Published Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 1:04 pm
BASKETBALL
What would move to new league mean for Creighton?

If Creighton University is ultimately invited to join fellow Catholic universities in a new basketball-centric Big East Conference, its biggest consideration in whether to make the move might not even be an athletic one.

As a Jesuit institution that draws nearly two-thirds of its student body from beyond the boundaries of its home state, Creighton, by membership in the new league, would put its name and image in some of the nation's largest media markets.

“Your basketball team is your biggest marketing brochure,'' said Andrew Fellingham, a New York-based college athletics consultant.

“Do you want to put your biggest marketing brochure in New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Cincinnati, or do you want to put it in Wichita?''

Indeed, while representing a major step up in athletic competition and prestige, a move to join the so-called “Catholic 7'' schools in a new Big East Conference would carry all kinds of implications for the Creighton campus near downtown Omaha. School officials remained mum Monday on their possible interest in leaving the Missouri Valley Conference.

Catholic 7 / Big East timeline
The past few months have been filled with speculation about the Catholic 7 — who will join the new league, when will competition start, will they take the Big East name, etc.

Here's a timeline of some of the most important developments:
Dec. 13 — Seven leaving Big East to build basketball conference
Dec. 13 — Shatel: Creighton should say 'yes' if a new league calls
Dec. 13 — No word from Creighton on plans to join Big East defectors
Dec. 15 — Hoops-first league goal of Big East defectors
Dec. 16 — Big East schools face decisions
Jan. 3 — Report: Catholic 7 to meet, map out next steps
Jan. 4 — Seven Catholic schools continue to plot future
Jan. 9 — Creighton A.D. says no invite yet from new league
Feb. 17 — CU too far west for Catholic 7?
Feb. 28 — Creighton officials remain mum about Catholic 7

“Our stance has been we're not commenting, and we're continuing that stance at this time,'' Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen said Monday. “I wish I could.''

ESPN has reported that Creighton has emerged as a favorite to join the seven current Big East Catholic schools, plus Butler and Xavier, in a new 10-team league starting next season. Other reports have suggested that the Catholic 7 schools have had trouble reaching consensus on the 10th team and may begin play next year with nine.

Regardless of what ultimately happens, Fellingham and other college athletics observers here and nationally say it's not at all surprising that Creighton would receive strong consideration from the new league. The school represents a good fit, academically and athletically.

Like Creighton, all the Catholic 7 schools — St. John's, Georgetown, Villanova, DePaul, Marquette, Seton Hall and Providence — share a spiritual mission.

And all have little or no football history but share reputations for playing big-time hoops. One reason the Catholic 7 schools are breaking with the Big East is that they want to get back to playing in a conference where basketball is king.

For its part, Creighton's men's basketball team is expected two weeks from now to make its ninth NCAA tournament appearance in the past 15 years. Regularly packing the CenturyLink Center Omaha, the reigning Missouri Valley Conference champion is once again expected to rank in the top 10 nationally in attendance.

And for a school its size, Creighton has some of the finest athletic facilities in the country.

“None of us in the business are surprised by the interest in Creighton,'' said Jeff Schemmel, a Kansas City-based college athletics consultant. “They would be a very good fit.''

Figures compiled by The World-Herald show that Creighton's spending on men's basketball and overall athletic budget significantly lag those of the Catholic 7. Creighton spent a reported $4.4 million on men's basketball in 2011, compared with an average of $7.5 million for the Catholic 7.

But membership in the new league would open up two big new revenue streams for Creighton that would help bridge that gap.

Media reports have suggested that the new league will announce a new television contract with Fox as soon as today that would pay each member about $3 million.

And by moving to a stronger league, Creighton could also significantly increase the amount of NCAA basketball tournament revenue it would receive each year.

Creighton reportedly receives about $350,000 a year in TV and tournament revenue as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. It could easily increase that figure more than tenfold in the new league.

One of the biggest drawbacks in a marriage between Creighton and the Catholic 7 is geography. Teams in all sports would have to fly in and out of Omaha to compete in the league, at increased cost to all schools.

Recent history has shown, however, that on the major college sports landscape, geography takes a back seat to how many eyeballs will be drawn to TV sets — one of the reasons that the Big Ten three years ago looked west to grab the University of Nebraska and its football powerhouse Cornhuskers.

And on the travel front, observers say, Omaha's airport is a big asset in Creighton's favor, a strong regional hub literally minutes from the campus.

Still, even with all Creighton has going for it, Fellingham said he's not making any predictions.

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“The other people might say, 'I don't want to go all the way to Omaha,''' said Fellingham, who years ago consulted for the University of South Dakota as it changed athletic affiliations. “It's like pledging a fraternity. It only takes one or two guys who don't want you.''

Whatever happens with Creighton, it's drawing a lot of interest around the country. Doug Elgin, the commissioner of the Missouri Valley Conference, declined Monday to speculate on the future of Creighton and his league.

“I don't know what the future holds in the next 48 hours or next 48 days,'' Elgin said. “We're monitoring the situation, like most in college athletics are.''

Should Creighton join the new league, it would become the third major university in Nebraska in recent years to take a big leap athletically.

The University of Nebraska at Omaha decided two years ago to reclassify from Division II to Division I and joined the Summit League. Controversially dropping football and wrestling along the way, the school has its own dreams of one day playing in the NCAA basketball tournament.

Months earlier, NU decided to end a decades-old affiliation with the Big Eight/Big 12 Conference, with the move to the Big Ten, figuring to pay dividends both athletically and academically for years to come.

Based on their experience, representatives of both those schools recently stressed that while financial considerations are important, they can't override more important issues like cultural fit. You want to align with schools you consider peers, both academically and athletically.

“If conference membership is sustainable, it has to be based on something other than just money,'' said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. “Does it make sense to play these teams? Do you share the same basic view of intercollegiate athletics?''

Much like NU's move, a change of conference affiliation for Creighton would represent a major break with tradition. Creighton first joined the Valley in 1928 and has been a continuous member since 1976. And while the landscape has been shifting all over college athletics in the past decade, “the Valley'' amazingly has managed to maintain the same 10 members since 1996.

But that doesn't mean there's not a better possible fit elsewhere for Creighton, Schemmel and Fellingham said.

While the Missouri Valley represents a mix of midsize public and private institutions, all the schools in the proposed new league are private religious schools, and three — Georgetown, Xavier and Marquette — are Jesuit institutions, like Creighton.

Creighton would be among the smaller schools in the new league, though the undergraduate enrollment it reported in 2011 was close to that of Xavier, Butler, Providence and Seton Hall.

Creighton's academic profile and funding model also mirror those of the new league, Fellingham said. The schools generally have strong academic reputations, accept similar types of students and draw students from across the country.

Of Creighton's total undergraduate, graduate and professional school enrollment of 7,730 last year, 65 percent came from outside Nebraska, with students from every state represented. Almost 10 percent of its students came from states in the geographic footprint of the new league.

Indeed, one of the new league's biggest draws for Creighton may well be the exposure it would gain in some of the nation's largest cities. St. John's is in New York City, DePaul in Chicago, Georgetown in Washington, D.C., Marquette in Milwaukee, Villanova in Philadelphia, Xavier in Cincinnati and Butler in Indianapolis. That could pay off in increased enrollment of tuition-paying students.

At least when it comes to athletic budgets, Creighton is more like its current Missouri Valley colleagues than the schools in the new league.

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Creighton reported its athletic budget at about $15 million in 2011, which was right at the average for other Missouri Valley schools. By contrast, the Catholic 7 athletic budgets averaged $27.5 million. And even when excluding big dollars that a handful of schools spend on football, hockey and lacrosse, the average was $24 million.

Creighton's $4.4 million in basketball spending trailed all the Catholic 7 schools, though it was close to what Butler and Xavier spend. In some sports, Creighton's budget is already quite competitive with the proposed new league. Its baseball budget would be the highest in the league, its men's soccer budget the second-highest.

Regardless, it's clear that the spending and revenue picture would change dramatically for Creighton if it joined the new league.

Besides increasing the TV dollars, the stronger league could provide Creighton a much larger share of NCAA tournament revenues.

Conferences generally pool and share their tournament money, and the more games a conference's schools play in the tournament, the more the conference collects. Last year, each conference received about $250,000 for each game its teams had played in the tournament over the previous six years.

For the Valley, which usually earns one or two tournament bids a year, that amounted to just over $3 million in 2012. Had the new league been together over that time, it would have averaged close to five bids a year and would have collected about $18 million in tournament money in 2012.

Creighton could draw other new athletic revenues, too. The Bluejays have frequently been selling out their 17,000-seat arena in basketball. But fans would probably pay a premium to see teams like Georgetown, Marquette, Xavier and Butler make annual stops in Omaha.

Don Leahy, who has served as athletic director at both UNO and Creighton, has no doubt that UNO's step up in athletic competition is paying dividends for the school.

With Creighton's possible chance to line up with peer schools nationally and to play basketball against the likes of Georgetown's Hoyas, Leahy sees similar promise.

“It looks very inviting,'' he said. “Maybe it's Creighton's time.''

Contact the writer:

402-444-1130, henry.cordes@owh.com

Contact the writer: Henry J. Cordes

henry.cordes@owh.com    |   402-444-1130    |  

Henry's a general assignment reporter, so he could end up writing just about anything, though he usually focuses on public policy matters affecting the state, region or nation.

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