recent years, and with plans to replace WWE’s Friday Night SmackDown with an end-of-week college football package, the network could build a similar hoops-based property for when the football season ends.

A third partner—possibly a streamer—might emerge as well. Outside of men’s basketball, the Big East has partnered with FloSports to host the Big East Digital Network.

“The media business is certainly facing some headwinds right now … but the need for programming is still there,” said Bob Thompson, longtime sports TV executive and the founder of Thompson Sports Group. “Product quality remains extremely important, so I certainly expect that a property like this would be at the top of [those rightsholders’ priority] lists.”

Still, keeping up is only going to get more difficult with time. Even a doubling of per-school media rights fees would leave Big East athletic departments bringing in a fraction of what Big 12, Big Ten and SEC schools are due to get as part of their latest megadeals.

“We expect there’s going to be a growing revenue gap between the conferences we consider peers in basketball and us, because of the football money,” Ackerman said. “That challenge is real for our schools.”

However, she added, Big East schools intend to generate the revenue needed to remain successful on the hardwood. And the basketball programs’ status as the biggest shows on campus has some benefits, from NIL prioritization to facility emphasis. Plus, there aren’t the football-related expenses to worry about.

Just over a decade after overhauling its membership, the Big East now stands out for its stability. UConn is the only addition in that time, and the group hasn’t lost a member as rumors of a Huskies-Big 12 dalliance fade for the moment. The conference didn't add any former Pac-12 members over the last couple of years, and to date has not seen the necessary financial value in expanding its basketball membership.

“At least ​​for now, we think we're in the right place,” Ackerman said, though she added that the conference would continue to closely monitor changes around the country in case new opportunities arose.

In the meantime, the Big East’s current membership has extended historic rivalries like Georgetown-Villanova and fostered new ones, like Creighton-UConn. Fittingly given the name, it remains the biggest basketball conference with some semblance of geographic logic. So far, the group has also proven its ability to stay competitive on the court, selection committee be damned.

On Thursday, Ackerman will be in Boston to watch the Huskies in a 2023 title game rematch against San Diego State. Then she heads to Detroit, where Creighton takes on Tennessee Friday night.

Where Ackerman flies from there is undetermined. But her conference, for now, is staying aloft.

More March Madness stories:

UConn Banks on Basketball’s Value in Football-Driven NCAA
Ousted Cinderellas Still Cash in After March Madness Losses
Arizona’s Sweet 16 Run a Bright Spot Amid $30M Budget Shortfall
LSU’s Kim Mulkey Threatens Washington Post With Lawsuit
JuJu Watkins, Hannah Hidalgo Lead Next Wave

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