Mum is the word on expansion

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The college football landscape is a much different place than it was the last time the Big East convened for its spring meetings.

But some questions remained the same – what form will the Big East take and how will that impact its future media rights?

Of all the conferences that have reshaped themselves in the last 12 months, only the Big East remains a big question mark. The league has added TCU, but appears to be in a holding pattern with Villanova because of concerns about what it adds to the football equation.

Commissioner John Marinatto declined once again Monday to discuss expansion, except to say it was a topic of conversation and one he wants resolved quickly. The few football coaches who stopped to chat also were mum, saying the decision was out of their hands.

Nothing can be decided here without the university presidents, anyway. Expansion to at least 10 teams is an inevitability, and something that needs to be in place by September 2012 when the league begins to look at negotiating a new media rights deal.

“That’s our goal,” Marinatto said. “We need to before we go into that discussion, know what it is we are. We have to have an identity. We have to obviously have our membership squared away. And we will.”

Expansion and media rights go hand in hand. The Big East and any future TV partners have got to know what form the league is going to take. That is what allowed the Pac-12 to negotiate its blockbuster deal, reportedly worth $3 billion over 12 years. That is what allowed the Big 12 to ink a 13-year deal worth reportedly over $1 billion -- even as a streamlined conference.

No question the pressure is now on Marinatto in the face of such massive deals.

“I think it’s healthy for intercollegiate athletics for all of us to generally be in that same field, in that same area,” he said. “Obviously it raises the bar, but it also raises the challenge. So in many ways, it’s healthy and positive, but in other ways it increases the challenge that we need to get to that point.”

For his part, Marinatto cited the big media markets that encompass the Big East, saying he felt optimistic about where his league stands as it begins to consider how much money it will get from a new media rights deal.

“There’s a distinct advantage in going last,” Marinatto said. “With the marketplace continually resetting, we sat here 12 months ago and we were envious of what the ACC was able to do because we thought that reset the marketplace. We sit here 12 months later and in less than a year the Pac-12 has reset the marketplace once again.

“It’s setting the stage for us provided that we’re deliberate and aggressive in order to monetize our rights in a fashion that’s as similar to what they’ve done. Now that there are three potential bidders in the marketplace, has changed the dynamics as well. The college rights have been undervalued for a very long period of time. It’s come to the forefront now that that’s been the case given where everybody’s ending up.

“Each and every time our competitors go to the table and test the market and consequently reset it puts us in a very positive position. Our future is very optimistic. We need to plan accordingly and make sure we’re in a position to take advantage of that.”

There also remains the possibility of establishing a Big East network.

“As we move forward for the next year and a half, that’s one of the things we’re going to be looking at and following what the Pac-12 does because I don’t know if they’re going to follow the model the Big Ten did or if there’s a different model they’re going to follow,” Marinatto said. “Based on what they do, their growth, their challenges, will be something we’ll learn from so we’ll be following what they’re doing and how they do it very closely.”

Remember back to a year ago, and these discussions were not even happening. Instead, many wondered whether the Big East would survive as a football league thanks to speculation that the Big Ten might poach Pittsburgh, Syracuse or even Rutgers to form a 16-team super-conference.

In fact, super-conferences seemed a foregone conclusion. But the cataclysmic changes many hypothesized never happened, and the Big East is now in a position to improve itself financially.

First, it must figure out what it wants to be.