One of the most intriguing developments in conference realignment has been the breakaway of the "Catholic 7" Big East basketball schools. While realignment has almost exclusively been focused on the television bounty of football, some of the best basketball schools in the country are close to forming a new elite league. With the Big East's total transformation from lower-end BCS conference to mid-pack mid major and the departures of Louisville, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, etc. the premier basketball conference in America is no more. The remaining basketball schools, dubbed the "Catholic 7," are ready to abandon a sinking ship. And with good reason – Georgetown, Marquette, DePaul, Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, and Villanova could form the core of one of the best basketball leagues in the country.
A basketball league with those schools as well as top programs like Butler, Xavier, Creighton, Dayton, and possibly VCU would be a prime acquisition for any of the major sports networks. WIth the excitement of the new league and the inventory in depth and quality of major college basketball games, it could be one of the most attractive rights deals on the open market. In fact, it could be more attractive and represent better value than what's left of Big East football. Already, both Darren Rovell and Pete Thamel have reported Fox is talking to the breakaway schools. Rovell has the number at potentially over $500 million dollars on a 12 year deal, which is incredible to think for a new basketball only league. Thamel has the dollar figure pegged at around $3 million per year for the participating schools, which might put the value above $400 million for the total package.
But while Fox is the early name associated with the Catholic 7, the truth is that all four of the major sports players (Fox, ESPN, NBC, and CBS) could benefit from winning these television rights, either in bolstering an already strong position, entering a new market, or providing a much needed content boost. With so many other leagues and sports locked up, it could be one of the most competitive negotiations the industry will see in the near future. Let's look at the odds and where the new basketball conference could land as well as an attempt to get an official statement from each network on gauging their possible interest.
Strengths: Home for NCAA Tournament coverage, broadcast TV outlet, caverns of empty space on CBS Sports Network
Weaknesses: Cable viewership and distribution
CBS is never really mentioned when it comes to television rights deals because they haven't shown an aggressiveness in stocking CBS Sports Network with live sports. Well, at least, live sports that would draw significant viewers. CBSSN is broadcasting a Division II basketball game between Anderson and Lincoln Memorial at noon on Saturday. Division II. It would take an enormous leap of faith for the Catholic 7 to latch on with a network that has such low viewership and distribution. CBS is the home of March Madness and they could offer a broadcast TV outlet for a few games, but it's difficult to imagine them as being a serious partner for an extensive package.
Official Statement: Declined comment
Strengths: Self-proclaimed worldwide leader, highest number of potential outlets, home for regular season college basketball.
Weaknesses: Increased competition for television time.
Any league in their right mind would run at the chance to partner with ESPN as the kingmakers of the sports world. If the ESPN machine truly got behind the new basketball league, it could vault to a place alongside the ACC and Big Ten. The secret to ESPN staying so far ahead of the field has been their aggressiveness in acquiring games and rights deals. While ESPN's studio programming gets plenty of attention, one of the most important factors in their continued dominance is their focus on televising games. That said, while ESPN has a great batting average in winning rights, they can't air everything. If the Catholic 7 did sign with ESPN, when would their games be televised? Take a look at the Monday-Saturday nightly lineup:
Monday – Big East, Big 12
Tuesday – SEC, Big Ten, Big East
Wednesday – ACC, Big 12
Thursday – ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Pac 12
Friday – NBA
Saturday – National primetime game
Where does the Catholic 7 fit there? ESPNU? ESPN3? Maybe a Saturday afternoon game here and there or some room on ESPN2? ESPN broadcasts games from every major basketball league, but the lineup is so crowded that the Catholic 7 may need to go elsewhere for more consistent exposure… even though it would mean sacrificing all the positives an established relationship with ESPN could bring.
Official Statement: “We have not spoken to the schools or their representatives about any deal. With that said, we are always interested in exploring a deal that makes good business sense for ESPN."
Strengths: National and regional cable outlets, open windows on NBC Sports Network
Weaknesses: small presence in college sports, cable ratings
The central talking point for NBC Sports has been gaining more attractive sports rights for their cable network that could provide an alternative to ESPN. NBC has made a push towards sports that find an audience outside Bristol – the NHL, Olympics, MLS, Formula One, etc. While NBC has failed in the past to make a significant footprint in the college game (aside from Notre Dame football), the Catholic 7 basketball league might present the perfect opportunity to do so. They would fit the blueprint of what NBCSN is trying to do with the Butlers and Georgetowns of the college sports world. While NBCSN's flagging ratings and the network's lack of a reputation for televising college basketball would be a concern, there is an element working in the network's favor – Comcast regional sports networks. CSNs throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic represent an opportunity for additional games to be televised regionally. WIth the possibility for national games on NBCSN and regional coverage on the CSN affiliates, that combination could provide a compelling package for the Catholic 7 if NBC is willing to step forward and make the commitment.
Official Statement: “We are always interested in great properties and this collection of historic basketball schools would fit that criteria.”
Strengths: Fox Sports One, strong offer reportedly on the table
Weaknesses: the unknown
If published reports are to be believed, Fox Sports is the early frontrunner. The Catholic 7 would provide the highly anticipated Fox Sports One with an immediate entry into the college basketball world and the network has already reportedly made a very strong offer. Fox Sports One represents a similar opportunity as NBC does for the Catholic 7. You wouldn't have the automatic viewership ESPN brings, but it could still be beneficial to both sides as a foundational piece to a startup national network. And, with new properties like UFC and the conference championship games in football, Fox has done the best they can to give these sports a big event feel. Can that transfer to FS1 and the Catholic 7? That represents the biggest unknown. Just how much prime real estate would be available on Fox Sports One competing with NASCAR, UFC, and MLB? In the winter months, perhaps it would be enough to please both sides. Perhaps Fox Sports One could revitalize their Sunday Night Hoops that was seen around the country on FSN affiliates a few years ago. Fox Sports One is going to make a big splash when it arrives and this league just might be a new piece to their puzzle.
Official Statement: Declined comment