I have been a fan of the sports teams fielded by my hometown college (but NOT alma mater) Syracuse University since I was a young child. My parents were both alums and had season football tickets since the 1950′s. They were fond of pointing out that I attended all the home games of S.U.’s 1959 national champions–albeit in utero! I pestered my father unmercifully until he got season basketball tickets for games at the old Manley Field House in the early 1970′s.
While life, work and family have supplanted S.U. sports as the dominant interest in my life, I’m still a fan and still want the school’s teams to succeed. There will be one major change for Orange fans–starting July 1, 2013, Syracuse will leave the Big East Conference to compete in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
There have been barrels of ink and megabytes of information dedicated to why the major conferences are morphing into larger entities, but the real reason can be summed up in three words: football television contracts. The major conferences are reforming themselves to be as attractive as possible to the television networks that are spending millions of dollars to gain rights fees to broadcast games. Larger conferences can create a year-end conference championship game that they can monetize–as well as have 14-16 teams participating in post-season games–whether they remain in the current bowl game format or the developing playoff system.
The bottom line is huge–fans watch football and generate real revenue for everyone involved: schools, conferences, the NCAA, networks and advertisers. Even the players–who receive scholarships, books, monthly stipend, training facilities and medical care–get a piece of the action. (It’s a whole ‘nother post I would have to write about whether players are adequately compensated in a system that generates such money.–maybe another time.)
For Syracuse, the changing environment practically demanded a change. To secure a steady (and more lucrative) stream of television revenue from their football program, they moved out of the Big East–a conference that compromised its value by trying to merge big schools that emphasized football, with smaller schools that emphasized basketball. The conference was never able to satisfy either type of school and the larger football schools have all started to leave: Pitt is joining Syracuse in the A.C.C., West Virginia is gone to the Big 12 and UConn and Rutgers are widely known to be searching for a better football conference. I can’t deny the logic of Syracuse’s move–and for most of the schools athletic teams, the move is an unalloyed improvement.
The football team is, in addition to the increase in TV revenue, moving to a league with a better reputation, gives us an in into a rich area of the country for football recruits and rejoins the ‘Cuse with traditional rivals such as Maryland, Va. Tech, Boston College and Miami. The lacrosse program already plays most of the teams in the A.C.C. and leaving the Big East conference opens up a couple of spots in its schedule to again play some non-conference rivals we were forced to drop: Hobart and UMass in particular. The one sport that is truly sacrificing benefit for this move is the basketball team.
Syracuse basketball is a national power–and we became a national power as a direct result of our affiliation with the Big East. Our program’s major rivals are all Big East conference schools–Georgetown, UConn, Villanova and St. John’s. The Big East of the 1980′s was the hippest conference in the nation. One year, three of the four teams in the Final Four were from the Big East–and Villanova beat Georgetown in one of the wildest championship games ever. The year-end Big East tournament held in Madison Square Garden has become the most legendary of tourneys–and often seems to be an S.U. home game with the orange shirts and the overwhelming numbers of NYC alumni and local fans trekking from C.N.Y. Pearl Washington getting blocked in the last seconds against G’town, S.U.’s six overtime victory against UConn, the S.U. victory in the one tourney held in the Carrier Dome–just some of the memories from the finest crucible of basketball insanity ever created. Syracuse basketball is giving up a lot, since unlike any of the other sports, it’s identity was largely created by its participation in the Big East.
However, the Big East of today is not the Big East of our memories. Who really cares about playing DePaul, University of South Florida, Cincinnati? The quality games we give up against Marquette and Louisville are more than matched by games with Duke and North Carolina. What we will miss is something the Big East has long given up. The conference was created to allow eastern region basketball schools to become nationally ranked basketball powers. Georgetown, Syracuse, UConn and Villanova all used the Big East to create elite programs. Now we’ve joined the big time–and we act accordingly. We act like a big time program–we’re in it for the money, not the happy memories of days past.