As a fan of the Georgetown University Hoyas, I’ve been pretty pessimistic about the state of college hoops over the last few years. In pursuit of the potentially huge bucks associated with college football, conferences have been realigning and schools without football have been left behind. And while some private universities have come out ahead in these gridiron games, private schools generally can’t compete with public institutions in football. They don’t have the state-subsidized scale needed to gather huge student bodies, nor do they “represent” their states, both of which help fill football stadiums and bring eyeballs to television sets. So I have feared doom for private schools left out of the “Power Five” conferences, especially those in the “new” Big East.
Then Villanova won the NCAA championship. And I had to ask: Has my trepidation and depression been misplaced?
Maybe it has. While the revenue potential of college hoops is significantly smaller than it is for football, the costs are also much lower. There are far fewer players and coaches, the equipment is less costly, and you don’t need nearly as big a band. That means you don’t need as much TV money, or as many posteriors in seats, as you do for football. And if you don’t have football, as some Big East players recently pointed out, hoops is the school’s flagship sport, and the basketball players are the biggest campus stars. That may be a recruiting edge.
Or maybe Villanova’s championship is just long odds that played out, as opposed to a sign the odds are not that bad. Indeed, the Big East overall has struggled a bit in the Tourney since the conference’s reinvention three years ago. It was also lucky that it formed at the same time Fox Sports was putting together a new sports channel – FS1 – and needed programming to fill the hours. Fox offered the Big East a princely (for basketball) sum of about $4.2 million per school per year over a 12 year period. But so far the ratings have been pretty paltry: the first two conference championships had only about 702,000 and 414,000 viewers, respectively, and even though this year’s was on the full Fox network, it only attracted 1.4 million viewers. In contrast, this year’s Big Ten championship game drew 3.2 million eyeballs.
Part of the problem is no doubt that Fox – and especially FS1 – is new to college hoops, and some potential viewers don’t know where to look. But probably a bigger problem is that Big East schools are relatively small, and elicit little if any state pride.
Of course, before anyone starts shedding buckets-o-tears for any college competing in D-1 sports, remember that (1) no one forces schools to participate, and (2) they all benefit, ridiculously, from government “help.” There are no real victims save taxpayers.
That said, what is the outlook for the Big East? Certainly better than I thought it to be a few years ago. But the obstacles still seem sizeable, and I know I won’t be a believer until the Hoyas win at least, um, three more national championships.
That could take a while.