CRAWFORD: Five steps to a reinvented Big East
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Last week, somebody asked University of Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich who he'd suggest for Big East Commissioner. It's one of those questions a guy would never answer in a million years -- unless he's Rick Pitino. So Jurich joked his way out of it, looked over at me and said, "Probably Eric. He'd be good. He's moving around jobs. He's available."
Not the smartest thing Jurich ever said. Having been nominated for the job of Big East Commissioner, I accept -- for at least the next 1,200 words. I don't know that I'd call these the first five steps, but they'd certainly be five principles to use moving forward.
1). PICK A FIGHT. Since TCU jilted the Big East, followed by the departures of Syracuse, Pittsburgh and West Virginia, the Big East has been portrayed as a loser. The Big East needs to win something. It's not going to beat the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 or Pac 12 in money or marketing, so forget that. The Big East needs to take aim at the ACC and make a clear, creative and borderline obnoxious case that, "We may not be the best conference in college football, but we're better than THOSE guys." I'm picturing a multi-pronged marketing effort. Some billboards in South Beach with the U's national championship trophies and the words, "Hey Miami, how's the ACC workin' out for ya?" Or, how's this for a commercial? "The Big East. Birthplace of ACC champions."
(Note to self: Hire marketing minds better than my own.) Still, the message needs to be strong. It needs to be enough to make news, and to begin conversation around the sport. If the ACC claims to be one of the football powers, it only has the ability to do that because it has poached five teams from the Big East. Capitalize on that. And on the head-to-head BCS record between the leagues. I'd hit the Orange Bowl angle particularly hard, noting that the ACC has been a no-show for the most part since 1997 -- producing only one winner in all that time. But the specifics of the argument don't matter as much as just making an argument. The ACC's a fine league, supplies more than its share of NFL stars and has great schools. But the Big East needs a foil, and it isn't without ammunition in an argument comparing the two. And the Big East needs to begin more forcefully making a case for itself, because no one else is going to make a case for it. Which brings us to Point No. 2.
2). FORGET ESPN. The TV football contract is up and the Big East needs anyone but ESPN to get it. ESPN not only advised the ACC to go after Syracuse and Pittsburgh, it has done little -- on its airwaves, anyway -- to combat the notion that the Big East has all but disappeared. Even if ESPN were to get the Big East back into its "family" of networks, it surely would be sitting at the kiddie table. I know, ESPN is the brand name in sports right now, but the Big East, and you'll note this as a recurring theme, is not going to beat the big boys on their turf. It needs to find new turf. NBC is making a serious push with its sports network, which I expect to emerge from the Olympics with the beginnings of a foothold toward getting into the game. Its collaborative efforts with Sports Illustrated are first rate. And then there's FOX, maybe less likely, but worth exploring. They're getting into the game in a bigger way. Does the name Erin Andrews mean anything to you? Gus Johnson. Anyone? More than sitting back and waiting for those networks to make a play, be aggressive. Tell them you want to be part of something new, and that you're willing to do your part to make it work. Which brings up point No. 3.
3). BECOME THE TOP ENTERTAINMENT LEAGUE. You're not going to match the pageantry, tradition and Q-rating of the big boys. But you can use your lack of tradition to your advantage. How? The Big East can become the All-Access league. Let coaches know that if they want the big money that comes from big-league exposure, they're going to have to get in the game. They're going to be miked up during games. Their locker rooms and practices are going to host camera crews. If NBC or FOX (whoever wins that bidding competition) wants it, they get it. What the NFL Network does with its enhanced replays, the Big East will do with its college replays. There is a hunger in this sport to see what happens behind the scenes. You're not going to get that with the big boys. The Big East can deliver it. If I have the choice of watching Vandy-Ole Miss in the traditional format, or Rutgers-Boise State in a tricked-out, all-access, technologically innovative telecast, which will I watch? Become a trendsetter -- including in rules innovation for conference games. If conferences are writing their own rules in financial matters, would the NCAA allow the Big East to tweak overtime formats for conference games? Kickoff rules? If the Big East is going to make its mark, it needs to do be different, and it needs to examine every idea that comes its way, including being packaged in creative ways with whatever sports NBC or FOX picks up, including niche sports like MMA, to develop crossover audiences. I know, I know. Sounds ridiculous. But the place the Big East needs to look is ahead, not around at what the SEC can do or back at what others have done.
4). LEVERAGE LOCATIONS. The league is well on its way to trying to do this. You hear anyone you ask from the Big East talking about its big-time television markets -- New York, Dallas, Houston, San Diego, Tampa, Orlando, and on down the line. But it needs to go further. If ESPN has College GameDay, the Big East needs to work with these cities on prime-time games that aren't just big-city games, but events where those cities are on display. These cities have a great deal to offer, and a chance at a national TV prime-time college football stage ought to be attractive enough to market and broadcast. It wouldn't have the same charm of an on-campus show. But giving college football a big-city feel is, how can I put this delicately, not exactly an idea that is without financial merits. Let that idea marinate. There has to be an entertainment/football/big city tie in that would at least claim its share of prime time audience. You can't beat them with just football. You've got to make it an event. You've got to entertain. The Big East claims more television households among its membership's markets than any other league. But just having them isn't enough. A vehicle has to be devised for tapping into them.
5). BEAT SOMEBODY. The word "bounty" has gotten a bad name lately. Let's just say that there should be an additional financial incentive for beating a top-10 non-conference opponent -- and even more incentive for doing it on the road. Shoot, I'd even include some incentive for just playing a top 10 team, but that might send the wrong message. Scheduling those games is going to be difficult in the coming years. You can't require teams to do it because, frankly, the better teams in your league are just not going to be able to get those games. But the effort has to be made, appreciated and rewarded. Programs are going to have to take risks.
Lump all of this into the category of "brainstorm." I'm not a details commissioner. I'll let others tell me why it would never work. Then tell them to make it work. There are other issues. If you can't get into a big-payout bowl, I'd suggest that the Big East look into forming its own, with its TV network and Notre Dame. Rather than wasting a lot of time forming a "Big East Network," I think the league would be better served by concentrating its effort on creating an innovative football product and then marketing that effectively. With increased popularity and exposure, particularly given the league's markets, a Big East Network could follow. And without it, a Big East Network would fail. None of this addresses the topic of basketball. That's because basketball is secondary. If the next commissioner doesn't make some bold moves to get Big East football back into the game, he won't have much of a conference to lead for very long.
On Friday night in Louisville, a recruit said that one small consideration in not picking his hometown school is "the Big East falling apart." That's job No. 1 for the new Big East commissioner. The Big East will be a stronger, deeper football league next season than it was last season. That's not the picture of a league falling apart. But it's the picture being painted nationally, and the league is going to have to start blowing its own horn, loudly, before perception becomes reality.
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