There’s still a lot of ground left to cover, so let’s get to it.
How will Big East membership change NAAA’s financial picture?
Both VADM Miller and Chet Gladchuk have been very clear about their concern for college football’s future and why they feel that Navy needs to join the Big East. There are other implications of Big East membership that haven’t really been addressed, though, with the most notable being how it affects NAAA’s financial outlook. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One, until the new TV contract is actually signed, there aren’t any details to talk about. Two, any time you talk about money, it brings out the cynics who believe that athletic departments can instead be funded by platitudes and pep talks. For PR’s sake it probably makes more sense to focus on other things.
In a way, the financial impact of joining the Big East has been addressed, just in different terms. When we talk about remaining in the top tier, we’re really just talking about money. The divide in college football that many fear is around the corner will be based on finances, separating big-money athletic departments from those with smaller budgets for competitive and legislative purposes. If remaining in the top tier of college football is the goal, then NAAA’s financial health must be addressed.
Along those lines, joining the Big East accomplishes a few things. Obviously it means more money, although how much more depends on what the television contract ultimately looks like. If it’s anywhere close to what the Big East hopes it will be it’ll be a lot more, but we’ll have to wait and see. More money is only part of the story, though. Just as important to the story is how joining the Big East means more stable money for the athletic department. Right now, NAAA depends on a few main pillars for income: donations & corporate sponsorship, football games (which includes ticket sales, parking, program sales, etc.), and television, the two largest components being the rights to the Army and Notre Dame games. As things stand now, each of these faces an uncertain future.
Anyone who cares about Navy athletics has to be disturbed by trends in Army-Navy and Notre Dame football. Ratings for both have been in decline. Army-Navy ratings have stabilized a bit now that the game once again has a Saturday to itself, but this is the end of the line. If there are any more changes in college football that encroach on the game’s spotlight, there’s nowhere else for it to go. What if championship games move back a week? What if an expanded playoff begins that weekend? The game will be televised no matter when it’s played, but the only way it can maintain its current value is if it has no competition. Similarly, as Notre Dame’s ratings on NBC go down, so does the asking price for Navy-Notre Dame games when Navy is the home team. If NAAA can’t be certain that these games will continue to bring in the revenue it needs, it has to find other funding sources if it wants to continue maintaining its 30 sports at the same levels they currently enjoy.
Donations, sponsorship, and ticket sales would face similar problems if Navy ends up on the wrong side of the haves/have-nots divide. A drop in status, whether formal or perceived, inevitably leads to a drop in visibility and enthusiasm. Less visibility means less benefit to corporate sponsors. Less enthusiasm leads to fewer private donations and tickets sold, especially considering the enormous competition that Navy football has in the area. The effect on NAAA would be crippling. Joining the Big East and its television contract reduces NAAA’s dependence on declining assets.
Like I said in an earlier post, a lot of this depends on the idea that a Division I split is on the way, whether formal or de facto. If you don’t think that a split is inevitable, you probably won’t agree with joining a conference. Keep in mind, though: the idea of a split isn’t some crackpot theory. It’s a very real possibility, and recent events certainly haven’t done anything to suggest that it won’t happen. Joining the Big East allows NAAA to become less dependent on funding from sources with uncertain futures.
OK, but why now? Why not wait until it’s clearly necessary?
The Big East needs to have its membership finalized so television broadcasters know what they’re bidding on. Navy has a certain national appeal, plus annual games against Army and Notre Dame, that make it a valuable addition to the conference (maybe even the most valuable) from a television standpoint. It makes more sense to join now so TV suitors can take that value into account. There are also on-field benefits for the Navy program when it comes to recruiting. Joining now gives recruits a sense of stability in that they know the direction of the program and where it will be in the future. Nothing is worse for recruiting than uncertainty. Well, other than maybe what Penn State has to deal with.
What does it mean for the Big East now that it looks like BCS AQs are going away?
The BCS was groundbreaking because the combination of all the major bowl games into one television package allowed for unprecedented payouts to member conferences. They still pay well, and the value of the BCS television contract will only get bigger as the format shifts to a 4-team playoff. How the revenue distribution is set up under the new contract will obviously be important to watch. However, the BCS isn’t the exclusive source of windfall revenue that it used to be now that individual conference television rights are bringing in billions of dollars. Whether the BCS remains exclusive or even exists at all isn’t as important as it once was because conferences are making huge money on their own.
People need to stop thinking in terms of BCS access. What happens on the field isn’t what is driving conference realignment. Money is. That’s why articles like this are so absurd. San Diego State and Boise State aren’t going back to a conference that is sitting in ruins with almost no television coverage just because there’s no automatic ticket for conference champions anymore. The only people suggesting such things are those who have an interest in trying to preserve the Mountain West or those who have an interest in seeing the Big East fail (like ESPN).
If you think about it, the biggest loser once the AQ rules go away isn’t the Big East. It’s the non-BCS conferences. The rules for automatic qualification were what made it possible for their champions to force their way into games they otherwise had no shot at being invited to. Do you think Hawaii is ever going to play in the Sugar Bowl again? Do you think the champion of the Mountain West will ever play in the Rose Bowl again? Probably not.
Is Navy going to stop playing Air Force?
Short answer: No.
Long answer: Coach Niumatalolo was asked about the future of Navy’s rivalry games following the announcement that his program would be joining the Big East. It’s a legitimate question, considering how shifting conference affiliations have already ended some long-standing rivalries (Pitt-Penn State, Nebraska-Oklahoma, etc.) and are threatening to end others (BYU-Utah, Texas-Texas A&M, Kansas-Missouri). Coach Niumat answered that if he was forced to choose, he’d play Army and Notre Dame. He also included his rationale:
“Air Force — we play them in different sports and they’re a major rival for us but if we get to that point, for me, keeping Notre Dame on our schedule is such a huge recruiting tool for us,” Niumatalolo said. “When you think of college football, every kid thinks about the lure and mystique of Notre Dame. We can tell kids every other year you’re going to South Bend.”
That’s not a battle Niumatalolo expects to win. But he says that the move to the Big East is going to require creativity.
“We’re going to have to think out of the box a little bit. There might be some alumni that get mad, but I’m looking toward the future for us to compete in the Big East,” he said.
“Notre Dame is a big part of keeping our program vital. It allows us to recruit people that otherwise might not look at us. They’re a powerful institution. For our program, now that we’re in the league, in my mind that becomes our No. 1 goal.
Makes sense from a coaching perspective, doesn’t it? The biggest criticism that people have about Navy’s move to the Big East is that the Mids will have a hard time competing against conference teams that have recruiting advantages over a service academy. Coach Niumat understands this better than anyone, which is why he wants to keep Notre Dame on the schedule. Recruits grow up wanting to play against Notre Dame, and they like knowing that they’ll be playing on that stage every year. Losing that as a selling point would be a huge blow to a football coach that needs every recruiting advantage he can get– now more than ever. Playing Notre Dame makes Navy a better program. Nobody grows up dreaming of playing against Air Force.
Naturally, some people– mostly Air Force fans and trolling columnists that must have attended schools where ethics is an elective– chose to ignore the purely hypothetical nature of Niumat’s comments, as well as his deference to the superintendent and athletic director. Instead, they chose to twist Niumat’s words and imply that OMG he’s scared of Air Force. Even Troy Calhoun decided to get in on the action:
Air Force coach Troy Calhoun was skeptical that Air Force’s service academy games would go away anytime soon.
“I don’t think so,” Calhoun said.
Calhoun then seemed to challenge Navy and Niumatalolo in a subtle way, pointing out what Air Force has done through the years playing in a conference (and note in the quote that he points out the “six best leagues” while referring to Air Force’s affiliation with the Mountain West, which would apparently put the Big East in seventh place).
“To be in one of the six best leagues in all of college football, and to still play Tennessee, Michigan, Notre Dame and still play your service academy games, and to be able to go through an academy, it’s the greatest test in college sports period,” Calhoun said, rattling off some of Air Force’s most recent non-conference opponents. “It’s the ultimate rigor and the ultimate mettle building process. But it can be done.”
Pretty big words from someone who just had to endure the “rigor” and “mettle building” of playing two I-AA teams in order to have a winning season. Of course, Niumat’s comments had nothing to do with how tough his schedule will be. Even if they did, it would build a lot more mettle to play Notre Dame instead of Air Force, wouldn’t it? That’s the funniest part Calhoun’s comments. It would be easier for Navy to play Air Force instead of Notre Dame. Apparently the blowhards have checked their common sense at the door. Even Schwab betrays his own logic in that blog post when he points out that “one of the main benefits of service academy football [games] is exposure.” Between Army, Notre Dame, and Air Force, which games do you think give Navy the best exposure?
(By the way, Calhoun knows nothing about playing in “one of the six best leagues.” No top-six conference has UNLV, Colorado State, Wyoming, and New Mexico in it. Mountain West people like to ignore the fact that the bottom half of their conference exists. When half of your conference is terrible in any given year, of course you don’t worry as much about your OOC schedule. No matter how good the one or two elite teams in the league might be, you know you have other wins built in. You can’t say that about the new Big East other than Memphis, and they will probably be in the western division anyway.)
All of this is moot, because the Big East has already granted Navy scheduling priority for Army, Notre Dame, and Air Force. The game isn’t going anywhere. If a few Air Force fans want to get their feelings hurt because they don’t like being third on Navy’s tradition hierarchy, they can climb that molehill all they want. This is a non-issue.
Doesn’t joining the Big East make it harder to play a national schedule?
Several years ago, Air Force was one of a few schools exploring the possibility of playing a basketball game in Jacksonville on the deck of an aircraft carrier. In the discussion over why they’d want to do such a thing, one of their associate ADs said something that has always stuck with me:
”More than anything, it’s about the nation being exposed to the Air Force Academy, not just the basketball program,” Saks said. ”I think people tend to forget on the East Coast that the Air Force Academy exists.
It was a revealing comment about the dangers of conference membership for a service academy. If the purpose of the athletic department is to serve as the school’s “front porch” and provide visibility to potential candidates for admission, there was at least one person at the Air Force Academy who felt that their program wasn’t meeting that objective. It’s not hard to see why; they play in a regional conference of lower-profile schools and lack an annual national showcase like Army-Navy or Navy-Notre Dame. Conversely, football independence has allowed Navy the flexibility to play at least one school from every Division I-A conference over the last decade in addition to those two high-visibility games. The needs of national programs like the service academies aren’t served very well by playing in regional conferences. So wouldn’t joining the Big East kill Navy’s ability to continue playing a national schedule?
Frankly, yes. The scheduling variety that Navy enjoyed in the past will disappear once they’re in the Big East. The league is attempting to redefine itself as a national conference, which helps, but only a little; Navy will still play games from coast to coast, but it’s debatable whether playing in the same dozen or so conference locations is truly “national” for visibility purposes. However, the need to play games around the country isn’t what it used to be, either.
Playing a national schedule was more important back when fewer games were on television and local newspapers were the only source of information for most people. That isn’t the case anymore, with the internet, satellite TV, and dozens of sports channels. The media environment is changing rapidly, even in the relatively short nine years since that comment by the Air Force athletics official was made. Positioning yourself in the modern media environment is far more important than playing around the country if your goal is to be as visible as possible. Joining the Big East helps Navy in that regard, and will even more so if there is a Division I split.
How does Navy joining the Big East affect bowl games?
One of the many benefits that Navy receives as an independent is the ability to secure their own bowl arrangements years in advance. Two bowl games (the Poinsettia and Congressional/EagleBank/Military Bowls) were actually created with Navy in mind. In addition to those two, other past and future bowl destinations include Charlotte, San Francisco, Houston, and Ft. Worth. Navy fans have enjoyed both the security of ongoing bowl partnerships and the variety of new and exciting venues. It has been the best of both worlds.
Unfortunately, like everything else in college football, that won’t last forever. There is a growing sentiment to increase the number of wins for bowl eligibility from six to seven. If that happens, the number of bowl games will have to decrease; there just won’t be enough eligible teams. The bowls that would likely be on the chopping block include some of the same games that have made arrangements with Navy over the years. With fewer bowls available, it would be more difficult for Navy to carve out bowl arrangements on their own– a problem that goes away once they’re in the Big East fold. On top of that, if controllership of the bowl system passes from the NCAA to the conferences, it certainly wouldn’t be a good idea to not be in a conference if you’re looking to secure bowl berths.
(Scheduling as an independent would also become that much harder if seven wins becomes the standard for bowl eligibility. Teams will be even less likely to want to schedule anyone that can beat them.)
It can’t all be good news, right? What are some of the Big East’s potential weaknesses?
Conferences have traditionally been made up of like-minded institutions from within a particular area. Sure, you sometimes have a Northwestern or Vanderbilt that seems out-of-place, but most conferences were formed around schools that at the time had similar academics, enrollment, and geography. The rules weren’t very well-defined in the early days of college athletics. Universities with comparable profiles were able to find agreement on eligibility issues and other matters more easily, allowing them to establish a championship under a common set of rules. And since most travel was done by train, college athletics were primarily a regional affair.
One look at the new Big East, and it’s clear that it doesn’t fit the traditional conference archetype. It’s very factionalized. There’s the geographic divide between east and west. There are basketball schools, football schools, and others that play in the conference for both. There are public schools and private schools, which for the most part mirrors the football vs. non-football split with the exception of SMU. And then there’s the Naval Academy, which is completely different from everyone. Each of these different groups could potentially have its own set of concerns and ideas for the direction of the league. Common sense would seem to tell us that it’s hard to develop any sort of cohesion within a conference when its members have such fundamental differences.
That said, I don’t know how much that old common sense applies anymore. The modern role of conferences has changed, shifting away from being based on geography and similar institutions and more toward joint marketing and television appeal. The new Big East might be the most far-flung of the major conferences, but it isn’t the only one branching out from tradition. Nebraska and Penn State aren’t exactly regional rivals. The ACC has expanded north from Bojangles territory into the land of Dunkin Donuts, and contains a mix of public and private schools. The Southeastern Conference has expanded into the Midwest. The Pac 12 expanded east of the Rocky Mountains and tried their hardest to move into Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 12 now stretches from Lubbock to Morgantown and added a second private school in TCU. As odd as some of those moves might seem, each of them were done for the sake of securing more television money. That’s what matters to conferences now, and money can be a mighty powerful adhesive to keep schools together. The Big East is no exception.
It’s possible that the basketball schools will still want to break away; as football grows in importance, they might feel that their influence on conference matters is diminished. Besides, an 18-team hoops league can be a bit unruly. But would they be willing to leave UConn, Cincinnati, and Louisville– three of the most prominent basketball programs in the conference– behind? Even if the basketball schools feel like they aren’t running the show anymore, they surely also realize that they would be less valuable on their own without those big names. And this is before you consider the additions of Temple and Memphis, two more excellent basketball programs. Whatever motivation the basketball schools might have to split, there’s just as much compelling them to stay together.
There’s also the chance that the Big East could get raided again, but you can say that about pretty much every conference other than the Big Ten, Pac 12, and SEC. That’s just life in college athletics now.
The Big East might defy conventional wisdom, but the bottom line is that conferences are increasingly becoming marriages of convenience. These programs need each other. That’s enough to make it work.
Are they really going to expand Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium?
Tucked into the end of the teleconference announcing Navy’s acceptance into the Big East was this little bombshell:
Don Markus (Baltimore Sun): Chet, are there any plans or has it been discussed about expanding the stadium, the size of the stadium?
Gladchuk: Actually, there has been, Don. We have had some dialog with the Admiral and we have talked about it to some degree with the city of Annapolis. But one thing we are very careful about is the aesthetic character of what we call a memorial that happens to be a football stadium. We never want to lose that and also the accommodating infrastructure in the surrounding community is something we are sensitive too. Specific to your question, we have a vision for what we call Phase IV of Navy-Marine Corps, which will include expanded seating, additional hospitality areas, locker rooms will be upgraded and some other amenities that will put us competitively in-line with other BIG EAST institutions as they pertain to recruiting and fan accommodations.
Markus: Do you see these plans coming to fruition in the next few years as you join the league?
Gladchuk: Don, I’m going to start the moment we hang up this telephone.
That was the one thing about the Big East move that caught me by surprise. While expanded seating was just one item mentioned as part of a list of potential stadium improvements, it’s definitely the most eye-catching. I’m not sure how I feel about it. The stadium always felt like the perfect size to me. Does joining the Big East really make it necessary to expand?
Other schools in the conference with smaller stadiums seem to think so. Boise State is expanding to 53,000 (!) seats. Cincinnati is in the “early stages” of expansion and raising money for the project. SMU hasn’t announced any plans, but as they have pursued membership in a BCS conference, their AD has spoken publicly about their ability to expand to 40,000-plus. Houston is building a whole new stadium. Still, that doesn’t necessarily mean that Navy has to follow suit, does it? After all, you don’t have to go very far to see cautionary tales of floundering expansion projects at Rutgers and Maryland. The answer is that it all depends on the market and how the expansion is carried out. What is Navy’s place in the market, and how does joining the Big East affect that? That might make a good topic for a separate post…
That wraps up the Changing Course series on Navy football joining the Big East. I know not everyone is going to be convinced that it’s the right move; I support the decision, but that doesn’t mean I’m not just as nervous as everyone else. Even if you disagree with it, hopefully you at least have an appreciation for how complex the situation is and why the decision was made.
If you need to take solace in something, remember this: there are plenty of schools right now that would love to be in Navy’s shoes as a future Big East member. There is a reason for that. Change is on the horizon, and some schools are going to be left out. The Naval Academy has taken steps to ensure that it isn’t one of them. Joining the Big East is a strategic move to protect the school’s most visible and valuable recruiting asset against a long-term future of college football that is uncertain at best, and catastrophic at worst.