A couple of years ago I predicted it (though I was hardly the only one): Darwinian conference predation, driven by football and the quest for television markets and money, would kill the Big East, and at least seriously hamstring the small, basketball-centric private colleges that made up so much of it. Huge, flagship public universities would consolidate power in service of football, I and others foresaw, and relatively small schools like Georgetown, Villanova, and St. John’s – which could never produce enough alums to regularly fill even close to 80,000-seat football stadiums – would be orphaned.
But this isn’t the fault of Pitt and Syracuse, or even the ACC (though perhaps the ACC deserves scorn for its 2003 raid of the Big East, and Pitt for its possible duplicity about its move). No, ultimately it’s the fault of a higher education system that gives flagship state schools massive size advantages over private institutions both physically and in terms of enrollment. (Though all of higher ed, of course, is awash in taxpayer dough.) This advantage is primarily thanks to taxpayer subsidies, which underwrite the schools’ gigantic enrollments and, too often, their athletics programs directly. So the ACC was largely reacting to moves by what’s now the PAC-12, the so-called Big 10 (which also has twelve members), and the impending destruction of the Big 12 thanks to the inability of two behemoths – the University of Texas and Texas A&M – to get along.
Indeed, in the grand scheme of big-time college sports, the ACC is the most friendly of the emerging ”superconferences” to private schools; with the addition of Syracuse it will have five of them, the others being Duke, Wake Forest, Boston College, and the University of Miami. But it will almost certainly be considered the weakest of the superconferences in football, and if you look at the latest Sagarin ratings of the ACC schools, note the cellar-dwellers: Wake, Duke and Boston College.
This is depressing if you enjoy high-level, private school hoops. Of course, a few football-free private schools do enjoy regular success – Xavier, Gonzaga, and most recently Butler – but their resources are significantly smaller than the members of the current Bowl Championship Series conference schools, with lucrative BCS television contracts tied, first and foremost, to football. So with the likely demise of the Big East, the going is likely about to get much tougher for the likes of Seton Hall, Providence, and other Big East, hoops-only schools, even if they are able to hang on to relevance.
Is federal anti-trust action needed to deal with this, as some have suggested? I’m no anti-trust expert, but I’d say absolutely not. For one thing, when this has been threatened before it has had little to do with fair competition, and much to do with federal legislators trying to get the flagships in their states in on the BCS. That will do private schools little good, and hardly seems motivated by a real desire for fair competition or justice. We should also hope that Congress will focus on other, more important things, like, say, getting Washington back to its proper constitutional size. And most important, attacking the BCS will do little to address the fundamental problem: As long as states furnish huge subsidies to public universities, those institutions will always have a massive size advantage is the world of college sports.
So good-bye, Big East. Government schools have killed you.