Boise concerns, C-USA exit fees highlight Big East expansion hurdles

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With only six football members remaining, the Big East has, in what can only be described as an act of desperation, authorized itself to double in size and try to expand to 12 members. The “short list” of candidates for membership have included Air Force, Boise State, Central Florida, East Carolina, Navy, SMU and former member Temple.

Memphis feels they should be in the SEC. 

“Good luck with that,” signed, West Virginia.

The new conference would, in theory, stretch from Connecticut and Florida to Texas and Idaho in an attempt to maintain its status as a glorified Conference USA that just so happens to have a BCS bid. That, of course, is the ultimate goal: to stay a part of the BCS. Adding Boise State and keeping West Virginia would help; so would some dirt on ESPN courtesy of an athletic director of a former Big East member.

But getting to 12 members could prove to be a struggle for the Big East. For one, Big East presidents and athletic directors are reportedly already having a tough time agreeing on the one school that would undoubtedly provide a boost in football: Boise State.

“Though Big East presidents are hesitant to add Boise State at this point, the league’s athletic directors are pushing for it because of what it means for football,” a conference official told the Newark Star-Ledger.

The arguments against Boise State remain unclear at this time, but there are certain things that could concern the president of a Big East football school. The Broncos are facing NCAA penalties spanning across multiple sports (although UCF is dealing with their own NCAA problems as well), the travel to and from Boise is egregious and the school isn’t known as an outstanding academic institution.

Not that any one of those reasons is justifiable by itself (besides the travel part), but when combined, they can act as a collective excuse. It’s the same principle behind why West Virginia has had problems getting out of the Big East. WVU has good football and basketball programs — they’re also one of 22 self-sustaining athletic departments — but collectively for one reason or another, they’re not attractive enough to be a first choice for expansion.

Speaking of first choices, now that Central Florida appears to be at the top of the Big East’s radar, one would think the conference is finally gaining some traction — and some common sense — on expanding.

Not so fast.

According to a report from the Orlando Sentinel, C-USA exit fees could prevent some members from jumping ship to the Big East. If, say, Central Florida wanted to leave, then the school would have to pay $7 million. From the Sentinel:

If the Knights ultimately decide to join the Big East, Conference USA officials told the Sentinel that UCF would have to pay an exit fee of about $7 million. Schools leaving C-USA must pay their annual share of television revenue under dual contracts with Fox Sports Network and CBS Sports for five years and an additional one-time $500,000 fee.

The last time Conference USA lost members, it negotiated games with remaining league members in exchange for reduced exit-fee payments. USF ended up playing a four-game football series with rival UCF, in part, because of its Conference USA exit-fee arrangement.

If C-USA schools leave this year, league leaders are not currently planning to offer any game trades to reduce exit fees and will require a bonded percentage of the full exit fees before schools can join other conferences.

Conference USA also plans to enforce its exit rules, which means the earliest UCF could join the Big East would be for the 2013 football season.

In the grand scheme of things, $7 million exit fees is chump change; the Big East’s exit fees are a ridiculous $5 million. But for C-USA members, that $7 million is a bit more daunting when you consider only four programs actually turn a profit of any kind within the athletic department.

Could the Big East help pay those exit fees? I can’t speak to the legalities of doing so, but for the BCS’ poorest league (and by an extraordinary amount) to dip into the revenue pool doesn’t sound feasible. On top of that, the way the Big East is split between football and basketball makes this option a complete mess.

Expanding the Big East could allow the conference to revisit its TV rights deals for significantly more money. Keep in mind, though, the Big East recently turned down a contract with ESPN that was expected to be in the $130 million annual payout range because the conference thought they had leverage for a better deal.

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If the Big East can manage to overcome those two obstacles and add members, the problem of keeping current members still exists. We know that four members — Louisville, Rutgers, UConn and West Virginia — are attempting to buy as much time as possible on agreeing on heightened exit fees in the event that an offer from another conference comes calling soon, a source with knowledge of the talks told CFT.

The most likely of those scenarios would be the Big 12 expanding back to 12 teams, and that decision may not come for some time. For Louisville and West Virginia, it’s a matter of playing the waiting game.

Unfortunately, that’s the very reason why the Big East is in the position it’s in right now, and why expanding could prove to be problematic at times. Commissioner John Marinatto has waited until the last possible second to be proactive in any way and now it means the fate of the conference hinges on moves made out of desperation.

Expansion doesn’t just happen (well, unless you’re picking apart the Big East). For the past two summers, though all the speculations and rumors, there have really only been moderate shifts in the college football landscape, with the exception being the Mountain West ripping open the WAC. Now, the Big East is trying to undertake the biggest expansion project to date in order to stay ahead in a numbers game.

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