Money, Religion Behind Catholic 7's Break from Big East

Actual 2011 BE before Lville, ND, WV, Rutg, Pitt & Syr left Proposed BE adding Houston, SMU, UCF, Memphis, Temple & Tulane C7 plus Xavier, Butler & VCU (best possible conference) C7 + St.L, Dayton, Xavier (true All-Catholic)
Lines filled on 2011 bracket 21 15 17 7
Conference payout per line (est.) $ 1,350,000 $ 1,350,000 $ 1,350,000 $ 1,350,000
Total pay to conference and its teams $ 28,350,000 $ 20,250,000 $ 22,950,000 $ 9,450,000
Teams in Conference + 2 18 18 12 12
Minimum team payout even if didn’t make the tournament $ 1,575,000 $ 1,125,000 $ 1,912,500 $ 787,500
If your team won 2 games (3 lines) $ 87,500 $ 62,500 $ 159,375 $ 65,625
Total tourney payout for team $ 1,662,500 $ 1,187,500 $ 2,071,875 $ 853,125

In the days after it was announced that the “Catholic 7” were leaving the Big East to form a basketball-centric league, many questions arose.  With Xavier being the obvious 8th Catholic school that should be invited, the question arose as to how Catholic the conference should be on many fronts.

Should they round out the conference with a couple of more Catholic teams starting with Dayton and St. Louis, or possibly even go west for Creighton or Gonzaga?  Or should they make the conference as strong as possible by inviting the best available programs out there – Butler and VCU – and try to remain the Big East? 

Further, would this “Catholic Conference,” jokingly dubbed as the “Big Priest,” move a little closer to the request Pope John Paul II made about the time of the last Big East realignment when he asked Catholic Universities to take the Mandatum to be truly Catholic in the eyes of the Vatican

Since the Pope’s request in 2004, Mount St. Mary’s is the only Catholic School of the 41 with Division 1 basketball teams to take the Mandatum, so it looks like the adjective “Catholic” University may continue to be used – as the Co-director of the Thomas International Center Dr. Christopher Wolfe said years ago – more like the adjective “red” car is used rather than the term “honest” person.

However, even if the Mandatum is not taken by a University, the discussion of Thomas Aquinas in hallways and other incidental but significant signs of Catholicity can have some impact.

However, when it comes to actually having a “Catholic Conference” (vs. a new “Big East”) was probably dead on arrival.

To see why, let’s cover the dollars.

1. Teams in a New Big East with Xavier, Butler and VCU could receive more NCAA revenue than even the old Big East and more than twice as much as a conference with all Catholic schools

When the whole world focuses on the new brackets for March Madness each year, basketball-centric Athletic Departments see some figure around $1.35 million on each line.  Every time a team from your conference appears on a line – starting with Selection Sunday and continuing every time a team wins an NCAA tournament game to advance to the next line – your conference divides up something like $1.35 million.

In the old Big East with 16 teams, each school gets 1/18th of the pie while the conference gets one part (referred to as a “unit”), and another unit goes to the actual team on the line (so they get double for their invite and games won).  So if we use the 2011 tournament as a model, here is my estimate of what each team received in the actual conference in the far left column and compare it to what teams would get in the new conference on the table at the beginning of the piece.

The actual 2011 Big East filled 21 lines with a record number of invites and one team (UConn) appearing on 6 lines as winning the title.  Those 21 lines times $1.35 million probably generated over $28 million in payouts, which then would have needed to be divided by 18 for the 16 teams plus UConn’s extra share on their six lines and the Big East’s share for all 21 lines.

So that’s $1.575 million for each school that didn’t even make the tournament.  Then the additional team payout equals an extra share for each of their lines (so Marquette made the Sweet 16 to appear on three lines and would add about $87,500 to get to $1.66 million for the tournament).  Not a bad three weekends for schools that do not have to fund football programs.

However, when Louisville left and Tulane was added, it was the final straw for the Catholic 7.  Tulane may probably never make the tournament and you don’t know if SMU, Houston or UCF will, so they would divide up shares without adding any lines.  Certainly Temple could, and Memphis was a big additional for basketball schools, but overall the Catholic 7 were going to still be getting only 1/18th per share while losing all the lines that UConn, Louisville, Notre Dame, Rutgers, Pitt and Syracuse would have added.

Even with Memphis winning games that year, the take would have dropped from $1.662 million to $1.187 million.

If breaking away and adding Xavier, Butler and VCU to form a 10-team conference had happened prior to the 2011 tournament, then a Big East team with two conference wins could top $2 million – even more than they did with the 10-invite Big East conference.

Unfortunately for fans of a true “Catholic Conference,” the math when adding St. Louis, Dayton and Xavier would have left a school with well under $1 million.  I have taken an extreme case with Butler and VCU both making Final Four runs, but those are two programs capable of doing it again (witness Butler’s win over #1 Indiana and VCU’s thrashing of Alabama), and that helps every school in the conference.

2. Travel costs for non-revenue sports

Big East schools were also required to field 14 teams, with Title IX requiring an even number of men and women athletes.  The costs of sending teams to Texas, Florida and now Louisiana (Tulane) are huge compared to what it would cost in a conference stretching only from Milwaukee, WI (Marquette) to Richmond, VA (VCU) and all with major airports.

3. Georgetown, Marquette, Dayton, and Xavier BASKETBALL have been more profitable than most college FOOTBALL programs

The last numbers I have on the most profitable sports programs in the country is of course dominated by football programs.  I am sure Notre Dame and Alabama football have passed the leaders from a few years ago (Texas $51 million, Georgia $39 million and Penn State $37 million), but Louisville BASKETBALL came in at 19th with an estimated $15 million profit to rate ahead of all but 18 football programs.

Louisville was one of six Big East basketball programs turning a bigger profit than most D1 FOOTBALL programs, but their move to the ACC made left the Big East with only two (Georgetown and Marquette since Pitt, West Virginia and Syracuse had already left).  The prestige that left with Louisville required a change and the additional of Xavier, and part of Dayton’s claim to a spot ahead of VCU could be that they also make the list. If 30% of 40% of your conference’s teams are making more money than most D1 football programs, you have a much better product that the 12.5% that would have been the case if Georgetown and Marquette were diluted by all of the new teams.

4. New York TV Market and Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden

And then you get to the big impact, the $10 million or so in free advertising each Big East school has realized every year due to being front-and-center on New York’s 7.3 million TV households.  Applications and Alumni contributions pour into schools when executives in the New York market are reminded of their schools in a favorable light.  It certainly doesn’t hurt to also be on the backbone of the Nation’s Capitol (Georgetown) and with two teams near one of the two busiest airports (Chicago – Marquette and DePaul).

Keeping the Big East brand and the Madison Square Garden venue was going to be hard to do with SMU, Houston, Tulane and UCF as new draws, and I’m afraid it might be a little hard to introduce St. Louis and Creighton as new draws.

The ability to keep the Big East brand and Madison Square Garden as the final destination every year for the Conference title is much easier to do with St. John’s, Seton Hall and Providence hosting what have become pretty traditional rivals with some neat additional stories in Butler and VCU and an Xavier team that has made 8 of the last 10 tournaments.

So perhaps from the outset, this conference was destined to be the “Big East” not the “Catholic Conference.”  However, with the conference now so dominated by Catholic Universities and centered around New York – Cardinal Dolan’s diocese that has led the fight for religious liberty against Obamacare mandates – it will be interesting to see if an even closer relationship could spill into a defined Catholic mission from the Universities bonded by basketball.


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