Today, something finally made sense in the latest round of college athletics War Games, and in the red-flecked pocket on Kentucky's northern border, there should be smiles. With the announcement that Louisville has accepted an invitation to join the Atlantic Coast Conference, even the commonwealth's basketball overlords in Lexington have to stop and take notice.
One of real estate's oldest axioms is that you never want to have the best house on the block. It's much better to be in a nicer neighborhood where the collective quality of the properties helps lift everyone's value. Kentucky, especially with John Calipari's Unstoppable Recruiting Machine continuing its U.S. tour, still has a nicer house than the Cardinals, but Louisville inarguably now is in the better neighborhood for the first time in the rivalry's modern construct.
When the Cardinals joined the Big East in 2005, it was a boon for the program, but it was not joining quite the same conference as its 1980s and '90s heyday. There were too many members, too much geographic distance and disparity, too many dueling agendas between football-playing schools and basketball-only members. It was the deepest and, for many years, the best basketball conference, but not necessarily the most prestigious or the most stable. Once Kentucky pulled a couple of weeds from its front yard, the view from high on SEC Hill was still pristine and the Cats sat and mixed another bourbon.
Landing in the ACC is a potential game-changer for the Cardinals. They already have a big-time athletics (and basketball) budget and a sweetheart deal on a new pro-style arena. Now they have grander cachet and that should translate into better recruiting, bigger rivalries and higher TV ratings, which could feed a self-fulfilling cycle of success in the 'Ville. A top-10 all-time program in its own right, the Cardinals will never be No. 1 in their own state, but this move gives them a better chance to shoot for that nationally on a regular basis.
On the surface, this looks like a boon for the ACC, also. Louisville basketball is a crown jewel to add to Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse atop the league's masthead. For the time being, at least, you have four top-of-the-mountain Hall of Fame coaches working at the same time in the same conference. For a basketball junkie, it's incredible. But Louisville may benefit in this sense, too. Rick Pitino just signed a contract extension through 2022, and even if he doesn't fulfill that, there's a very good chance he outlasts Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski, at the very least. If Syracuse and Duke are unable to maintain their standards under a different steward, there's even greater opportunity for the Cardinals.
As for the Big East, this is obviously a disastrous blow. As the league desperately tries to nail down a TV deal before it fully re-morphs into early-2000's Conference USA, the loss of Louisville's program (in football and basketball) is a huge blow. Maybe moreso is the news that Cincinnati and Connecticut were desperately angling for Louisville's ACC spot, and the ACC wryly noting that it only was going to take one school at this point because it figures it can always grab one or both of those later if they need to.
Maybe Mike Aresco will fool one of the fledgling national sports networks into a deal, but the unraveling of the Big East as a legitimate major conference seems all but complete. What basketball folks are bracing for now is to see what kind of deal Aresco can land. If it comes in below expectations, then all heck may break loose, as there could finally be a financial argument for the basketball-only schools to break off, raid the Atlantic 10 for its best teams, and cut its own basketball-only deal. To this point, the economics haven't been there, but that could change.
Louisville doesn't have to care about the risk of reverse athletics gentrification anymore. It's movin' on up to the east side. With a boost to both athletics and the school's academic reputation, the Cardinals turned one of the most precarious situations in this game of musical chairs into one of its biggest wins. Now let's see how many of those they can get over Kentucky going forward.