Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Colleges

New conference leaves USF bigger fish in smaller league

It has been only a year since the Big East's coaches and administrators last met in Ponte Vedra Beach, but so much has changed.

A year ago, Boise State and San Diego State were preparing to join the conference. Louisville, Rutgers and Notre Dame were still members, and USF football coach Skip Holtz listened as interim commissioner Joe Bailey touted a national Big East crossing four time zones, speaking with hope and confidence of a lucrative new TV contract in the fall.

But now, as USF shifts to the new American Athletic Conference in the summer, its position in its league's financial pecking order also will change dramatically. The Bulls will go from having the third-smallest athletic budget in the 2012 Big East lineup to the third-largest among schools scheduled to be in the American in fall 2014. It's a new perspective for a young and still-growing athletic program.

"It'll be different to be in the upper third from a financial standpoint than where we've been," USF athletic director Doug Woolard said. "It's probably perception more than it is changing anything. Our goals won't change. Our goals will be to compete at the highest level we can."

The teams leaving the Big East had some of the league's biggest revenues — Syracuse and Pittsburgh, now gone to the ACC, were at $73 million and $56 million a year, respectively; Louisville and Rutgers, on the way out next summer, were at $87 million and $57 million.

Among USF's new conference rivals moving forward, only Connecticut ($64 million) and Memphis ($47 million) had more revenue reported last year than USF, at $43.6 million. Commissioner Mike Aresco said USF has another advantage in experienced leaders such as President Judy Genshaft and Woolard.

"I think a lot of our schools will be very close in what we spend, and I think, as a result, will be very competitive," Aresco said. "USF's budget will put them in good shape. Remember, money isn't the only thing. USF has really top leadership — smart, innovative people."

The American should benefit from a more shared set of priorities among its members. The Big East had its football schools and basketball-centric schools, with league meetings splitting off at times to different rooms with separate agendas.

"This will be the first time in our meetings that … we'll all look alike and have the same interests," Woolard said. "The first time the Catholic 7 (schools), the new Big East meets, they're probably going to feel the same way. When we had meetings in the past … it worked, but it was a bit awkward."

The larger issue for the Big East carryovers — USF, Cincinnati and Connecticut — is how they can continue to compete with rivals from the NCAA's top five conferences, which will get significantly more revenue after huge increases in their TV contracts.

"There's a gigantic difference, a huge gulf between the top five now and (the American)," said John Cheslock, who studies the economics of college athletics as director of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State. "You're still going to want to be competitive with the schools in the top five conferences. You'll want to spend in somewhat the same ballpark, but your revenues aren't going to be in the same ballpark. You've got to cover those costs somehow."

Other sports economists, such as Andrew Zimbalist, an author on the subject and professor of economics at Smith College in Massachusetts, have a gloomier outlook on the American Conference schools' abilities to compete.

"It's an enormous step down, and it's going to be very hard, given that, to rebuild and get the program at a level that's at all competitive with the teams in the big five conferences," Zimbalist said. "They had a fighting chance when the Big East was an automatic qualifying conference, but I don't think they have one anymore. … Even if USF comes to be a dominant football power within the (American), they're going to be in the situation Boise State was in, which is untenable. You can't fund a competitive team if your resources are $20-$30 million or more below where other teams are spending."

Cheslock wonders if a lesser conference could help USF football, which never had a better record than 4-3 in its eight seasons in the Big East.

"There's the idea that, 'I'd like to win conference championships, so I'm better off further down the hierarchy because I'm more likely to win my conference if it's not as tough,' " Cheslock said. "Is it better to win your conference if the conference is less well-known than it is to finish fifth in a conference that's very well-known, in terms of keeping students and alumni happy, in terms of branding the university? It's an interesting question and a difficult one to answer."

Until the next round of expansion, USF, Cincinnati and Connecticut will try to focus on establishing themselves as the best program within their new league. And as the American works to build its own identity, the conference has optimism in USF and Central Florida as big parts of their efforts to forge a new reputation nationally.

"PR is never going to replace performance," Aresco said. "We need to perform, and we think we will. We think we have good football. In Florida, we certainly have two giants. I don't want to call them sleeping giants. They've had success. We have some relatively undeveloped beachfront property with tremendous potential."

Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/usf. Follow him on Twitter at @GregAuman.

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