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May 30, 2012Could the future Big East television deal be a marriage between NBC and ESPN?
The ideal scenario, according Memphis athletic director R.C. Johnson, would be for the league to be showcased on the national NBC network while still maintaining a presence on ESPN.
Future fall Saturdays on the Peacock would feature a doubleheader or tripleheader of Big East and Notre Dame football games with cable's NBC Sports Network airing additional inventory.
ESPN would retain a level of TV rights with league football games airing on occasional Thursday nights and Big East basketball remaining a prominent participant on 'Big Monday.'
Appearing on Wednesday's edition of 56 WHBQ's 'Sportstime' with George Lapides and Dave Woloshin, Johnson, who retires from his post at Memphis later this summer, spoke extensively about the discussions at the recent Big East (and Conference USA) league meetings.
UCF and Memphis are among several schools slated to join the Big East in 2013-14.
"I will say this to the listeners out there: The future for Tiger athletics with the Big East and all that goes with it is pretty exciting," Johnson said.
Before he brought up the upcoming TV contract negotiations, Johnson dropped several interesting nuggets regarding Big East basketball scheduling, including a possible 20-game conference schedule when the league begins their 18-school format in 2013-14.
"Mike Brey of Notre Dame, who is the chair of the coaches group, came before the athletic directors and talked about an 18-game schedule, but they also talked about going to a 20-game conference schedule," Johnson said. "It's kind of interesting. We had not thought about that.
"We, the University of Memphis, would have a problem with (a 20-game schedule). 18 we're in favor of. We're committed to playing Boise State and San Diego State. That would get us to 20 (games). But the problem we have is we need 18 home games. (A 20-game Big East schedule with Boise and SDSU as non-conference additions) would put us at 22 games, so we'd only have five games left to schedule. We're not in favor of 20.
"The theory on 18 is everybody would play everybody and you'd have one opponent that you'd play twice. We did not get that far in the discussions."
Johnson added that rumors of league instability were unfounded.
"I will tell you also I did talk to some of the basketball-only schools," Johnson said. "I said, 'What's this rumor about you guys pulling out?' The athletic director at Georgetown, I sat next to him and the athletic director from Louisville, and he said, 'We're not going anywhere. We're staying right here.' I think that really bodes well."
Earlier reports indicated the league discussed several football division alignments, including north-south, east-west and a non-geographical model that would split the Florida, Texas and West Coast schools yet maintain one permanent crossover rival. Johnson said if Memphis is in another division than Louisville they would want the Cardinals to be their permanent crossover.
He mentioned that the league is "trying to add another school for football" to coincide with Navy's scheduled arrival in 2015, but did not mention any names. Last week, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported the Big East expected to add either BYU or Air Force later this fall.
Though lacking in details, Johnson alluded to the league's bowl situation.
"They were talking about bowl games that you and I watch on television," Johnson said. "Those were the games they were locked into. They were talking about opponents from BCS conferences that they're going to play and do they want to play somebody from this conference or would they rather play someone from another conference."
Johnson said he saw a lot of "enthusiasm" from the NBC, Fox and ESPN representatives who attended the meetings.
He was asked if the Big East would receive 'ACC money:'
"I don't think we'll get that close, but I do think there will be a marriage between NBC and ESPN," Johnson said. "NBC came in. The ESPN people did not make a proposal, but they were there and they reiterated how much they wanted to maintain the Big East. NBC actually made a proposal and they had a magnificent presentation put together. Obviously they have a pretty good audio/visual department at NBC."
Current rights-holder ESPN and the Big East will enter an exclusive 60-day negotiating window beginning Sept. 1. Outside parties, such as NBC, can't issue any sort of monetary offer or proposal until November at the earliest, but they can illustrate how they would plan to showcase the league.
"(NBC's) purpose (at the meeting) was to show they had an interest in the Big East and they had it tied in with Notre Dame football," Johnson said. "They talked about doubleheaders and tripleheaders on the NBC station. Not on the Versus or whatever they all have, NBC (Sports Network), because they've got several cable outlets.
"They talked about how they liked the time zones and they talked about tying in doubleheaders and tripleheaders on Saturday with football."
Johnson said they'd love to find a way for coverage to continue on ESPN even if the bulk of their content moves to NBC.
"I think in the ideal world and financially as well, if we could get a combination of ESPN and NBC, it would just be magnificent," Johnson said. "ESPN is talking about continuing 'Thursday Night Football' which is a big draw and continuing 'Big Monday' in basketball which is huge."
TV contract money has become a bragging point - or a point of contention - to college athletics power brokers and fans. Recently, there was an outcry from Florida State faithful when it was announced the new ACC TV deal would only yield an annual average of $17 million per school over the 15-year length of the contract, which is millions less than Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and PAC-12 school are slated to receive in their respective contracts.
A month ago, Johnson said people in the Big East were "hopeful" of a per-school payout in the "teens" of millions for all-sports members. Now he's shooting for at least $10 million.
"I'm hopeful of double digits to be honest with you," Johnson said. "I think that would be a great way to move on."
At the beginning of the interview, Johnson briefly touched on the Conference USA meetings in Destin, Fla., and the debated topic of the site of next year's basketball tournament. Memphis and UCF were the only schools to put in an initial bid, but there's significant league sentiment to send the tourney to a school that's not leaving the conference, such as Tulsa.
"The big elephant in the room was the Conference USA tournament," Johnson said. "It was not brought up other than saying the presidents are going to decide June 11. I reiterated we want to host it. It was also interesting that every athletic director I talked to said it should come here and be in Memphis, but so-and-so doesn't want it here. So I'd go talk to so-and-so and he said, 'I want it there, but so-and-so doesn't.' At the end, they said, 'Well, the presidents don't want to go there.'
"There might be something to that because we're leaving. Or it could be the commissioner. Everybody wants to talk about what's best for the student-athlete and what's best for the student-athlete is to have the tournament here.
"What they reported is they said three presidents raised the issue of whether it should go to Memphis. The athletic directors voted to bring it there. They said the three presidents raised the issue and if three presidents raise the issue it becomes a discussion item. (C-USA commissioner) Britton (Banowsky) has not said he wants it here nor has he said he doesn't want it here. It will be interesting. I talked to (Memphis President) Dr. Raines yesterday. It will be interesting to see how that call works out."
If not Memphis, Johnson figures Tulsa will be the landing spot.
"(Tulsa) didn't draw very well last time (in 2010)," Johnson said. "If you really look at it, the place to have it is here. I know the coaches feel Josh (Pastner) already has a built-in advantage with the talent level, but the truth of the matter it's supposed to be what's best for the student-athlete and what's best for the conference and that would be (Memphis)."