You think the turmoil in college football was over after TCU decided to move on up to the Big East? Oh, how I wish it were true, but alas, fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy … well, I don’t know how long this will take, it could take years, and it might never stop.
All signs are pointing to Villanova leaving second-division football, where they’re one of the big boys and won the championship in 2009 – in a playoff, a damn playoff, so yes, it can work!!! – and taking their talents to top-flight level. Wildcat officials said they will make a decision in April, but they seem to be tipping their hands. One report on a local news website in January said the school has bought property around Villanova Stadium, presumably in an effort to expand the stadium to comply with top-level attendance requirements. And according to the Sporting News, major ‘Nova donors pledged money to cover the ramp-up costs in a meeting with administrators from the athletic department in late February.
Villanova is about to make a big mistake. I think. Maybe.
If you’ve ever wondered how college football makes money for schools, do yourself a favor and peruse this financial report on every single Division I program in the country, put out by the NCAA sometime last year. Through the blizzard of numbers and tables in its 105 pages, it’s very hard to hold onto any easy conclusions you make about college athletics, and about spending money to make money.
But you can say that your wonder, if not skepticism, about the financial health of athletic programs is valid – because none of them make money. In the last year of the study, 2009, schools at the Football Bowl Subdivision level (what was once referred to as Division I-A) lost an average of, get this, $10.2 million (see page 23). However, that only accounts for income categorized as “generated revenue,” which basically is money the athletic programs and their teams made on their own. When you include handouts from the school and state governments, as well as student fees, the average athletic program makes a profit … of $1,000. One grand. Hell, I’m spending more on a ticket to Tuscany this summer.
So Villanova upgrading to top-flight football is just going to be a money pit, right? Yes – but not in the way you’d think. Of the 120 Division I-A football programs in 2009, 52 of them, 43%, lost money (page 28). Average negative net revenue: $2.7 million. But the median net revenue of the 68 schools that reportedly finished the year in the black? $8.8 million.
Therefore, it’s obvious that the school and Wildcat boosters see the big bucks and bank on the fact that being a part of a BcS conference will give ‘Nova a better chance of being one of the football programs that takes in more money than it spends. However, the cheap bastard in me looks to the table for football programs in what used to be called Division I-AA (on page 54). Of the 125 schools on that level in 2009, all but two of them made money. Those two programs – the data is aggregated, so there’s no way to tell from this report if Villanova is one of the two money-making schools – generated about a million bucks in profit. All the others lost, on average, almost $1.5 million.
So what Villanova school and athletic officials are wrestling with now – unless they’ve already made their decision, which is quite possible – is this question: Is it worth it to ask for $25-30 million to upgrade a stadium, pay coaches salaries commensurate with the big boys, and furnish the extra 22 scholarships needed to be a full-fledged football program, with no promise that it’ll be a lucrative one, even though there is very little chance that the athletic department as a whole will wind up in the black?
I wouldn’t. First of all, it seems like too much trouble. Second of all, promoting yourself still keeps the Big East at 17 teams, once TCU joins the conference in 2012. That’s way too many teams. Hell, there are leagues that have fewer teams.
But the biggest reason the Wildcats shouldn’t join the Big East for football is that right now, the conference is split into two camps: Schools that have football and basketball teams in the conference, and those that only have basketball teams in. The difference between them in athletic budgets is stark, assuming figures from 2008 can still be believed (see Posts #’s 1 and 10 by “UofL07”), and the gulf is only going to get wider. Villanova might fancy themselves a part of the upper crust, but it was so much easier to have a top-flight football program up and running two decades ago then now. And they have no guarantee that they’ll make money while enjoying the same success they have now.
So I propose something different, something that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but not common sense. Main Liners, don’t try to chase a 50/50 shot at a football program that will still probably keep your athletic department swimming in red ink.
You’re a basketball school, Villanova. Create your own basketball conference.
The camp of basketball-only Big East teams? There’s one other surprising commonality about them: They’re all Catholic schools. Don’t exactly know how that dichotomy came about, possibly the fact that most of the Catholic colleges are situated in urban areas where land for a giant football stadium wasn’t a possibility. But decisions made decades ago created a chasm between giant, secular, state-funded schools that had the property to build a huge football stadium to generate money for its schools, and those whose lands were big enough only for a multi-purpose arena and whose pursestrings could afford only the smaller roster and cheaper uniform requirements of a hoops team.
That wasn’t at all a concern in 1979, when the Big East was formed – for basketball only – with seven charter members: Georgetown, Providence, St. John’s, Syracuse, Boston College, Connecticut, and Seton Hall. And with Villanova joining the next year and Pittsburgh coming aboard in 1982, the fact that two-thirds of the colleges were Catholic and had no top-flight football team wasn’t a big deal.
But then football became the economic engine that drove college sports. The Big East read the tea leaves in 1991 and added five schools to make a 14-team basketball conference … just so they could start up an eight-team football conference. They leveraged the reputation they created in basketball to gain a quota guaranteed spot in the Bowl Coalition, which turned into the BcS.
And yet, there has been constant tension between the two factions of the Big East. Those without football accuse those with football that they’re controlling the conference. Those with football accuse those without of not pulling their weight when it comes to investing in the Big East. At what point is this arguing going to come to a head?
Villanova, you have a great football program, but you’re not a football school. So why fight who you are? What you should do is gather the other seven Catholic schools in the Big East – Georgetown, Notre Dame, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Marquette and DePaul – and say, “You know what? Screw this conference. It’s time realignment happens because of basketball, not football.”
And since eight teams are too small in this day and age, some of the breakaway schools should go to the four biggest and most popular schools in the Atlantic-10 – Xavier, Dayton, Saint Louis and St. Joseph’s – and ask them to form a conference where basketball is primary.
Voilà! You’ve got the Catholic League. Twelve teams, cleanly split into two geographic decisions, to prevent any Leaders and Legends stupidity:
Western Division: Xavier, Dayton, Notre Dame, DePaul, Marquette, Saint Louis
Eastern Division: Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova, St. Joseph’s, Georgetown
The basketball tournaments can be played somewhere in the no man’s land between the divisions – Pittsburgh, which is roughly equidistant from the easternmost school in the West (Dayton) and the westernmost schools in the East (St. Joe’s and ‘Nova). They have a spiffy new arena, too. Yeah, so it ain’t Madison Square Garden. But you have Primanti Brothers!
With this Catholic League, you now have twelve institutions with similar academic mindsets and much more-equal athletic budgets. With all schools in the northeastern United States, teams, especially those from non-revenue sports, won’t waste gas going to Fort Worth just to play TCU. All the oars are stroking in the same direction at the same time, with no danger of plunging a school’s athletic coffers into the ground so deeply that they need to ask for a bailout.
And any problems can be minimized. But Notre Dame is a football school! Yes, it is – and breaking away from any possible overtures from the Big East will send a clear message – to the Big Ten as well as the Big East – that they intend to remain independent forever. (And they should, by the way.) The other schools can convince Notre Dame to leave with them by pointing out that only three of them have football programs (‘Nova, Georgetown and Dayton) and Fighting Irish football is none of their business.
The CL will be doomed to mid-major status forever? I doubt it. If Georgetown and Villanova maintain their already-high standards in hoops, they’ll never be a one-team league, and should challenge conferences in the BcS Six having down years in bids. (Although conference play would alter records, six teams from what would be the Catholic League would or could make this year’s NCAA Tournament, compared to four from the Pac-10.)
Besides, the Wildcats and Hoyas are still big names in basketball. So if it helps make the departure easier, set up an agreement where Villanova and Georgetown play one game against Syracuse and/or UConn a year. The other ex-Big East squads could also play one or two inter-conference games a year. Make the former A-10 schools go back and play, like, Charlotte and Richmond, too. Hell, it can be the last regular season game broadcast on CBS. So long as it means they can go their own way.
This would be a radical idea, forming a new conference on basketball, not football, reasons. And it will mean that the founding schools of the Big East will walk away from over three decades of history. But if there’s a growing audience sick of seeing college b-ball being jerked around on a leash by a sport whose players keep getting arrested and whose coaches keep getting suspended every time they open a sports page – while arrogantly insisting their freak show is the best postseason ever in history – the Catholic League could serve as a shining beacon on the hill of American sport. And blue-chip players, and coaches, could be attracted to a conference that makes the roundball, not the pigskin, its top priority.
Plus, it would mean that Villanova won’t crap out in the first round of the Big East Tournament .