I love the Big East, especially the basketball. There are great traditional rivalries in the league, and most teams are in the same time zone and relatively short travel distances.
I am not, however, a fan of the bloated Big East with its current 16 team configuration. I understand the need to do so in order to keep the football conference alive, but the conference is too big for basketball (and ironically, not big enough for football).
One of the nice things about the original Big East was that most of the schools were private institutions. This put all the schools on relatively equal footing financially. UConn was a state school, but never had its act together in the first decade, so it could not leverage its state funding. Pitt is a quasi-public school; it is not state run, but it is significantly state funded. The rest of the original schools were all Jesuit, with the exception of Syracuse which is now non-sectarian private.
Economics got in the way, the conference had to grow to keep football alive, and in the process added several state schools (West Virginia, Rutgers, Cincinnati, and South Florida) along with some additional Jesuit schools (Marquette, DePaul and Notre Dame).
The only reason I can see for Syracuse going to the Big Ten is revenue. That is a very big reason, and possibly the only reason that matters. More on that later.
I think going to the Big Ten would be a bad move for Syracuse for several reasons. It of course would ruin the regional rivalries, and schools like Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova would definitely be left behind.
Recruiting Midwest athletes to play in Syracuse would be very tough. It is not impossible; Syracuse does recruit Ohio football players right now with some success, and recently has done well in Michigan with basketball players. But obviously, those are exceptions. It is much easier to convince a Philadelphia or New York kid to come to Syracuse, when he knows he’ll play a few games a year at home, than it is to convince a kid to come out of Indiana to the cold snowy Syracuse campus.
Ten out of the eleven Big Ten schools are state schools. The lone exception is Northwestern, which is historically the worst athletic program (for football and basketball in the Big Ten) and is last in revenue for the Big Ten. That is not a coincidence. State schools have access to tax dollars and have much deeper financial pockets to dig into to build the facilities and infrastructures to compete in the NCAA, not to mention the ability to pay coaches and staff.
With the exception of Northwestern, Big Ten schools have between 20,000 to 40,000 (Ohio State) undergraduate students. Syracuse has approximately 14,000. That leads to not only a larger on campus presence at games, but also a larger booster / alumni base. For every one alumni Syracuse would have, OSU would have three.
I think over the long haul, it would be very difficult for Syracuse to remain competitive in the Big Ten. Eventually the size differences of the institutions and revenue differences would come into play, along with the geographic anomalies, and Syracuse would be a mediocre program.
However, I think that if given the chance, Syracuse would jump to the Big Ten immediately. And, it would probably be the right decision. The only reason to make the move would be because of the money, but it’s a huge reason. And the discrepancy is significant. Per an article by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, the average Big Ten team makes $22 million per school in television revenue. The entire Big East television contract is around $35 million, and the schools that play football and basketball in the Big East make only $2.8 million annually from the conference television contract.
UConn is the top revenue school in the Big East with $54.7 million in 2007-2008 (per an article in the Orlando Sentinel). That would rank it only #10 in the Big Ten. The next three in line in the Big East are West Virginia, Louisville and Rutgers (note that they are all state schools). Syracuse made $44.7 million in 2007-2008. Even if they were at the bottom of the Big Ten, then would make a 25%-30% increase in revenue.
The Big East, despite the revenue disparity, appears to be quite content to leave things as they currently are. There is no talk of expansion, nor of shaking things up. And I believe that any team in the Big East would be foolish not to jump to the Big Ten (I would think UConn and Rutgers would be the top two candidates based on the geographic markets they can bring in and being state schools). If the Big East is raided, its football conference is going to die. So status quo does not work.
The ACC would have been a much better fit for Syracuse, I believe, in terms of geography (Syracuse does recruit the northern area of the ACC conferences and Florida), and its basketball prominence would be a better fit for Syracuse. But that is water under the bridge.
Unfortunately, moving to the Big Ten does start a trend of downward competitiveness for Syracuse. The administration would never admit to it, but if you could guarantee an additional 30% revenue from athletics despite being a perennial loser, they would jump at it. From a business perspective, the only reason to win is to generate more revenue; if you can generate more revenue in a losing situation than business dictates you do it.
I think in 15 years you will look back and say it was a bad move for Syracuse to move to the Big Ten (if it happened). But you cannot worry about fifteen years from now.
I hope the Big East stays alive for football, and the Orange remain put, but I think if given the chance, they will go.
By the way, if ESPN’s sources have it right, Nebraska has accepted a big to join the Big Ten. This could start a domino affect of a group of Big 12 teams joining the Pac-10, the Big 12 falling apart, and teams scrambling everywhere. We’ll see.