Thursday March 21, 2013

RACHEL COHEN

AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK -- The breakaway basketball schools kept the Big East name and the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden. In return, they left behind tens of millions of dollars to the football members.

That was easy to do with a lucrative television contract awaiting.

The new Big East launched as a 10-member league Wednesday with the additions of Butler, Creighton and Xavier and a 12-year deal with Fox. The agreement is worth about $500 million with the possibility of increasing to $600 million were the league to add more members, according to a person with knowledge of the details. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the value of the agreement was not made public.

The so-called Catholic 7 schools completed their exit from the Big East earlier this month. They’ll start play with their three new colleagues in the fall.

Providence’s president, the Rev. Brian Shanley, was a student at the college when its athletic director, Dave Gavitt, spearheaded the creation of the Big East in 1979. The conference’s name was proposed by his father’s marketing firm.

"This name is bold. This name is strong. This name is memorable," Shanley said. "That’s why it’s been important for us to keep that name and keep that legacy going."

Providence, Georgetown, St. John’s, Villanova, Marquette, Seton Hall and DePaul broke away from the old conference in search of stability, which was badly lacking as the football members kept leaving for other leagues.


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They feel they’ve found kindred spirits in Butler, Creighton and Xavier, all private schools with fewer than 8,000 students.

Creighton’s president, the Rev. Timothy Lannon, voiced an appropriate sentiment for a conference with only Butler as a non-Catholic member.

"This is a match made in heaven," he said.

Oh, and these new schools can play basketball a little, too.

Creighton is in its seventh NCAA tournament in 13 years. Xavier was one of only eight schools in the country to make at least seven straight NCAA appearances before missing out this season.

And Butler played in the national championship game in 2010 and ‘11.

The three new additions also expand the Big East’s presence in the Midwest.

Butler and Xavier are leaving the Atlantic 10, while Creighton departs the Missouri Valley Conference.

Butler coach Brad Stevens’ name always comes up when high-profile jobs open. Now he’ll be working in the Big East.

"The idea of being able to go to the very highest level of conference is attractive," said athletic director Barry Collier, who can speak from experience because he once left the Butler coaching job for a less-successful stint at Nebraska. "In this case, we brought the attractive conference to Brad Stevens."

The Bulldogs spent just one season in the A-10 after moving from the Horizon League.

"It is a great long-term move from the marketing standpoint of not only the athletic program but the school," Stevens said in Lexington, Ky., where sixth-seeded Butler faces Bucknell to open the NCAA tournament Thursday. "The markets that we’re getting a chance to play in and the schools that we’re getting a chance to be associated with obviously speak for themselves.

"To think about some of the places we’ve been and some of the places we’re going is kind of mind-boggling. Being in the middle of it, I just tried my best to focus on our team. I know that sounds boring, but if I didn’t, man, I could be pretty distracted right now."

Xavier’s president, the Rev. Michael Graham, can’t wait for coach Chris Mack’s new pitch to recruits: You can play every March at the Garden, and go on the road to places like Georgetown.

"I’m sure that we’re going to have an opportunity to recruit a kid that’s a step quicker, a little bit deadlier," he said, mimicking a shooting motion, "than we had before. That’s going to make, obviously, a difference in the program. We’ve done very well for the last several years by any metric, so this is going to allow us to take what we want to take -- which is our next step forward.

"We haven’t been to a Final Four yet."

Creighton is the geographical outlier in Omaha. The Bluejays bring a strong overall athletic program, loyal fan base and attractive arena.

And Creighton may not remain by itself in the middle of the country -- the Big East is open to adding more members in the future.

The conference has tasked executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates to find its first commissioner. Former Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe will serve as a consultant to the league as it prepares for its first season.

The Big East schools will also compete together in other sports, adding associate members in some. The conference is assuming the old Big East’s lease agreement for the tournament at the Garden.

"The schools in the new Big East have tremendous, tremendous followings in New York," MSG executive vice president Joel Fisher said, "and we are confident that the tournament will continue to be one of the toughest tickets that you get in Madison Square Garden during the springtime."

The Big East contract will be a major piece for Fox’s new sports cable network. Fox Sports 1 is slated to carry more than 100 men’s basketball games next season, plus the conference tournament.

When the Catholic 7 decided to leave in December, they didn’t have a TV deal yet, but they had a sense the market was strong, said Georgetown President John DeGioia. After they started to talk to Fox in January, they knew they could bring in plenty of revenue as they negotiated their exit from the old Big East.

"We truly applaud these universities for taking control of their destiny," Fox Sports co-President Randy Freer said.

The Atlantic 10 and Missouri Valley Conference released statements thanking the departing schools for their contributions; both said they would be "proactive" in moving forward.

The A-10 is also losing Temple, which is joining the old Big East’s football members, and Charlotte, which is heading to Conference USA, because of football as well.

The new Big East schools hope that they’ve escaped the vagaries of unexpected realignment for many years to come -- though nothing is ever certain these days in college sports.

"We could not have wished for a better start," DeGioia said.