ESPN Bought the Big East Low, Sold It High. Can Fox Sports 1 Do the Same?

The Associated Press
The Associated Press

NEW YORK—“It’s hard to not have the ESPN promotion tag attached to your conference in today’s landscape of college basketball,” one former Big East coach tells Breitbart Sports. “Some people don’t know what channel the Big East games are on the cable network they have.”

Perhaps the absence of ESPN, the Big East’s cable benefactor from 1980-2013, inpacts the disdain yesterday’s curmudgeon and today’s Twitter addled-fan directs at the new Big East.

“This isn’t the Big East I grew up with, I know that for sure. It’s way down,” an NBA executive tells Breitbart Sports.

As ESPN aired “Requiem for the Big East,” the network dumped a majority stake in a three decade Big East television deal, the American Athletic Conference (AAC) absorbed founding father Connecticut, while recruiting godfather Rick Pitino, along with Pitt, Notre Dame, and Syracuse, all bolted for the ACC. When Fox Sports 1 (FS1) secured the Big East television deal in 2013-14, the league’s four most overachieving markets played on ESPN alongside Virginia and four schools in North Carolina, the only true southern state where basketball trumps football.

Now three years into a 12-year, $500 million deal with the Big East, Fox holds a ratings cellar dweller compared to programming at ESPN. Almost a half-a-million fans watched ESPN hoop broadcasts last year while the average Big East game on Fox fell short of 100,000 cable viewers this season. Although ESPN clearly bought the Big East low and bailed on the league before implosion, a question remains: Can FS1 follow ESPN’s trajectory (1980-2013) with the reformatted league?

“Not happening,” says an NBA front-office man.

Statistically, something is happening. Fox witnessed viewership increase by nearly 30 percent during its first three years. Excluding greater Philadelphia (Villanova), the new Big East saw gains sans world beaters in massive metropolitan areas such as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York Cty. If a seemingly failed 30-year experiment ends at DePaul, or the likes of Georgetown and St. John’s become national contenders, what stops Big East television games from matching the ratings of SEC contests without Kentucky or Big 12 games without Kansas?

By throwing money at the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, PAC-12, and SEC, the leagues where football obviously accompanies basketball, ESPN holds the best hand in college sports. Even as college basketball’s most watched rivalry, Duke-Carolina, lost 19 percent of viewers between February 2015 and ’16, new ones such as Virginia-Louisville take shape.

Although ESPN stands one step ahead of all relative market dips, it does not mean that the network operates a monopoly on good basketball. Though dependent on one’s barometer of success, Big East basketball fluctuates between good and great. Kind of like the league as whole in the 21st century.

Between 2000 and 2013, the Big East averaged between two and three teams in the final AP top 25, netting six in 2013. Five top 25 finishers over the last two years meets a typical output. On the heels of tonight’s Big East title game between Villanova and Seton Hall, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi slates 5 Big East teams in the NCAA tourney. Five Big East teams in the dance outpaces the SEC’s four. While the Big East trails the ACC and Big Ten (6) by one bid and the Pac 12 and Big 12 by two (7).

Villanova and Xavier sport national title contenders. Adam Silver will announce Kris Dunn (Providence) and Henry Ellenson (Marquette) in the 2016 NBA draft lottery. Although the NBA called neither a lottery nor a first-round pick from the Big East last season, two top-ten selections in 2016 marks the 8th time since 2000 that multiple Big East players hit the lottery.

The presence of the new Big East in both the NBA draft, NCAA tournament, and our living rooms hinges solely on recruiting. If Big East schools can recruit ESPN top 100 kids while playing on 300,000 less television sets than their high-major brethren, then the league can remain a power-five basketball conference.

“I don’t think anyone can honestly debate the league is or will be as good as it was prior to realignment,” says the ex-Big East coach. Nor can one debate that when Seton Hall plays third-ranked Villanova in Saturday’s Big East championship, ESPN will be somewhere else.


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