Butler and VCU should create brand new conference of elite mid-majors
While Butler and VCU celebrate their historic Final Four trips this week, many basketball followers are already trying to put an expiration date on their joyrides. Consecutive Final Fours or not, how long can a tiny school like Butler keep fielding such upper-echelon squads? How long until some deep-pocketed program sweeps in and poaches away Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens or Rams coach Shaka Smart?
In an ideal world, Butler and VCU would follow the blueprint of their BCS-busting football brethren, Utah and TCU, and move up to one of the six traditional power conferences. But as we learned last summer, basketball barely moves the needle when it comes to conference realignment. Outside of the ACC and Big East, regular-season college basketball is not a coveted television property like football. And Butler and VCU do not even field FBS-level football programs.
But that doesn't mean the two fledgling powers can't change conference affiliation. They should start their own.
The biggest hindrance for a program like Butler is that its conference doesn't provide adequate competition. It affects the Bulldogs' schedule strength (which gives them less margin for error in qualifying for the NCAA tournament) and puts a ceiling on the shared revenue it can generate (the biggest source of which is fellow conference teams' NCAA appearances). As long as Butler and VCU carry the "mid-major" stigma, they'll always be battling a recruiting disadvantage and always facing a fight to retain quality coaches.
Therefore, they should join forces with other reasonably close, nationally competitive programs from the non-power conferences -- teams like Memphis, Xavier and George Mason -- to form a new conference. And to make a definitive statement about their move up the ladder, they should call it The Major League.
The Major League would consist solely of programs that have demonstrated the ability to contend regularly for NCAA tournament berths, and advance once they get there; committed a certain threshold of financial resources to their program; and boast a comparable-sized fan base to the average power-conference team. All would be basketball schools first, football second (or not at all), and comprising seven almost contiguous states (the longest road trip is 1,250 miles).
Here are The Major League's proposed charter members, with résumés built over the past eight seasons (two full cycles of players entering and graduating):
While past performance doesn't always predict future results, collectively, The Major League's membership would more closely resemble that of one of the six BCS conferences, than the leagues the schools would be leaving (Conference USA, the A-10, the Colonial and the Missouri Valley).
Six of the 10 teams finished this season in the RPI Top 50 -- more than the ACC, SEC or Big 12. By comparison, Butler and VCU's current leagues, had just two each (including themselves). Meanwhile, the average capacity of the proposed league's arenas (11,336) is pretty Major League-esque -- it's far higher than that of Duke's renowned Cameron Indoor Stadium (9,314).
Playing a round-robin conference schedule in a league like this one would give teams far more chances to impress the selection committee and improve their seeding. As a result, they would move from what are currently one- or two-bid leagues to a conference that could possibly produce three to five tourney teams annually.
And that, in turn, can lead to much more moolah.
The NCAA distributes the revenue it generates from the tourney's broadcast rights, ticket sales and sponsorships, based on how many tournament games each conference's teams play in over a rolling six-year period. Each game equals one "unit." A team that reaches the Final Four, for example, earns its conference five units (for its five games). And because each unit remains on the book for six years, a conference like the SEC is still getting paid for all the units Florida rolled up during its championship runs of 2006 and '07. Most conferences share tourney revenue equally.
According to the NCAA's revenue distribution plan, each unit in 2010-11 is worth $239,664. From 2006-11, members of The Major League have combined for 78 units. A unit was worth slightly less in each preceding season, but the approximate value of those units would be around $17 million.
Here's how that figure compares to the 2010 distribution (which included the '04-'09 tournaments) for the six BCS conferences and the aforementioned schools' current leagues.
Big East: $23.11 million
Before we get carried away, note that if The Major League began business next year, all those units they accrued would stay with their former conferences. And in a normal six-year period, the league probably would not produce five Final Four squads (2006 George Mason, 2008 Memphis, 2010 Butler and 2011 VCU and Butler). Still, it's not unreasonable to think that over another six years, The Major League would produce comparable numbers to at least a few of the big boys.
By joining forces with their elite mid-major brethren, Butler and VCU could make a serious move up the pay ladder -- which means more money to spend on facilities, recruiting and, most importantly, Stevens' and Smart's salaries. And that's before even adding the ancillary benefits of a better TV deal, a more enticing home schedule, more prominent sponsors, etc.
So let's make it happen, fellas. In the spirit of the Big East (which started solely as a basketball league) and the former Great Midwest (which gave rise to C-USA), it's time for a new non-power conference super-conference.
You won't even have to worry about changing the name when it comes time for the inevitable expansion. Just make sure your teams keep performing at a level behooving The Major League -- lest you evoke your own set of Legends and Leaders jokes.