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Too Short For A Column: Big 10 Expansion and How To Save The Big East

A few months back, I took a page out of Rick Reilly’s playbook, and wrote something called “Too Short For A Column,” on the ESPN documentary “The U.” Too short for a column is one of Reilly’s best ideas, a simple way of saying, “I have an opinion on something, but don’t feel like writing 1000 words about it.” And since Reilly is the highest paid sports writer on the planet, I’m going to defer to him, and say he’s on to something.

Anyway, “Too Short For A Column,” is back on AaronTorres-Sports, this time to discuss Big 10 expansion. It’s the question I get e-mailed and asked about the most, probably because of weird affinity for all things UConn (I’m wearing my Tina Charles jersey while writing this…Kidding. Sort of) and the fact that I write about college sports more than pro. Either way, I’ve been asked about it at least a dozen times over the last couple weeks, and it’s time for me to address it. Whether I really want to or not.

But before I give you my take, you need to know it comes with a twist.

You see, Big 10 expansion is obviously going to happen, with the Big East likely getting blown up in the process. There’s talk that Rutgers, Syracuse, UConn and Pitt will all join the conference, or the possibility that just a few of them do. Or maybe two of them, and Nebraska and Missouri from the Big XII. Whatever. The point is, it’s going to happen. One, because Big 10 commissioner Jim Delaney is a power hungry lunatic, and two, because the people who run the Big East make Hugh Hefner’s ladies on The Girls Next Door look like Mensa members by comparison.

So instead of this article being about how the Big 10 should approach expansion, this is instead about what the Big East should do to keep it from happening on their watch…

Here it is, “Too Short For A Column: Big 10 Expansion”

(Aaron’s Note: I wrote that intro before I actually started writing the piece. Meaning that, this article actually became wayyyyy too long to be considered, “too short for a column.” But I liked the intro, so it’s saying. And if you don’t like it, well too bad. It’s my website!)

When expansion talk first came to light, I like everyone else assumed that the Big 10 was simply looking to get 12 teams for a football conference championship game. Made sense right? After all, they’re at 11 now, and the logical play would be to get one more team in ASAP, stage a conference championship game, fill up a stadium in Chicago, Indianapolis or Detroit, and rake in all the cash that would come with it.

As a fan of a Big East school, my gut reaction was simple: It’s time to finally give Notre Dame the ultimate ultimatum. They can either join the Big East for all sports, including football, or they can take a walk. It’s that simple

However since Notre Dame is about as likely to join the Big East for football as I am to join a gym for their pilates and yoga classes, that’d be the end of Notre Dame in the Big East. With them gone, the conference could add Memphis for all sports, which would not only strengthen the Big East’s already top-flight basketball brand, but also wouldn’t take much away from football. Memphis plays in a nice stadium- the Liberty Bowl- and as reader Chris C., pointed out, already has natural geographic and historical rivals in Louisville and Cincinnati.

As for Notre Dame, they could stay independent, or try to find another conference to take on all their sports except football. I don’t really care, I just want them gone. The Irish have been bullying the Big East and playing the “Holier Than Thou,” card for far too long. Honestly, seeing the whole thing first hand, reminds me of dating a girl that knows she’s way out of your league. Sure at first it’s cool to have a hottie to show off to your friends, even if she is a little bitchy at times. But eventually you realize that it doesn’t matter what she looks like, it’s just not worth all the expensive dinners and fancy jewelry that it takes to keep her happy. And you break up. That’s where I was at with Notre Dame. Either put up or shut up.

Unforuntately though, I was wrong with my original premise on expansion. Dead wrong actually.

This whole expansion thing isn’t about the Big 10 getting to 12 teams, and this isn’t about getting a football championship game. It’s bigger than that. Not to sound like Dr. Evil from Austin Powers, but what this is really about is the Big 10 and Jim Delaney taking over the world. Or at least the world of college athletics.

From everything I’ve read, and the people that I’ve talked to, Big 10 expansion is about eyeballs. What do I mean by that?

Well, the Big 10 was the first conference to take the progressive step of starting a conference only network, the same way that the NFL created the NFL Network, and the NBA and MLB followed suit. Because of the Big 10 Network alone, each member school in the conference supposedly gets $22 million a year just from the league’s television contract. Although that number has come under fire lately for maybe being, umm, a bit inflated.

Either way, the Big 10′s expansion is about getting as many eyeballs to their television network as humanly posssibly. The reason being, that more eyeballs, equals more viewers, more viewers equals more TV money, and more TV money makes for more happy member schools. Makes sense right?

Which is why in Delaney’s mind, 12 teams just aren’t enough. Why stop at 12, when you can get to 14…or 16…or 40. Who cares!

Ok, maybe the Big 10 won’t go to 40, but I truly believe that if Delaney thought it was tangible, he’d try to make it happen. Again, the guy is more power hungry than an African dictator. Actually, what he’s really like, is a young CEO out on the town for the first time with his company credit card. Why get just the steak, when you can get salmon too? Why stop at two bottles of wine when you can get four? Why not add some dessert while we’re at? It’s conspicuous consumption turned into survival of the fittest. And it’s turning college athletics upside down.

Again though, it’s about eyeballs. That’s why by all reports, Delaney has targeted Rutgers and Syracuse from the Big East, not to mention he’s reportedly interested in Nebraska and Missouri from the Big XII too. Secure the first two, and you’ve now got every television set from upstate New York (With some New Hampshire and Vermont probably thrown in too) down through the massive New York City conglomerate and into New Jersey, which only happens to be the most densely populated state in the U.S. That is millions, and millions of television sets, all of which will need the Big 10 Network on their cable package. At least in Delaney’s eyes.

Add Missouri and Nebraska and you’re talking about a whole lot of ground covered, and a whole bunch more TV’s and eyeballs, that are now suddenly in the Big 10′s “market.” Apparently it doesn’t matter whether those televisions are actually tuned into that Saturday Rutgers-Purdue football game, just as long as they’re there.

So if I were running the Big East, rather than getting caught with my pants down in six months, or a year, or two, what would I do? Well, I’d start by being proactive instead of reactive.

(Side note, that’s been the Big East’s biggest problem for all these years: They sit around and allow themselves to get bullied, like the chubby kid at recess. It’s really kind of pathetic.

What I find particularly ironic and disconcerting as a fan, is that Big East commissioner John Marinatto recently came out and said that since taking over the conference, it was actually Delaney who reached out, and had been a friend and mentor to him.

Wait a second… I feel a rant coming…

A friend? Really Marinatto! Ya schmuck! A friend! The guy’s been checking out your infrastructure, teams and schools, is ready to destroy your conference (not to mention your livelihood, and legacy on this planet), and you’re calling him a friend! What’s wrong with you!

Now back to your regularly scheduled conference expansion talk)

If I were running the Big East, the first thing I’d do is drive down the Jersey Turnpike, and sit down with the Rutgers brass. Not in a month, or six months. Today.

The reason I’d go to Rutgers first, is that they’re the centerpiece of the New York/New Jersey market. As crazy as it sounds, I truthfully think that Rutgers- yes Rutgers- is the kingpin in this expansion talk. If they leave for the Big 10, the dominoes fall, and the Big East as we know it ceases to exist. If they stay, you cut the Big 10′s legs out from under them, and all of a sudden, it’s the Big East who’s negotiating from strength with the other schools. Without Rutgers, the Big 10 might still expand, but their entire plan gets thrown out the window without the New York television market.

My message to Rutgers would be clear: You’re either with us or against us. No waiting, no debating. We need to know today, do you want to be a member of the Big East or not?

I’d tell them that if their decision is strictly about dollars and cents, we can’t compete with the Big 10. Sorry, but it’s true. I’d tell them to go to the Big 10, have fun, and send a nice postcard from Ann Arbor. It was nice knowing ya.

Again, if it’s about dollars and cents, we can’t compete. But if it’s about implied dollars and cents, then they should stay.

So what do I mean by “implied dollars and cents?” Well, it’s a term I just created, to define all the money that would get pumped through the Rutgers athletic department by staying in the Big East, that can’t be accounted for just by reading the fine print of a TV contract.

Like the fact that Rutgers can sell 5000+ tickets to away football games at Syracuse and UConn, and are more likely to fill up their stadium in a down season, when those teams are on the schedule (Good luck doing the same with Purdue and Northwestern). Or the fact that the school sells a whole lot of Big East Tournament ticket packages, for both the men’s and women’s basketball programs. These are things that the Big 10- with their fancy television contract- just can’t offer to Rutgers, or the school’s fans.

After I give the pitch, I hope and pray the Rutgers people buy what I’m selling, and if they do, I lock them into a long-term contract, with a major price to pay if the school ever decides to leave the conference.

(Aaron’s note: I’d be lying if I said that I knew exactly how these contracts between the schools and the conferences worked. I don’t. But what I do know, is that if it’s that easy for Rutgers/Syracuse/UConn to get out of one of these contracts, it has to be just as easy to re-work the existing one, so that they have to stay or get penalized. Makes sense, no?)

After Rutgers, I’d go up to Syracuse. And you know what? While I was there, I’d skip right by Athletic Director Daryl Gross’ office, and go straight to Jim Boeheim’s. Because I can you this: Gross might be Boeheim’s boss, but the old coach has way more cache with fans than Gross ever will. They’d fire the AD 100 times over before they’d piss off Boeheim.

While at Syracuse, I’d sit Boeheim down, and tell him the exact thing I told Rutgers: We can’t compete with the dollars and cents of the Big 10.

Buuuut, I’d also tell him, that we all know that Syracuse is a basketball school first and a football school second. We know that Syracuse puts 30,000 people in the Carrier Dome for most Big East games. We know that Syracuse has a massive alumni base in New York, that fills up Madison Square Garden every time you play there. We know that as much as St. Johns and UConn would like to say to the contrary, it is Syracuse that OWNS the Garden every year during the Big East Tournament.

Again, it’s not about the money you’d be making with television, but the money you’d be losing everywhere else. If you’re Syracuse do you really want to risk that? Do you really think you’re more likely to sell 35,000 tickets at the Carrier Dome for a Tuesday night basketball game against Georgetown or Iowa? UConn or Purdue? Villanova or Wisconsin? Would you rather play in front of 500 of your fans in the Big 10 Tournament in Indianapolis, or 10,000 of your fans at Madison Square Garden (With ticket packages selling for $400 a pop)?

I’d say the exact same thing to UConn and Pitt too.

As for the discrepancy in the TV contracts, well I have some thoughts too, although since I don’t know a lot of the specifics, I’ll keep most of my opinions to myself.

But, when it comes to TV, my premise is this: Why can’t the Big East create their own network like the Big 10? If the only way you could watch a Georgetown-Syracuse basketball game, or UConn-Villanova or Louisville-Marquette was “The Big East Network,” wouldn’t you order it? Wouldn’t you force your cable provider to carry it? I know I would.

Beyond that, if you’re the Big East, why not go to another network besides ESPN (Why not ESPN? Because the Worldwide Leader bullies the Big East wayyyyyy too much. When’s the last time  you saw an important Big East football game on a Saturday in primetime? Maybe a Thursday. Or a Friday. Or a Saturday at noon. But never in primetime) and build a TV package around basketball. Sure it wouldn’t be as profitable, but don’t you think Fox Sports would jump on the opportunity to make the Big East their flagship college basketball conference? And don’t you think the viewership would be pretty darn good, especially if Fox used the NFL and Major League playoffs to pimp their college basketball coverage?

Now I know that even with all that, Fox Sports doesn’t have the appeal of ESPN, and probably never will.

But if we’ve learned anything the last decade, it’s that if there’s quality programming on your network, the consumer will find it. After all, The Sopranos was the most successful television show of the past 10 years, and it was on HBO. Mad Men has a huge audience on AMC. The Daily Show has a cult following on Comedy Central. So why can’t Big East basketball be Fox Sports, weekday calling card? Again, if Georgetown and Villanova are playing, aren’t you going to watch that game no matter what channel it’s on??

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So that’s it. That’s all I’ve got. One guy’s take on what it will take to save the Big East, and keep Jim Delaney and the Big 10 from taking over the college sports landscape as we know it. Or at the very least, from ruining the Big East.

I know it’s not perfect, and I’m probably missing some points (In which case, feel free to e-mail me at ATorres00@gmail.com and call me an idiot. It’s ok, I have thick skin). But at least I’m being proactive instead of reactive. At least I’m trying to stand up for my conference, while everyone else let’s it get pushed around.

At least I’m trying to do something.

Which sadly, is more than the people who are actually running the conference can say.

(Love the article? Hate it? Disagree? Think Aaron’s an idiot? Let him know by commenting below, or e-mailing him at ATorres00@gmail.com. Also, for his thoughts on all things sports, be sure to follow him on Twitter @Aaron_Torres and add him on Facebook.com/AaronTorresSports)

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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