The East End is heavily populated with Big East alumni, especially those who attended the seven Catholic universities that don't play major college football. Finally St. John's, Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, Marquette, and DePaul have fought back in the melee that has become conference realignment. Within the last couple of weeks, these schools announced their plans to leave the Big East and pursue a new basketball venture. Most recently, ESPN has reported that the "Catholic Seven" has had preliminary talks with Fox Sports on a 12-year, $500 million TV deal.
For the past two years, the Big East has been the laughing stock of the power six conferences. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame, and Louisville left for the ACC, West Virginia bounced for the Big 12, and Rutgers announced it would leave for the Big 10. While every other conference was adding big name members, the Big East Conference stood on the sideline like a bunch of losers, adding the likes of East Carolina, Tulane and Houston.
Former commissioner John Marinatto trusted his members in an era when few athletic departments could spell the word loyalty. When it became clear that football would dictate the conference's fate, Marinatto didn't go fishing for the big catch; he waited on Villanova to decide whether it was going to move up to the FBS level. Speaking as an alum, Villanova wouldn't have added any real value to Big East football. Even if the idea had come to fruition, it wouldn't have stopped the other six schools from leaving for bigger football payouts.
Meantime, many scoffed at the "Catholic Seven," believing it was an unmarketable venture. But the rumored payout appears to be quite impressive for a basketball-centric conference. The deal being discussed would bring in approximately $5 million per school, per year over the next 12 years. To compare, schools in the Atlantic-10 (Xavier, Butler, St. Joes, etc.) earn a measly $400,000 per season. While $5 million is well short of the big time football programs, (which earn upwards of $20 million), it's not too shabby for a group of schools that faced an uncertain future just one month ago.
According to league officials, the Catholic schools won't be able to get out of their Big East commitment until June 2015. At that point they can fight to keep the Big East name or they can find a new name for their venture. I think they should fight to retain the Big East name, as the new league will have four founding members (Providence, Georgetown, St. John's, and Seton Hall) and a focus on basketball, which is what the Big East was founded on. With a major network backing them, these schools deserve the chance to rebuild a brand that has been tarnished and diluted over the last few years.
Going forward, the new league will likely look to add three to five teams and form its own 10 or 12 team conference. St. Joe's, Xavier, and Butler are three schools that would be good adds. St. Joe's would set up some nice local rivalries. Xavier has always considered itself a basketball school. And Butler has one of the brightest, young coaching minds in Brad Stevens, along with back-to-back trips to the NCAA Championship game.
Another key for the seven schools and their new conference is to keep their tournament at Madison Square Garden. MSG is signed with the Big East for another five years, but the arena will be allowed to adjust as conference memberships change. Maintaining their tournament in the basketball mecca will help maintain the credibility of the conference. St. John's use of the Garden as its home-away-from-home should provide an advantage in this process.
The Big East was built on basketball and destroyed by the quest for the dollars that football generates. The seven Catholic schools made a great decision to finally forge their own path. With the support of a major network, it appears that the "Catholic Seven" has a real future on the hardwood. The schools that became the least coveted in conference realignment, may in fact get the last laugh.
Pete is a lifelong Montauk resident and former sports talk host at 88.7FM WEER. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org