The Big East Conference tournament tipped off at Madison Square Garden (for a 38th consecutive year) last night (Wednesday). The 2020 edition is the culmination of the 7th college basketball season played since the ‘original’ league was gutted (mostly by the ACC) and left for dead during the last round of conference affiliation musical chairs (in the early ’10s). The Big East has since recovered, reclaiming its position this year as America’s top basketball conference (at least according to RPI) for the first time since the 2011-2012 season. Strong additions in Creighton, Butler and Xavier and a pair of men’s basketball national championship teams (Villanova ’16, Villanova ’18) have aided the conference’s resurgence on the floor (Seton Hall’s return to prominence has also been a boon), but it was the hiring of former WNBA President Val Ackerman – along with some fortuitous timing – that has gotten the league back on track financially.
Howie Long-Short: When Ackerman first stepped into her role as Commissioner in July ’13, the conference had “no infrastructure. There was no office, no staff, no website and no bank accounts. It was a startup in the truest sense [of the word].”
While Ackerman took over a league that lacked many of the nuts and bolts needed to operate at the D-1 level, the cupboard wasn’t bare. Several key components were in place for her to build around including; a new national broadcast pact with FOX Sports (which was launching FS1 at the same time and needed programming). The deal (12-years, $500 million) “is widely considered to be very strong in terms of both revenue and visibility.” Every men’s basketball game is on linear television and no conference has more hoops games on broadcast television than the ‘new’ Big East has on FOX.
The league’s presidents also managed to retain the Big East brand (+ all of the history books) and the right to continue playing the conference’s men’s basketball tournament at Madison Square Garden prior to Ackerman’s arrival. The Commissioner explained that the seven remaining schools felt like “the Big East name meant something special and [was needed for the league] to maintain relevancy.” In fact, they felt it was so critical that those seven institutions (Villanova, St. Johns, Seton Hall, Georgetown, Providence, DePaul, Marquette) were willing to leave “millions of dollars on the table in the form of earned – but not yet paid – NCAA tournament units in order to acquire the rights to the ‘Big East’ name and the MSG contract [for the new conference].” It should be noted that Ackerman has since extended the conference’s deal to keep the men’s tournament at the World’s Most Famous Arena through 2028 (the extension also eliminated an early termination clause that was in the prior pact).
The Big East doesn’t play football, so aside from media rights, earned tournament units (the bulk of the money paid out by the NCAA) represents the conference’s largest revenue stream. Over the last six years, the conference has managed to successfully replenish all of the units left behind (Villanova’s 2 National Championships have helped to expedite that process). Ackerman said the Big East now stacks up favorably in terms of units received relative to the rest of the men’s D-1 basketball conferences; including several of the P5 football conferences (see: SEC). Ticket (think: men’s basketball tournament) and sponsorship sales (the assets are centered around the 22 championship events) are other significant sources of revenue for the conference.
In July, the University of Connecticut will formally rejoin the conference. Ackerman said that “the reason [the conference decided] to add UCONN was to bolster its immediate revenue streams (think: an increased rights fee from FOX Sports) and to better position the league when it goes back to market with its television and digital rights (in 5 years).” Of course, the chance to regularly claim women’s national titles in basketball, add a men’s program that has won four basketball crowns over the last 20 years and bolster its fan base in the NY tri-state area couldn’t have hurt.
UCONN will be the 11th school in the Big East, but having an odd number of teams doesn’t mean further expansion is coming. Ackerman said “our schools are settled with 11. They were happy with 10. UCONN was the one school they really felt could add something. UCONN was also a charter member of the conference, so that [helped to sway the decision in their favor too]. Adding number 11 doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re going to have add a 12th.”
Editor Note: Please note that joining our community (below) will entitle you to receive our free daily sports business email newsletter.