A constant force working behind the scenes at every stage of college conference realignment has been ESPN. College sports are the bread and butter of ESPN’s business, and their money has in turn become the lifeblood of college sports. Ever since the Comcast merger went through, ESPN has been desperately working to prevent NBC from gaining a real foothold in the college landscape. ESPN has done so so doggedly that they may have inadvertently created a potentially greater competitor; although they teamed up with Fox to box NBC out of getting Pac-12 and Big 12 rights, the reports that Fox might create their own all-sports network should have shocked ESPN out of doing any more such team-ups – if anything, it’s NBC they should be teaming up with to box out Fox, or at least CBS or Turner. But ESPN is still the big man on campus, and at least where college sports are concerned, they may be influencing the outcome of the war in other ways.
The first such case is also the most well-established: when the Pac-10 was trying to annex virtually the entire Big 12 South to create the first 16-team superconference, the deal fell through largely because ESPN promised the Big 12 a more lucrative TV contract even with two schools, including mighty Nebraska, gone. Judging by reports, ESPN was not interested in the existence of such superconferences, at least not yet. But ESPN also collected a more directly lucrative payday from the collapse of the Pac-16 deal, because the continued existence of the Big 12 allowed ESPN to make a deal with the University of Texas to create the Longhorn Network.
The creation of the Longhorn Network set off the second wave of conference realignment, after the NBC-Comcast deal already had gone through. Some see in the moves of this second wave ESPN’s influence trying to further blunt any headway NBC might make. To take one example, ESPN last year was in the middle of exclusive negotiations with the Big East, and the conference rejected ESPN’s offer, presumably waiting for this year and for other potential partners like NBC to become part of the negotiations. But things didn’t work out like they had in mind, as the ACC – a conference not even yet affected by realignment, but worried about potential defections to the Big 12 – poached Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East. Anyone who saw that move (and the Big 12’s eventual poaching of West Virginia and TCU) as the proverbial horse’s head in the Big East’s bed for rejecting ESPN’s “offer they can’t refuse” had their fires fueled by the comments of Boston College athletic director Gene DiFilippo, which he subsequently backed off from: “TV — ESPN — is the one who told us what to do.”
If ESPN was the force behind the erosion of the Big East’s football conference, it was a brilliant plan and smashing success. Before, for NBC to pick up the Big East might not have given them something as good as the Big 12 or Pac-12, but it would have given them a BCS conference that probably would count for more than the Mountain West with the likes of West Virginia and Pittsburgh on board. Now, numerically, the Big East has made up for those defections with the additions of SMU, Houston, Central Florida, Boise State, San Diego State, Navy, Memphis, and Temple, but even taking those eight and adding them to Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville, Connecticut, and South Florida doesn’t exactly give you the strongest conference. In fact, it looks a lot like Conference USA a decade ago; Rutgers, Connecticut, and Temple are the only schools that were in the Big East as recently as 2004 or so. Add in that the BCS, by all accounts, is looking to remove the official “automatic qualifying” status for conferences, and it’s hard to see how adding the new Big East would be a step up in any way, at least in football. Right now it looks like a lateral move at best from the old Mountain West.
Not that the Big East is entirely worthless (on the basketball side, Cincinnati, Louisville, Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, Notre Dame, Marquette, AND Memphis? Yes please), but unless NBC is absolutely determined to muscle their way in to college basketball, their energies might now be best directed elsewhere, perhaps towards the Big Ten contract coming up in a few years, with MLB and NASCAR far bigger prizes in the short term. But even if they are determined to muscle in to college basketball, ESPN is the big man on campus there as well. NBC recently signed a contract with the CAA, and now there are rumors that that conference’s two marquee programs, George Mason and VCU, may be bailing for the Atlantic 10. Coincidence? You be the judge. And that’s before wondering how much of a hand ESPN had in the decline of the Mountain West – certainly the death of the Pac-16 led directly to Utah moving to the Pac-12, which proved to be the domino that sent the entire Mountain West tumbling.
To directly tie most of this to ESPN’s meddling may be saying a bit much, and certainly it’s a serious accusation that no one should toss around lightly. But certainly conference realignment has had the effect of tightening ESPN’s hegemony around college sports and made it so that any efforts of NBC or Fox to challenge ESPN are best spent strictly on the pro level, maybe on the Big Ten in a few years. (The BCS doesn’t count because ESPN is the only entity that would or could put the BCS on cable, though cable outlets might have a shot at lesser bowls.)