By Erik Matuszewski and Curtis Eichelberger
NEW YORK - The Big East Conference reached the West Coast Wednesday with San Diego State and Boise State added as football members in 2013, and Central Florida, Houston and Southern Methodist joining in all sports.
The additions extend the Providence-based conference’s geographic reach across the U.S. and ensure it will have 10 football members by the time the University of Pittsburgh, Syracuse University and West Virginia University depart.
The Big East has been looking to expand for several months amid conference shakeups throughout college sports. The league’s growth was crucial to maintaining its football standing as one of the six conferences with automatic bids to the Bowl Championship Series. A conference receives $22 million for the first team it sends to a BCS game and about $6.1 million if it gets a second berth, according to Bill Hancock, the series’ executive director.
“Since the creation of the Big East in 1979, the (conference) has a record of reinventing itself,” Big East Commissioner John Marinatto said on a conference call. “We have taken another bold and creative step in our history. We are heading west."
"Our conference will continue to have by far the single largest media footprint spanning from coast to coast in football. The Big East conference will be the first truly national college football conference."
Marinatto said he intends to add two more football schools to create two six-team divisions with a conference championship game that pits the East and West division champions.
The commissioner said the conference hasn’t considered changing its name even though the conference is no longer based along the East Coast as its name implies.
"This is a continuation of the dominoes that are falling around conference realignment," Mark Emmert, president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, said today in an interview in New York.
"I certainly hope they are taking care of student-athlete welfare in all of this."
At least eight football-playing schools are required for the automatic BCS bid, an essential factor when the Big East begins negotiations on its next television contract.
College football teams have been rushing to switch conferences in the last year in search of more television revenue and to make sure they aren’t left in a conference without an automatic BCS bid. The Big East, Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast conferences get automatic bids to BCS bowl games.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh accepted invitations to join the ACC on Sept. 18, while West Virginia said on Oct. 28 that it’s moving to the Big 12. Syracuse was one of the Big East’s founding schools in 1979 and Pittsburgh joined in 1982. West Virginia has played football in the Big East for the past 21 seasons.
Texas Christian University in October reneged on a commitment to join the Big East in 2012, opting instead to accept an invitation to become a member of the Big 12.
The departures had left the Big East with five football- playing schools: Rutgers, Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida and Connecticut.
Media consultant and former CBS President Neal Pilson says schools are blowing up decades-old rivalries just to get into a conference that automatically sends a team to play in the BCS, and that those moves give "added strength” to arguments that their system violates antitrust laws.
“It certainly looks like the sole motivating factor for the Big East and schools joining them is to stay in an exclusive club, or get into an exclusive club,” he said.
For Boise State, in Idaho, the Big East partnership brings the possibility of an automatic BCS bid that the school’s football program has sought. While the Broncos have gone 72-6 over the past six seasons and twice won the BCS’s Fiesta Bowl, Boise State currently plays in the Mountain West Conference, which doesn’t automatically send its champion to one of the BCS bowl games.
Boise State went 11-1 this season, with its only loss a 36-35 defeat against TCU in which the Broncos missed a field goal as time expired. Yet the BCS’s Sugar Bowl passed over the Broncos in favor of Michigan (10-2) and Virginia Tech (11-2), leaving Boise State to play in the Dec. 22 MAACO Bowl in Las Vegas against a 6-6 Arizona State team.
San Diego State also currently plays in the Mountain West, while Houston, Central Florida and SMU are in Conference USA. Houston started 12-0 this season before losing to Southern Mississippi in the Conference USA championship game.
Emmert of the NCAA said that adding two members that are almost 3,000 miles from the Big East headquarters solely in football made financial and academic sense.
“That’s much more reasonable than trying to move volleyball teams coast to coast on a Tuesday for a Wednesday match,” he said.
The Big East has a year left on its six-year, $200 million television rights agreement to show football and basketball games on Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN network.
Last spring, ESPN presented the conference with an outline for a deal that would have quadrupled annual revenue to $155 million.
But the offer came on the heels of the Pac-12 conference signing agreements with ESPN and News Corp.’s Fox network that will pay it about $225 million a year. The Big East presidents believed the market had reset and they wanted to reassess.
“The big markets in the Northeast have always been professional sports cities,” Pilson said. “In retrospect, I think most of the folks at the Big East probably think they missed an opportunity to keep their conference together if they had accepted the ESPN offer.”
Marinatto, who spoke to half a dozen media consultants before inviting schools to join the conference, said the Big East will be unique because it’s the only conference in the country that can offer four back-to-back games in four time zones that don’t conflict with one another.
“It’s a powerful model, and one that will be unmatched by any other conference,” Marinatto said. “This is the largest footprint in all of college sports. No other conference in the country can offer that. It was important that we had a strong presence in the West.”