In a quest for football riches, SDSU’s burgeoning and nationally recognized men’s basketball program will be forced to compete in a downgraded conference arrangement that could tarnish the university’s marquee program, and make it even more difficult to land a coveted spot in the NCAA Tournament.
The much speculated move became official yesterday. The San Diego State and Boise State football teams just became future members of the Big East Conference, which also added Houston, SMU, and Central Florida in all sports.
Big East Conference Commissioner John Marinatto said In an afternoon conference call to announce the additions that the current plan is for the league to expand to 12 teams in two divisions, with the five new members joining remaining football members Louisville, South Florida, Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Rutgers. The Big East has 16 basketball playing members.
The move is entirely driven by finances, and it should be a good one—at least in the short term—for two football programs desperate to become members of the exclusive and lucrative BCS cartel. SDSU Athletics Director Jim Sterk said yesterday that the collective opinions of a myriad of media consultants have placed the value of the next Big East TV contract at anywhere between $6.4 million and $9 million per member institution. That’s a significant raise over the $1.5 million MWC members currently earn, and more than double the $3 million rumored to be allotted to the proposed MWC/CUSA alliance.
It will also help to offset the anticipated $200,000 to $300,000 increase in travel expenses for football due to the increase in the number of East Coast trips.
But the big loser in all of this is the SDSU men’s basketball team. Coming off of an unprecedented 34-3 season, a top 10 national ranking and a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Tournament—where the Aztecs, you may recall, narrowly lost to eventual national champion UConn—the Aztecs are off to an unexpected 9-2 start to the 2011-12 season, including wins over at-the-time ranked teams Arizona in Tucson and Cal. Their only two losses have come at sixth ranked Baylor and against 19th ranked Creighton. Very impressive for a team that was supposed to be in rebuilding mode after losing four of five starters from a year ago.
Since the non-football sports will not be joining the Big East—mainly due to travel concerns and constraints—the SDSU athletics department will have to find a new home for its other teams. It is assumed at this point that the Aztecs will land in the Big West Conference, a conglomeration of nine California schools and Hawaii, who joins the conference next year. The problem is that SDSU would be dropping from the fifth best men’s basketball conference in the Mountain West Conference to the 26th best conference, a precipitous drop in the level of competition, and a major slap in the face to a program that is fast becoming a national name and an annual NCAA Tournament contender. (The Mountain West Conference will not allow schools to remain members without football.)
SDSU is now on the radar of the top recruits in the country……..or at least in the West. But dropping from a league that includes nationally known UNLV and New Mexico as well as an up and coming Colorado St. team and an 8-1 Wyoming (not to mention Boise St. who currently sits at 8-1 and is the eighth highest scoring team in the nation at 84.9 points per game) and replacing them on the schedule with Long Beach St., UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine as your primary conference rivals cannot be an attractive prospect to top level recruits.
To add insult to injury, none of the current Big West schools plays in an arena that approaches anything close to 12,414 seat Viejas Arena. Cal St. Northridge’s Matadome seats just over 1,500. Big time college basketball this is not, and big time college basketball is what SDSU plays.
Coach Steve Fisher and AD Sterk have tried to put a very positive spin on this. They say that as part of the move to the Big East in football, they have cut a deal with the conference whereby the Big East has “committed to facilitate” four basketball games against Big East teams per year, two home and two away, to help mitigate the devastation to the prestige of SDSU basketball. Fisher also said that they will continue to try to schedule multiple games per year against Pac 12 schools such as Arizona, Cal, USC (all on the schedule this year, all of whom the Aztecs beat) and Arizona St.
Fisher also said that the increased “exposure” from being on the ESPN family of networks would also allow him to be able to schedule more power conference teams from other regions of the country that typically don’t make the trip out to San Diego, or care to have the Aztecs visit their place.
But here’s the problem with that: The Mountain West TV contract is often criticized and maligned not only for its paltry-in-comparison payout, but because the conference has no agreement with ESPN, games aren’t seen by a large enough audience; Mountain West teams don’t get enough “exposure.” It’s true that The Mtn., the cable network dedicated exclusively to Mountain West Conference athletics, has not received the kind of distribution they had hoped for and is not available to the nearly 200,000 Time Warner subscribers in San Diego County (in fairness, Time Warner also refuses to carry the NFL Network, meaning all of those Thursday night NFL games cannot be seen either). But that’s not The Mtn.’s fault, and it’s not the fault of the conference, either. It’s Time Warner’s obstinacy and insistence that there is not enough demand for the network, which is patently false, particularly here in San Diego.
The conference also has deals in place with CBS Sports, which is available on just about every cable system in America, and Versus, soon to be rebranded as NBC Sports Network. Distribution for those networks is not a problem. They just don’t yet have the name recognition or caché of ESPN. Besides……The Mtn. is available on DirecTV, which is in just about every sports bar in the country.
ESPN is the primary benefactor of Big East basketball, yet it remains to be seen whether or not they will continue to carry Big East football once the next contract is hammered out. Negotiations are scheduled to begin next fall. We could see NBC Sports step in as the primary carrier. Or Fox Sports Net. We just don’t know. But as far as SDSU basketball is concerned, the “exposure” argument rings a bit hollow.
Under the current TV arrangement, SDSU will be seen on nationally available TV 20 times and local only 3 times, including four games on NBC Sports and three on CBS Sports. Contrast that to the Big West Conference’s top two teams, Long Beach St. and UC Santa Barbara. The Big West has a contract with ESPN, and yet Long Beach will be seen on TV 11 times total, including only four conference home games and two conference road games. By the end of the regular season, UCSB will have been seen on TV only six times, including once on BYUtv. Neither of UCSB’s home games against SDSU and UNLV last month were available anywhere on TV, and both games went into overtime.
I don’t know what kind of assurances Coach Fisher has been given by ESPN. He has hinted that the network will work with the Aztecs, but has offered no specifics. It’s probably pretty safe to assume that ESPN will not televise 20 Aztecs basketball games. So what happens to the vast majority of games that ESPN doesn’t pick up? It’s possible that the yet to be formally announced or created Fox Sports San Diego channel will pick up some of the slack, but no one knows for sure. And if a similar number of games is not going to be televised, will the “exposure” of a few ESPN games be enough to keep from tarnishing SDSU basketball’s current luster? Color me heavily skeptical.
Just when the Aztecs have established themselves as a perennial NCAA contender, they’re being relegated to the bush leagues. This could be a potentially devastating blow to the future prospects of SDSU basketball. It’s a program on the rise—a rise that has been facilitated by a fairly well respected basketball conference, although one of the marquee teams in the league, BYU, is gone. Still, play in the Mountain West offers member teams a chance to boost their Selection Sunday resume, a luxury that will not be afforded by play in the Big West.
The margin for error will become razor thin. Lose just one conference game and it could be “Hello NIT.” That’s not what this fanbase has come to expect these days. If the Aztecs expect to build a resume worthy of an at-large bid to the Big Dance out of the Big West, they’re going to have to play a lot more than four power conference teams, and they’re going to have to WIN a whole lot more of those games than they lose. Currently the only way to have your ticket punched to the Big Dance out of the Big West is to win the conference tournament, and it’s likely to stay that way even with the addition of SDSU.
Sterk and SDSU President Elliott Hirshman both insisted that no decisions have been made regarding SDSU’s non-football future, and that there are “multiple opportunities” for the Aztecs. But realistically, there are only two out there that make any kind of sense whatsoever: The Western Athletic Conference and the Big West, and all signs points to the Big West.
The Big West will be just fine for SDSU in baseball, soccer, and just about every other sport. But the men’s and women’s basketball teams are going to suffer. They’ve essentially been thrown under the bus in a desperate reach for football riches. Sterk, Fisher, and Hirshman all say that the added revenues from Big East football will strengthen ALL of SDSU’s athletics teams. While I completely understand the need to more than triple your revenue stream, what this is going to do to the premier team in San Diego in a revenue generating sport is nothing less than a travesty.
The BCS cartel has now officially killed college athletics.