Television, Leverage and The Collapse of The Big East

Dec 3, 2011; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats players hold up the Big East Championship trophy after beating the Connecticut Huskies 35-27 at Nippert Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tony Tribble-USA TODAY Sports

College football is becoming more and more of a television product, as much as an athletic endeavor. The Big East is marching toward, at worst case, impending dissolution with today’s news that seven non-football schools are seeking separation. Best case for the conference is it becomes a redressed version of Conference USA, even more than it already is. Several factors have gone into the Big East’s decline, but TV is at the forefront.

The more TV interests intervene on football matters, the closer it feels like we’re inching to games played in studios on lots in Hollywood.

Picture it now: College Football, performed before a live studio audience! Instead of Groupons for games struggling to fill seats, fans can get free tickets on Venice Beach while evading the street performers and medical marijuana vendors. As for the actual broadcasts: canned cheers on first downs and cross-promotion of other network properties; ever want to see Two Broke Girls co-star Kat Denning guest-coach Tennessee during the SEC on CBS? (Cue Vols fan pointing out she may have had more success than Derek Dooley).

I may be exaggerating, but there’s no denying the profound impact TV is having on college football — some of it positive, some negative.

Football and TV share what in some ways is a symbiotic relationship. The latter has helped fueled the game’s meteoric rise in popularity, and in turn, football broadcasts give networks attractive content for advertisers. Lucrative sponsorship is funding the astronomical broadcasting rights contracts shaping football’s 21st century identity.

More eyeballs than ever are fixed on the gridiron, yet the ubiquitous empty stadium shot is as much a part of Saturdays in the 21st century as Brent Musberger referncing Las Vegas lines and Pitbull hocking soda.

Such contests in cavernous conditions are reminiscent of the classic 1981 Terry Funk-Jerry Lawler match from Memphis.

Memphis – Empty Arena Match – Jerry Lawler vs…

The empty stadium syndrome prevalent around the country becomes a talking point every year around this time when reports of unsold bowl tickets surface. Toledo had sold a reported 300 tickets to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Nevada is struggling to dole out its allotment of tickets for the New Mexico Bowl. Even powerhouse Florida State is reportedly lagging in distributing its tickets for the Orange Bowl.

Travel expenses limit fans in following their teams, and neutral games can be difficult sells to locals, particularly in cities that aren’t college football rabid. Moreover, technological advancements has made watching football at home more enjoyable. Though not as applicable in bowl season, the explosion of satellite and expanded package cable TV lets a consumer see multiple games at once. What can be better for the ardent college football fan than settling onto the couch with a hot pizza, cold beer and a plethora of games from which to choose?

That’s a big reason sponsors are willing to shell out top dollar for advertisements on football broadcasts, and in turn it’s given the networks tremendous clout. There are programs that still fill the stadiums, sure. And because those stadiums are full, those who can’t be in the venue tune in at home. These schools have some leverage when negotiating television deals.

For the schools reenacting Funk-Lawler, they have no leverage to counteract the network’s growing influence.

ESPN wields the most power of the networks. Controlling the BCS and its reincarnation in 2014, the Worldwide Leader is as much a central player in college sports as the NCAA; perhaps more so. Its parent company, Disney, has infinite resources. A conference like the Big East can’t contend with that.

And originally, the Big East kissed the proverbial ring by accepting Friday night broadcasts and the less prestigious noon ET Saturday kickoffs. The Big East tried to exercise leverage when it balked at an extension with ESPN, and rumors of a partnership with burgeoning CBS and NBC networks emerged. But with instability in its leadership – the league has had three commissioners since 2009 – and the departures of multiple members demonstrate just how much power TV has over the sport.

The Big East is celebrated as the premiere basketball conference over the last half-decade, and its legacy defined that sport’s most important formative years in the 1980s. Like Big East football, which once produced national championship game contenders and one of the greatest teams of all-time, Big East basketball appears headed to the same fate.

And what becomes of the football programs in the conference? The Big East has been lowballed in its broadcast negotiations. With the loss of automatic qualifier status, a paltry payday makes the conference even less attractive. Newcomers like Boise State and San Diego State have the option of remaining in the Mountain West; but where would Cincinnati, winner of at least a share of four of the conference’s championships since 2008, be left to go?

There goes the conference’s last bit of leverage in its futile fight. The Big East is evaporating, and the devolution will be televised.