Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Rear View Mirror

For about a week this past summer, all eyes were on the college realignment saga of the Big XII confernce. In an era where no one outside the Ivy League wants a simple eight team conference anymore, the push by the Big Ten to add one, three, or five members was expected to be a frontal assault on the Big East, but instead turned west and headed in the direction of the Big XII, itself the remnants of the Southwest and Big 8 conferences. A week later, the chairs had been shuffled, slightly, and things went back to normal.

Last week, no chairs moved, but one was rattled.

The uneasy alliance of the Big East conference was put back into the discussion mode when it was confirmed that Villanova University was approached by the conference to move its I-AA football team into the conference for football. Aside from the soul-searching and due diligence Villanova needs to do before approving it, it raises a lot of issues about the confernence as a whole and Georgetown in specific going forward.

If you think Villanova's decision can't, or won't affect Georgetown, read on.

Villanova fielded its first football program in 1894 and, much like Georgetown, went to off-campus stadia in the 1930's to raise revenue. Villanova games were often held in Shibe Park, with a schedule common among Catholic schools in the East--Boston College, Holy Cross, Detroit, maybe a service academy, with a big name like Miami or Penn State thrown in from time to time.

The Cats escaped the collapse of Eastern Catholic football because they had an on-campus facility when needed, but also chose to limit home games to 2or 3 a year in the 1950's so as to pay the bills on the road. During much of the 1950's, Villanova played two games a year on campus, one in Municipal Stadium, and the rest on the road, playing at places like Texas A&m and Florida State, before settling in as a competitive Eastern I-A independent. In 1961, Villanova played in the Sun Bowl, and the inaugural Liberty Bowl in 1962, back when it was in Philadelphia.

By 1980, the Villanova schedule was a mix of local and regional opponents: Temple, Penn, Delaware, VMI, Boston College, and Navy, among others. But afer a 6-5 season, the school pulled the plug. Villanova Stadium (capacity=12,000) was no longer enough to attract good games and the cost of 85 scholarships (then almost $5,000 apiece) wasn't being justified. But instead of laying down and giving up like St. John's, Northeastern, and a dozen other Eastern programs have done in the interim, Villanova alumni rallied to raise funds to bring it back. By 1985, the school had agreed to return to the gridiron, but this time in Division I-AA.

In the intervening quarter century, Villanova has been able to leverage its 63 scholarships and the halo of its Big East basketball reputation to be one of the best teams in the subdivision, culminating in last season's national title. Thought to be a comparable fit for the Patriot League, the school regularly dismissed such talk,Approached in 1997 to join the Big East, the school turned it down, but are now giving it a second thought. What changed?

Money. Television could make Villanova I-A football more than a passing fancy.

In an earlier generation, TV revenues from football were a nice to have but no sure thing; prior to 1984, national TV appearances were strictly limited by school. The dissolution of the NCAA football contract, the rise of ESPN, and the assimilation of major college football powers have made membership in one of the six BCS conferences a revenue machine. Before the first ticket is sold, a move to Big East football would double the TV revenues received by Villanova from roughly $3.5 million to almost $7 million in the current CBS/ESPN contracts negotiated by the conference.

Could $3.5 million a year pay for those 22 extra scholarships? Absolutely. Could $3.5 million a year provide revenue for improved facilities, women's scholarships, and the kind of national exposure that playing Towson or Rhode Island could never do? Absolutely. Would it put Villanova in play for the millions distributed in the BCS bowl process? Absolutely. And, much as Cincinnati did, could you see a scenario where Villanova could run the table right to a BCS invite in the Orange Bowl? No, but that's why they play the games.

Admissions wise, Villanova is under no pretense of an academic index and already deals with the issue of scholarship athletes through its admissions process. Its 2014 class included 14 schoalrship recipients and seven on financial aid. Presumably, a move upward earns all 21 a scholarship.

Villanova isn't deciding this issue on the present landcape, but the future, and the windfall is even more profound.

The chiuef reason the Big Ten has purused such an aggressive expansion strategy, even if it meant tearing apart other conferences, has been TV monies. After only three years, the Big Ten Network is generating close to $20 million in revenue for every Big Ten school. Because the Big Ten network is a for-profit service, you're paying some smount (projected at 85 cents a month if you're in a Big Ten market, 15 cents outside market) deep within your cable or DirecTV bill to add that channel. Well, wonder now why the Big Ten was interested in Rutgers--any idea how many New York and New Jersey cable customers would add to to the bottom line?

"It's getting to be like the NFL where it doesn't matter if anybody sits in the stands because the TV money will be so great," former Purdue football coach Joe Tiller told USA Today.

How does this affect the Big East? As part of its efforts to fend off the Big Ten, the league office enlisted Georgetown board chairman Paul Tagliabue (C'62) to examine how the conference could build its own all-sports cable network, leveraging the large metropolitan areas within the league (New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Pittsburgh, Tamps-St. Petersburg, etc.) into a framework that could make the revenues enough for the Syracuses and Louisvilles of the world to be comfortable in staying in the Big East and not, like Nebraska, cut ties with its past for a big check. Early estimates in the press conclude existing TV deals with ESPN and a Big East Network (the "BEN") could return its I-A football schools upwards of $15 million a year, but maybe only $5-6 million for the other Big East schools not in the football conference.

Villanova is probably looking at a current CAA TV package under $100,000 per school, if that, plus a ESPN package of $3-4 million. How about adding $10 million every year to that athletic budget sound, folks?

Remember, that's $10 million before the first ticket is sold, before the first bowl payout, before the first dollar in merchandise royalties. $10 million on its own could fund free tuition for an additional 200 student-athletes a year on the Main Line, turning nearly every Villanova athletic team into a national contender. If you're wondering why Notre Dame and Northwestern have suddenly become lacrosse powers or why Duke seems to do so well in so many Olympic sports, look no further than that check in the mail.

It's not to say Villanova doesn't have some hurdles ahead of it. The competitive jump from I-AA to I-A is enormous. It's one thing to pick up a kid who was leaning to Delaware, now they would be competing against kids looking at Pitt and Penn State. Phialdelphia fans love a winner, but ask Temple what it's like when 7,000 people show up for a game.

Villanova's on campus stadium isn't much, and the residents, while not as litigious as their Georgetown brethren, aren't going to stand for an expansion to house 60,000 people in their neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon. Lincoln Financial Field is tied up in a long-term lease with Temple and Penn's Franklin Field is still better suited for the days of Chuck Bednarik and than today's Big East teams. The Wildcats may literally be looking at a shuffle of games between an 18,000 seat soccer stadium in Chester, a game or two at Franklin Field, and a game or two at Citizens Bank Park when the Phillies' season concludes.

And, who knows, maybe someone has a spot of land west of Conshohoken that might want to build a $60-80 million stadium on some day. $10 million is a pretty good down payment.

What does this mean for the Big East? Adding Villanova to the league wouldn't have the gravitas of adding a big name like, say, Nebraska, but who else is out there--Central Florida, East Carolina, Memphis? Intra-conference expansion allows the Big East to even its schedule (four home, four away) out without having to walk across the minefield of asking for a 17th school. At the start, it offers its members an easy win each year for some period, though for the Patriot League's last expansion, the winning has gone on longer than expected.

It slso sends a message to the other eight that the conference is still committed to football, and its opens the Philadelphia cable market to this possible cable TV endeavor. Secondarily, it tips the balance of power to the so-called "football schools" in confernece legislation, assiming they would vote as a bloc.

What does this mean for the conference realignment grist mill? It reinforces the expectation that the Big East will still be moving towards the number of 12 for a conference playoff. It also tells people that if the football schools decide to go on its own and take the TV money with them, Villanova gets a seat on the big bus, and schools like Georgetown are in the rear view mirror. A lot of georgetown people like to wave such a scenario off and tell themselves "we're Georegetown, they'd never drop us." Yet, half of the Big XII was within 48 hours of leaving for the Pac-10 this pat June and exiling a basketball power like Kansas to no conference at all. When big money talks, loyalties go right out the window. Ask our (old) friends at Boston College what loyalty means to them.

While it's no secret now that the Big East contacted Villanova, it's also no secret the Big East did not contact the remaining Big East school playing I-AA football, Georgetown. A lot of Big East fans either forget Georgetown plays football or doen't even realize it. The Big East office knows it, of course, but in the past they've tried to distance themselves from even suggesting that the conference look to Georgetown to effectuate expansion. It's presumptous to say Georgetown is not welcome in the Big East for football, but the league has no intention of encouraging it, either.

I'm neutral on the whole idea. Georgetown would be foolish not to consider it; but then again, this is a school who can't get the Multi-Sport Facility built, either. Would Georgetown as an institution be ready to recruit the kids and sign the leases to play West Virginia at FedEx Field someday? Than again, if the Big East went on its own way and Georgetown was not part of its plans, would the basketball program be in danger of deemphasis and retrenchment into the regional program it was in the 1970's?
At the very least, Georgetown needs to give fans and donors some sort of aspirational outlook for the next 10 years:
  1. Where does it want to be in 2020? In the Big East for all sports except football? With football? Somewhere else entirely? If push came to shove, will it do whatever it has to to maintain its Big East membership; and, will the donors be expected to do likewise? If GU is not to commit any more than it has to, what is the next era of Georgetown Athletics going to look like?
  2. Where does it want football to be in 2020? Is there a roadmap for reaching competitive parity within the Patriot League, or does it need to look elsewhere?
  3. At least ten Georgetown teams compete with no facilities of its own whatsoever. What is the long range plan for these teams?
  4. At present trends, the cost of attendance at Georgetown will approach or exceed $80,000 in 2020. Can Georgetown afford to maintain athletic scholarship support with nearly 800 student-athletes in its care? If so, where are the revenue sources to support it?
  5. What is the short-term and long-term impact if the Multi-Sport Facility and Athletic Training Facility are not built in the next three years?
By 2020, of course, many of these decisions may be out of Georgetown's hands. Whatever the outcome, at least Villanova's decision is still within theirs.