Villanova and the call of big-time football

Posted: December 24, 2012

An opportunity missed? Or the luckiest of breaks?

That may always be the question at Villanova as the school charts a new course, forming what is essentially a new collegiate sports league centered on basketball, leaving dreams of big-time football behind.

Has Villanova lost its chance to be a major player on the national college sports stage? Will it become increasingly difficult to reach the Final Four in basketball? Will the school slip back toward mid-major status?

Or is Villanova winning the college sports lottery, staying strong in hoops, playing natural rivals, while not chasing football dreams? Make no mistake, big-time college football has been an exercise where sometimes the more games you win, the more money you lose.

"I'm very pleased where Villanova is situated right now," the school's president, the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, said with athletic director Vince Nicastro and the school's basketball coach, Jay Wright, beside him at a news conference.

But could there have been a more robust future for the school as a whole through big-time football? What if the school had moved up to Big East football in 1997, when it had the chance?

In the spring of 2011, according to numerous sources, Donohue, board of trustees members, and others involved in the decision reached the conclusion that it made sense to pursue Big East football. The financial picture looked promising enough to give it a go, to move up from the Football Championship Subdivision, the old I-AA.

As it turned out, that opportunity never arrived because the Big East decided not to invite Villanova, canceling a scheduled vote. The school went into a holding pattern and, as schools kept leaving for greener pastures, Villanova watched the value of the league TV deal decrease to the point where it decided it no longer made sense to even try to move up, not that anyone was asking.

"I think we would have approached that very cautiously," Nicastro said of moving up as schools such as Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and West Virginia left the Big East for other conferences. Louisville and Rutgers eventually joined in the mass departure.

A case can be made, a strong one, that Villanova's more important decisions about football were made years earlier, in 1981 and 1997, when realignment wasn't part of the landscape, but the school had to decide whether to play big-time football.

One report on football feasibility from a faculty athletic advisory committee at Villanova cut to the chase: "Realistically, the issue is not whether football might generate profits but whether or not it is worth the expense."

This report was delivered on Nov. 4, 1982. For the better part of four decades, Villanova has wrestled with the right level for football, and even (decades ago) whether to have football. Maybe the school's path to where it is now began in 1974, when a committee on university structure and programs recommended that Villanova discontinue intercollegiate football.

That recommendation was eventually accepted in 1981, after Villanova spent $1.264 million on football over a two-year period. The school revived football in 1984, but at the I-AA level. Villanova has been extremely successful under coach Andy Talley, even winning a national title in 2009, but largely outside of the media spotlight.

And the sport has kept costing Villanova money, as much as $70 million or more over the last quarter century.

Pay to play

In deciding whether to pursue a move-up in football the last couple of years, a number of people involved studied a decision in 1997 not to move up and join the Big East for football.

"While the strategic value to [Villanova] in moving up to FBS [Football Bowl Subdivision] was glaringly clear to us in 2011, it was much more vague and debatable in 1997," said one man centrally involved in the recent process. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Everything looks perfectly clear."

This man, an alumnus who doesn't work on campus, said the financial investment and risks were "far and away" the most critically debated aspects of a potential move-up.

In 2011-12, according to Nicastro, Villanova spent $5.3 million on football, including scholarships, and brought in roughly $1.5 million in tickets sales, guarantee games (where Villanova is paid to play a I-A opponent), contributions directly to football, and retail sales.

"That hasn't changed very much over time," Nicastro said, speaking of the revenues brought in.

The goal, Nicastro said, in looking at going to the top football level was to "lose, or invest" roughly the same amount each year playing Big East football.

"So it might be, invest $18 [million], generate $14 [million], and still have a $4 million differential,'' Nicastro said. "Then you may get some benefits of being at the FBS level. I don't think we ever went into this thinking we were ever going to make money, or profit from this. There aren't many schools that can do that, even at the highest levels."

Nicastro said that in researching a potential move up, Villanova talked to quite a few similar schools, "not football factory-type schools."

"They provided a lot of cautionary tales for us," Nicastro said. What that meant was that football took "not just the financial investment, but the psychological investment in running an FBS football operation, [which] can really consume your staff, your resources."

The other cautionary tale, Nicastro said, that schools offered was about "the ongoing inflationary rate" in big-time college football. By that, he means the costs involved in salaries and infrastructure.

"In college football, that inflationary rate can be exponential because it's so competitive," Nicastro said. "There's this arms race. Sometimes it's worse when you're doing well, because all of a sudden coaches have leverage. You're forced to invest more than you had planned in a short period of time."

The road not taken   

So why even think about joining the arms race?

Television-rights fees for college sports have exploded in recent years. In the spring of 2011, the Pac-12 announced a multi-network deal worth $3 billion over 12 years. The Big 12 reached a deal worth $2.6 billion over 13 years. Meanwhile, the Big Ten is sitting on the richest pot, with the Big Ten Network charging 37 cents a home (as of 2011) whether you watch it or not.

Also, ESPN.com reported that the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and Atlantic Coast Conference will split 75 percent of $345 million annually as part of a BCS deal with ESPN. The remaining $86.25 million will be divided among the Big East, Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA, and Sun Belt. Even if the Big East gets the largest share of that smaller split it will be a decrease from previous league BCS revenues.

Those riches help explain why so many schools have fled the Big East. Schools such as Connecticut, which made a decision to move from I-AA in 1997 when Villanova had the chance, ramped up in the hopes of being part of a power conference. UConn still isn't there yet.

There also is the issue of whether power conferences could eventually break from the NCAA entirely, leaving the rest of the schools out of even the national championship tournament. March Madness only for the big boys. If that were to happen, Villanova could never re-create its 1985 national title. It would essentially be I-AA for all sports. That also could have ramifications for the school overall in terms of being a national university.

Looking at the new television landscape, Nicastro said, "the Big Ten cut out the middle man" - referring to the creation of the Big Ten Network, which has since been copied by other leagues. "So the ESPNs of the world and the other carriers who need content to survive and thrive, they saw a college conference could literally cut them out of the loop and sell their product directly to the customer."

One result is that networks are paying more of a premium for rights to college games, especially as live sports becomes more important to advertisers, with consumers fast-forwarding through commercials when they watch programs at their convenience.

Will these riches keep coming? Will technology change in some unforeseeable way, eventually stopping the revenue stream of live sports?

"I think there is a bubble playing itself out here," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. "Real-world economic forces" - low population and income growth - "will put an end to what we are witnessing. . . . I think we will see a leveling-out of these contracts, and they can go down."

Media companies "are trying to get as much of the programming as they can, and if the distribution mechanism shifts, they will still have programming to sell," Zimbalist said. "I think there is a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety in the industry because of technology."

Even if the bubble bursts, which set of schools is Villanova better off being with? The answer a year ago was to try to move up. Now, the Wildcats will be with Georgetown and the other basketball-centric schools.

The sense on the Main Line campus and with many alumni is that Villanova realizes it isn't in position to gain the most from sports, with no opportunity to move to the ACC, for instance. But the school also is insulated in a sense. A safer route could eventually turn out to be smarter for a school with a smaller endowment than Drexel. And the new basketball league figures to be a good one, if not as strong as the Big East at its height.

If there had been a move-up at some point in football, Nicastro said, "I don't think there's a guarantee one way or another - that it was going to be the path to prominence, or maybe another road. . . . There could be some land mines, too."

Just to be clear, Nicastro added Friday in an e-mail, there was no decision to make this time.

"I know this sounds technical," the athletic director said in the e-mail. "We didn't make a decision to move up. There was no formal invitation, so there was no action by our board on the issue."

It's true that there can't be a road not taken if there is no road to take. Except that over the years there have been all sorts of fateful decisions regarding football at Villanova, many roads not chosen just off Lancaster Avenue.

"We had been looking at and discussing that,'" Nicastro said of where Villanova football belongs, "it feels almost continuously, over 30-something years."


Contact Mike Jensen at mjensen@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @jensenoffcampus.

Staff writer Bob Fernandez contributed to this article.

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