DENVER -- Inside a meeting room at the Hyatt Convention Center on Monday, the Big East scored what's been something of a rarity: a major college football victory.
The once formidable league, which spent much of the past year being battered to the brink of irrelevance, had to this point struck out in its quest to obtain a guaranteed berth in the sport's new postseason model, forthcoming in 2014. The Big Ten and Pac-12 have the Rose Bowl, the Big 12 and SEC have the Sugar Bowl and the ACC has the Orange Bowl. The Big Ten and SEC even landed spots for their second-best teams, but the Big East, an AQ conference since the BCS' 1998 inception, appeared to be hung out to dry.
Monday, however, the commissioners and presidents who oversee the sport agreed to include a guaranteed spot in one of the six premier bowls for the highest-ranked champion (as determined by the new selection committee) from the so-called "Group of Five:" the Big East, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt.
In eight of the past 10 years, that team would have been the Big East champion, based on the league's 2014 membership (which includes Boise State) and using the soon-to-be-defunct BCS standings.
"This gives us an opportunity to compete," said Big East commissioner Mike Aresco. "That's what we want. We're adding new teams and we think we're going to be a stronger league. This gives us a chance to prove it."
Five months ago, when the presidents formally approved the new playoff model, the message seemed to be that the new system would be more pure-market based. If a bowl wanted to do business with a given conference, great. If not, that excluded conference had better hope to qualify for the playoff.
According to a BCS source, that sentiment started to shift around September, as longtime BCS buzzwords like "fairness" and "access" reentered the lexicon.
"One thing that was very important to the Group of Five/non-AQ schools was some sort of access to one of those bowls so we could compete," said Northern Illinois president John G. Peters. "That was a positive feature of the last contract."
The previous format mandated a minimum threshold for non-AQ teams: top 12, or in some circumstances, top 16. So what happens if the selection committee ranks its top 20 teams and there's no Group of Five member to be found?
"Keep ranking," said BCS executive director Bill Hancock.
Independents like BYU are not considered part of the Group of Five and thus are not guaranteed access. Notre Dame has a shared deal with the Big Ten and SEC for the spot opposite the ACC in the Orange Bowl.
In recent weeks, discussion started about adding a seventh game to the system to accommodate the have-nots, but the response from potential television and bowl partners was tepid, and concerns surfaced about creating an asymmetrical system. (As it is now, 24 semifinal games over 12 years can be split evenly among six bowls.) The solution reached today, however, is actually a better deal for the Group of Five schools, the best of which will likely face a highly ranked team in one of the three yet-to-be-determined "host" bowls. (Think Fiesta, Cotton or Chick-fil-A, though that won't be decided for several months.)
"It wasn't about a seventh bowl," Big East senior associate commissioner Nick Carparelli tweeted Monday. "It was about a guaranteed spot. It is better for everyone if there are 6 bowls. Mission accomplished!"
It's a bit puzzling why Jim Delany, Mike Slive and their cohorts voluntarily gave up a potential spot for one of their own teams now that the BCS' antirust concerns have evaporated, but one source said Monday that the suddenly benevolent power-conference commissioners and presidents agreed to this model without being pressured to do so.
"They unanimously approved the deal, and did it with smiles on their faces," said Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman. "They thought it was fair."
One reason those gentlemen are smiling today: Their conferences are about to get filthy rich. As part of Monday's meeting, the presidents authorized the commissioners to finalize negotiations with ESPN for rights to the new system. According to SportsBusiness Journal, the network has offered a staggering 12-year, $7.3 billion -- around $608 million a year -- deal for the rights to broadcast the national championship game, two semifinals and the four other host or contract bowls each year.
To put that in perspective: ESPN pays $180 million annually for the current system. The parties are in the last week of an exclusive negotiating window, and while Hancock said talks are ongoing, because ESPN's offer is so lucrative it's believed the package is unlikely to go to the open market.
"There will be plenty of money for everybody," said Hancock. "The bottom line is more."
The group also agreed Monday on a structure for sharing all that new revenue, and while no specifics were offered, conferences with a team that qualifies for the playoff will receive the highest cut, followed by participants in the host bowls and then a handout to the conferences without participants. Note that the Big Ten/Pac-12 (Rose), Big 12/SEC (Sugar) and ACC (Orange) will keep all of the revenue from their respective conference bowls except in years when those games host a semifinal.
"Since the new format is projected to be so popular," said the BCS release, "there will be more revenue for all conferences and independent institutions."
One refreshing twist in the revenue-sharing department: Perlman confirmed that 10 percent will be reserved for "academic performance." Say, for example, the Big 12 nets a $70 million share from the system in a given year, of which 10 percent is $7 million. The conference will receive that money regardless, but if a school does not meet a specified APR score that year, it will forfeit its cut of that $7 million.
At one point late Monday morning, applause could be heard from inside the meeting room. Perhaps the gentlemen were congratulating themselves on a job well done. They certainly left with an air of triumph.
"We're delighted at the progress since June," said Virginia Tech president Charles Steger. "The group has been very responsive to what the football fans want, the four-game playoff. Everything is moving in a very positive direction. College football, as well as the fans, will be well served by what we came away with today."
No fans should be happier today than those in Cincinnati, Louisville, Boise and the rest of the Big East. The conference might not be one of the cool kids any longer, but it still has an invite to the party.