Big East nonfootball members mull future of league

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NEW YORK — The seven Big East schools that don’t play FBS football spoke with the conference commissioner Thursday about possibly breaking from a league that has been drastically reshaped. Such a breakup would be complicated and could conceivably kill the Big East.

Commissioner Mike Aresco conferred by phone with the leaders of those seven schools, according to a person familiar with the situation. The person spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated press because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

The current Big East football membership includes only four schools — South Florida, Connecticut and Cincinnati, Temple — that are committed to the league beyond 2013. But there are 11 schools with plans to join the Big East in the next three years, including Boise State and San Diego State for football only in 2013.

Because those schools won’t be members until next summer, the nonfootball schools in the Big East could try to vote to dissolve the conference now. Or they could simply leave the league.

The schools that do not play FBS level football are St. John’s, Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Seton Hall, Providence and Villanova. Officials at those schools have concerns about the direction of the league and feel as if they have little power to influence it.

If the schools were to break off on their own, they could do so without financial penalty. The Big East has provisions in its bylaws that allow of a group of schools to leave without exit fees.

But what they would do remains unclear, as are the legal ramifications of their actions. There has been speculation those seven basketball schools could merge with the Atlantic 10 or possibly add schools from that league to create a basketball-only conference of smaller Catholic schools.

Who owns the rights to the name Big East could even be up in the air.

What would happen to the current and future football members is also unknown. They could simply stick together and continue on the path they are headed. But if the basketball side of the Big East is weakened it could decrease the value of the conference to television networks. The league is currently trying to negotiate a crucial TV contract, but the instability has made it impossible to land a deal.

The Big East has been hoping to sign a TV deal that could bring in as much as $100 million a year to its members, though some estimates have been a low as $60 million. If the TV money isn’t up to the Big East’s projections, it could cause some of the future members, especially Boise State and San Diego State, to reconsider joining.

The Mountain West and Conference USA have already lined up replacement members for the schools that have pledged to go to the Big East. Boise State and San Diego State would likely be able to slide right back into the Mountain West, but the seven current C-USA schools would have a less clear future.

All of those schools, even though they have not participated in the Big East, could be on the hook for exit fees to the conference if they did change plans.

The Big East’s long-term plan is to form a 12- to 14-team football conference that spans coast to coast, starting next year, while also having a large basketball league with many of its traditional members.

But the most recent defections of Louisville and Rutgers, along with the additions of Tulane for all sports and East Carolina for football only in 2014, have left the basketball schools wondering if it’s worth sticking with the plan.

Conference realignment has whittled away the Big East, costing it many of its oldest and most prominent members in the last 16 months. Pittsburgh and Syracuse are going to the Atlantic Coast Conference next year. West Virginia has moved to the Big 12. Louisville is headed to the ACC and Rutgers to the Big Ten, maybe as soon as 2014.

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