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Saturday, Sep 23, 2017
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Big East aims to rebrand itself

Big East Conference football: What comes to mind? Probably the handful of brand-name programs that have fled to other leagues. Maybe the awkwardness of embattled commissioner John Marinatto resigning under pressure. Perhaps a lingering perception that the Big East would soon be excused from college football's Big Boy table. Even the league's most optimistic proponents might struggle to outline its geographic future — from Florida to Texas to California to Idaho. "We've been an easy target and people have taken their shots," University of South Florida football coach Skip Holtz said. "I think the perception is about to change."
After the most tumultuous 12-month period in any conference's history — "In our league alone, we've had 12 schools announce they were either leaving or joining the conference,'' associate commissioner Nick Carparelli said — the Big East has added its most important element. It has a plan. Mike Aresco, a television executive with CBS who never worked in college athletics, was recently hired as Big East commissioner, obviously spotlighting the importance of the league's impending negotiations for a long-term TV deal. The well-documented defections — West Virginia already in the Big 12, TCU landing there without even playing its first Big East season, plus Pittsburgh and Syracuse jumping to the ACC next season — are in the rear-view mirror. In 2013, the Big East will become a coast-to-coast football league, spanning four time zones. It will split into divisions and hold a championship game. Aresco believes that unique arrangement — and markets such as New York, Philadelphia, Tampa, Orlando, Dallas, Houston and San Diego — will make the league attractive for TV negotiations. "I would not have taken this job if I didn't feel confident this conference was cohesive, the individual schools committed to each other,'' Aresco said. "This conference has reconstituted itself. People might be overlooking the strength of the institutions that have been added, especially in football, and the quality in football and the major markets they're in and the possibilities. "In the end, the Big East has to perform on the field. It has done that in the past. If it does so in football, things will take care of themselves. I will make that case to everyone.'' Next season, the Big East will add Boise State and San Diego State for football only, while granting full membership to Central Florida, Houston, Memphis and Southern Methodist. The new-look league will open an exclusive 60-day negotiating window with ESPN next Saturday. After that, if nothing materializes, the Big East can shop around. NBC's new sports network needs inventory. Fox could be interested. "Change is the new norm,'' Carparelli said. "You'll see us doing a lot of different and unique things. We need a TV partner who will embrace us, give us great exposure and brand us in the proper way.'' It has been a remarkably profitable era for TV negotiations in college sports. The ACC recently signed a 15-year, $3.6 billion contract extension with ESPN. The Big 12 signed a $1.2 billion contract with Fox, while ESPN and Fox have partnered on a Pac-10 deal worth $3 billion over 15 years. The SEC has a 15-year, $3 billion contract with CBS and ESPN. But the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M triggered a window to renegotiate and explore the possibility of an SEC Network, similar to the Big Ten Network, which produces about $8 million annually for its members. Meanwhile, the Big East's football members earn about $6 million annually from media rights. A new deal could double that figure, but Aresco wouldn't speculate on where the numbers might reach. "I think we have to keep proving ourselves,'' Cincinnati coach Butch Jones said. "People have been using generalities and not focusing on the facts. Some things might be surprising.'' The Big East is 7-7 in Bowl Championship Series games — far better than the ACC (2-12) and similar to the Big 12 (9-10) — although six of those seven wins were achieved by departed members Miami and West Virginia. League coaches agree the Big East must excel in non-conference games and bowl games to build a new perception. Having a dominant team wouldn't hurt either. "If we had a team to win 11 or 12 games, somebody to carry the flag and contend (for a national championship), it would probably be beneficial to us all,'' Louisville coach Charlie Strong said. "There are quality teams in our league, but I don't know if that type of dominance will happen. It's so balanced from top to bottom. We just don't have weak teams at the bottom like some of the other leagues.'' Big East balance might not be a sexy enough story line, Holtz said. "The image is not where we all want it, but I don't think some of these teams have left because of our product,'' Holtz said. "They left for more money. We didn't have a commissioner in place. Our TV deal is not done. But those things have been settled or will be settled. "I'd much rather have the product on the field and have to build up the image. Eventually, the image is going to catch up to our product. And the product we have is going to get even better in the future.'' Holtz is excited to add UCF and institute a natural rivalry. "Our conference rivals now are two or three hours away by plane,'' Holtz said. "Now, we're getting one an hour up the road on Interstate 4. Fans of both schools will be into it. I really like the other additions, too.'' Boise State, 73-6 and winner of two BCS bowl games since 2006, brings a national brand, Aresco said. "They have a national reach,'' Aresco said. "In college football, schools in smaller markets often have a national reach. Boise is one of those schools.'' Boise State has wanted to join a BCS league. But in 2014, the landscape changes with a four-team playoff being added to decide college football's national championship. The participants will be selected by a committee, although full details on the new arrangement haven't been finalized. The old automatic qualifying standards, which guaranteed the Big East champion's spot in a major bowl, will be eliminated, though. "I'm a proponent of the new system,'' Holtz said. "The teams that deserve to be there are going to be there. It's who you schedule and who you beat. It's not going to matter how much money you spend on your marketing campaign. "When our TV deal is in place, when we have that stability, when we earn our own way, I think some people might look back and say, 'Wow, maybe those teams should've never left the Big East.' " That's the plan, anyway. To make it work, even with all the defections and additions, the Big East must win important games and produce in the postseason. And if so? "We'll be just fine,'' Aresco said. "The Big East deserves to be one of the Big Six (conferences). It is one of the Big Six.''

jjohnston@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7353 Twitter: JJohnstonTrib

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