What's old is new again for the brand new Big East Conference, set to return officially to its old, basketball-first ways on July 1. That message was reiterated on Wednesday afternoon, when the conference unveiled Val Ackerman, inductee into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame, as its first commissioner. Ackerman previously held positions with USA Basketball, the NBA and the WNBA, and is the current U.S. representative to FIBA, the International Basketball Federation.
"Val has a passion for the game of basketball that would do Dave Gavitt proud," Providence College President Rev. Brian J. Shanley said in a conference call, invoking the name of the man who saw basketball as the future of college sports back in 1979, and created the original Big East. Shanley went on to use the word "basketball" twice more in two subsequent sentences.
Ackerman herself added: ''The decision by the schools that broke away from the old Big East, now the American Athletic Conference, sort of was a statement, that as far as sports go, this is going to be about being a superior basketball organization.''
The message, as I understood it: Basketball.
This is a Big East back in its comfort zone, 10 schools strong, without that pesky college football behemoth to get in the way. Georgetown wants to play major college football about as much as Seton Hall does, or Providence does. Rivalries forged in this conference, it is safe to say, aren't threatened anytime soon by football.
But what I find fascinating about the new endeavor isn't just whether the Big East can survive absent football. Most of the reasons to doubt that have already fallen away, with Fox Sports One signing on for a 12-year, $500 million deal to broadcast Big East basketball beginning this fall. The basketball-first nature of the programs involved both serves as the kind of binding self-interest for each program that other conferences can't trade on, while making the programs themselves less attractive to poachers.
"Big East schools have a value set," Ackerman said. "They have a homogeneity that is important, and desirable, and attractive."
Fox Sports One certainly thought so. So did Madison Square Garden, which signed on long-term to host the conference's men's basketball tournament. Accordingly, the new Big East has plenty of money, and the kind of stability that other conferences can only bring about with restrictive grants of media rights agreements.
But that's mostly about the present. And the consistent flow of schools to wherever the greatest revenue is to be had -- which is to say, where football pays the most -- would seem to suggest that football is still going to be king.
Only the problem for the other power conferences is, each passing day seems to make it less and less likely that football is an economically sustainable game, particularly for colleges.
If the NFL concussion case leads to a massive judgment against the league, it is pretty safe to assume that the game, and its feeder system, will be hit in a number of ways. Subsequent lawsuits can point to the judgment as an effective means of illustrating the danger of football itself. And there's a staggering amount of evidence that, as our Patrick Hruby put it, "safe football is a myth."
You know who else is paying attention to that? Insurance companies. If the NCAA Thinks potentially paying players will have a huge effect on their annual profits -- a laughable argument, but sure, a risk the Big East shares -- one can only imagine the cost of skyrocketing insurance premiums to cover a game that cannot be played safely. (Not to mention the theoretical moral responsibility of colleges exposing their own students to the game, but honestly, that's last on the list of likely motivators.)
So while the Big East is insulated from the potential downfall of college football over the medium- and long-term, it is also avoiding the largest single payout in college sports right now: the conference network. For instance: Rutgers, by leaving the American Athletic Conference for the Big Ten, has multiplied its media rights payout by many times.
But that math only works as long as cable companies continue to employ the process of bundling, where people who wouldn't under any circumstances purchase the Big Ten Network subscribe to it as the cost of receiving channels they do want.
The day bundling comes to an end, and Congress is already looking into it, all networks will suffer. Some, though, more than others. Fox Sports One is building a network across many sports, with the kind of broad-based appeal that should allow it to better survive an a la carte world than, say, the Big Ten Network.
Later on in the conference call, Ackerman was asked about the possibility of the University of Connecticut, should it find a suitable football home, playing basketball in the new Big East. The Huskies were once the proud leaders of the old, great Gavitt creation, dominating in women's basketball and winning the men's conference roughly as often as the more-heralded Syracuse and Georgetown.
But Connecticut went big-time in football; after some initial success, the Huskies were 5-7 last year and are likely to struggle this year. The move to football happened for a simple reason: that's where the money was. However, with no offer from the ACC or Big Ten forthcoming, Connecticut is stuck, for now, in the AAC, a conference with a far cloudier identity and future.
"It's not anything I've thought about," Ackerman said, as she had to, about the prospect of Connecticut returning to the Big East fold. "Obviously, Connecticut's basketball traditions speak for themselves. And I guess we don't know what the future could bring, long-term, in terms of any particular alliance."
For now, the alliance is between the Big East, basketball, and as capable a representative for the sports as possible in Val Ackerman. And while realignment may have forced it to happen, that may turn out to be the safest bet of all.