December 2, 2011; Eugene, OR, USA; Detail view of the endzone pylon with the Pac-12 logo during the third quarter of the Pac-12 Championship game between the UCLA Bruins and the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. The Ducks defeated the Bruins 49-31. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Dilution Killing Leagues and Rivalries: A Lesson for the Pac-12 in Future Expansion

Hi There: It’s Jeff Taylor (aka huskylenz). I’ve been away for about 6 months due to greater professional and family obligations. Heck, I barely have enough time to check Husky news anymore. But, I am hoping to see some daylight in my schedule in the winter/spring and start contributing to Husky Haul again. Sorry for the absence, but here is something to check out.

The Catholic Schools See the Light

This week, the 7 Catholic non-football schools of the Big East got together to discuss their possible departure from the Big East to form their own basketball conference. The Big East has been one of the most powerful and media-hyped basketball conferences in the nation for years. I’ve written here at “The Husky Haul” previously about them getting more hype than they deserve. But, their strategic presence in the major media markets like New York City, New Jersey, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Providence, Chicago, and Milwaukee have made them an attractive conference for ESPN to hype and advertisers to entice.

But, with the disturbing emergence of the mega-conferences, everything has been thrown into disarray. When Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech all headed south to the ACC, that was a major blow. With Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Notre Dame, Louisville, and Syracuse heading to the ACC as well, plus Rutgers to the Big Ten they have been deprived of nearly all of their most famous and successful football programs. It’s no secret that UConn wants out and so does Cincinnati.

In response, the Big East has desperately scoured Conference USA looking for replacements. South Florida, Central Florida, Houston, Memphis, SMU, and Temple have joined the fray. To keep their football conference intact, they have moved all the way to the Pacific coast with the addition of Boise State and San Diego State in football. East Carolina also doesn’t inspire much excitement as a football-only member.

But, Tulane, the Green Wave of New Orleans appears to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. Tulane is neither a powerhouse in football or basketball. It brings with it a relatively small media market and they are only a minor component of that market with LSU dominating the state. The Catholic schools, which get most of their revenue from basketball, saw adding schools like Tulane as only depleting their RPI and strength of schedule. It is unlikely ESPN would be that excited about showcasing that Villanova-Tulane game, or Central Florida or SMU for that matter.

But, it goes beyond Tulane. The Green Wave are just a symptom of the bigger issue. If and when UConn jumps ship to the ACC or Atlantic 10 or wherever, who will replace them? What about when Cincinnati joins the Big 12? Will they continue to have to raid Conference USA? Is Rice next? Tulsa? Middle Tennessee State? Will they have to venture into the Missouri Valley Conference or Horizon or Summit League for future members?

The seven Catholic schools have something increasingly rare in this conference realignment armageddon…tradition. They have long established rivalries, common interests, common academic standing, similar student bodies, and similar demographic environments. So, now rather than resign themselves to playing large mediocre state-schools from across the country, they can band together for their interests and quality basketball.

If they can convince a couple of other Catholic non-football schools to join them, they could create an all-Catholic urban league that would have ESPN’s attention in the heart of the basketball season, fans from across the country rooting for the little schools fighting against the behemoths of the mega-conferences, and surely an automatic spot in the NCAA tournament.

Candidates to join them include Xavier, Saint Louis, and Creighton. I could even see Notre Dame rethinking their ACC plans to at least contemplate if this new league might be a good fit. Some have also mentioned Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, but I think those two are better served staying in the nearly all-Catholic West Coast Conference. Not only are their travel concerns and regional rivalries, but the two Catholic conferences could also arrange for a scheduling partnership to expand their influence coast-to-coast.

So, what lessons could the Pac-12 learn from a Catholic-10 Conference?

The first lesson is do not mess with the rivalries and do not dilute the talent pool. There are some that will argue that adding Utah and Colorado has already done that to some degree. The conference grabbed the two best academic, athletic, media market, and demographic  institutions available in the region. There is no one left. The battle that erupted about conference divisions and keeping rivalries intact (especially for access to the Los Angeles market) informed the conference presidents that adding more schools just for the sake of money and media exposure would be a mistake in the long term.

Additional instability that might result from lowering their standards to let in lesser academic institutions from mediocre media markets might result in one or more of the schools to decide that the grass in greener elsewhere. If Boise State and San Diego State can decide that it is worth it to fly across the country to play in the Big East, what would stop a USC or Oregon from seeing dollar signs and greater media exposure in the Big Ten, SEC, or Big 12.

Sound ridiculous?

Again, if mega-conferences no longer see geography as boundaries, even larger mega-conferences become possible. Perhaps in 2020 we will see a 32-team mega-league from coast-to-coast. If you value tradition and rivalries like I do, then the Pac-12 needs to say no to further expansion.

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Tags: Basketball Big East Catholic 7 Conference Realignment Conference USA Football Pac-12 Washington Huskies

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