Halftime Sports

The Love is Gone: ESPN and the Big EAST

March 24, 2014

“What are we supposed to do

After all that we’ve been through

When everything that felt so right is wrong

Now that the love is gone.”

-”Love is Gone” by David Guetta

Other than resisting that inner desire to start humming along to the rest of this catchy party tune and break out in dance, you’re probably wondering what possible relevance this has to the world of college sports. My response is: duh, it’s the story of the Big East and ESPN, a relationship that defined college basketball for almost 35 years.

The no-holds barred conference realignment that has engulfed intercollegiate athletics for the past decade has been driven by the greed of philistine university presidents and athletic directors’ (who clearly did not pay attention in middle school geography) desires for some extra cash. Frankly, it caused this angelic relationship to end in a nasty divorce. Because of this asinine rupture, the Big East, the most dominant conference in college basketball for the last 35 years, was left decimated.

Many who have come to love this conference, like myself, are still reeling from the destructive blows the likes of Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Notre Dame, Cincinnati, West Virginia, and Connecticut dealt the league by leaving for greener pa$tures such as the ACC, Big 12, and AAC. Even though their absences have left us mired in an inferior conference from a quality of competition standpoint, the worst thing that happened to the conference was not the loss of these basketball powerhouses. We still had Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, and St. John’s, and added preeminent mid-major programs Butler, Creighton, and Xavier. Instead, the nail in the coffin of the Big East was the loss of the television contract with ESPN.

As Congressman Frank Underwood of House of Cards said, “Power is a lot a like real estate. It’s all about location, location, location. The closer you are to the source, the higher your property value.”

In the sports world, ESPN is the source of power, and with the split from ESPN came the most devastating loss to the Big East: the loss of relevance. Although the great basketball certainly helped, ESPN gave the Big East the platform needed to gain national attention and flourish. It provided the conference the national relevance that none other could, with its weekly nationally-televised lineup of high-powered matchups (Georgetown-Syracuse, Villanova-Pittsburgh, Connecticut-Louisville) accompanied by round-the-clock coverage and promotion on all the network’s shows including the crown jewel of sports television: SportsCenter.

But after all that they have been through with ESPN, the Big East now is left wandering for attention, seeking to emulate the broadcasting relationship that built the league into a national brand. Although this attempt resulted in a new television contract with upstart network Fox Sports 1 that would ensure almost every conference game was nationally televised and garner more revenue for its member schools, circumstances are dramatically different. Even though it may feel right to still have that national audience, it’s wrong because there is no national audience anymore. Nobody watches Fox Sports 1!

In the inaugural year of their relationship, the 112 Big East games aired on Fox Sports 1 averaged a little less than 95,000 viewers. The 56 AAC games broadcast on the ESPN family of networks averaged 293,000 viewers. The Big East, although substantially worse than in years past, was still the fourth-toughest conference in the country  in terms of RPI. The AAC was eighth-toughest using the same formula. So one can’t blame the quality of play for the ratings deficit.

The most watched game on Fox Sports 1 this year was Georgetown-Michigan State on February 1, which had 539,000 viewers. In stark contrast, 115 of the 117 college basketball games aired on ESPN this season attracted more viewers.

And along with the paucity of viewers watching the Big East on Fox Sports 1, a coverage deficit has emerged for the conference as well. In the league’s halcyon days, it would be impossible for ESPN to go through an hour of SportsCenter during the college basketball season without mentioning or showing highlights of the Big East. Now, one’s lucky to see highlights of Creighton senior forward Doug McDermott, the Big East Player of the Year and the favorite for National Player of the Year, and his most recent scoring outburst.

Not far behind McDermott this year in terms of his excellence was Providence senior guard Bryce Cotton, who single-handedly, one could argue, earned the Friars a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in over a decade. If Cotton had demonstrated this brilliance while playing on the ESPN family of networks, his name would be mentioned frequently in the lexicon of ESPN analysts and talking heads. But since he played most of his games on Fox Sports 1, not many know of Cotton and his accomplishments other than those who followed him and the league closely. Hearing Cotton’s name anywhere on ESPN was as rare as SportsCenter going an entire show without mentioning Mel Kiper’s latest mock draft.

Although the popularity of Fox Sports 1 and the reconstituted Big East only stands to increase after a rocky first year, it will never reach the height of recognition that the league achieved under its relationship with ESPN. And now that the national love for the Big East that ESPN helped foment is gone, so is the league’s national relevance. Which leaves many Big East die-hards, like myself, wondering what we’re supposed to do.

Photo: Rob Poetsch/Flickr

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