Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Big East and the Big Easy

News of the Big East's latest expansions burned up my little corner of the Internet yesterday. Being a Tulane fan, I was happy to hear my alma mater would be movin' on up to the Big East beginning in 2014.

Everyone else, of course, reacted with something between bewilderment and disappointment. To them, the Big East was the desperate drunk guy looking for someone to go home with at The Boot's last call, and Tulane...

...hey, don't be mean. Tulane is cute and really fun, you guys.

Aw, come on, Fran. Well, I'm from Rhode Island, so I'm excited.*

* - Seems like a strange matchup to pick, doesn't it? After all, Providence was IN Dave Gavitt's Big East. They named the floor at the Dunk after Gavitt.

Unusual homerism aside, let's take a look at some possible reasons why Tulane was added, essentially replacing Louisville (who left today for the ACC) and Rutgers (who left recently for the Big 10).

First, a map of the 2014 Big East. Blue circles represent full members (from east to west: UConn, Temple, UCF, USF, Cincinnati, Memphis, Tulane, Houston, SMU), red circles full members without football (Providence, St. John's, Seton Hall, Villanova, Georgetown, DePaul, Marquette), and black circles represent football-only members (Navy, ECU, Boise State, San Diego State). It is as compact as a Humvee, and as east-coast as a crawfish.

So, why add Tulane? Let's investigate some possible arguments.

One of the arguments is that Tulane is in a major media market: According to Nielsen, New Orleans is the 52nd largest market in the U.S., just behind Louisville (48th). All of the Big East schools are listed below, ordered by market size, with the departing schools listed in italics.
School Market Rank
Rutgers New York 1
Seton Hall New York 1
St Johns New York 1
DePaul Chicago 3
Temple Philadelphia 4
Villanova Philadelphia 4
SMU Dallas 5
Georgetown Washington 8
Houston Houston 10
South Florida Tampa 14
Central Florida Orlando 19
Navy Baltimore 27
San Diego State San Diego 28
Connecticut Hartford 30
Marquette Milwaukee 34
Cincinnati Cincinnati 35
ECU Greenville, N.C. 37
Louisville Louisville 48
Memphis Memphis 49
Tulane New Orleans 52
Providence Providence 53
Boise State Boise 112

The Big East people might add up the market sizes and claim that they can reach more than 35 million people. While technically true, it's important to note that not everyone in each market is into college sports, and not everyone into college sports are into those particular schools.

During one of the recent rounds of conference musical chairs, Nate Silver estimated the size of the fan base for each school in the Football Bowl Subdivision. This is not good news for Tulane.
School Fans
Rutgers 937,874
Connecticut 618,724
South Florida 520,627
Central Florida 506,679
Boise State 483,489
ECU 348,391
Cincinnati 322,757
Louisville 300,443
San Diego State 242,126
Navy 237,222
Memphis 235,656
Temple 226,483
SMU 163,671
Tulane 101,701
Houston 100,253

Even if you don't trust his methodology, you can always just look at attendance. Tulane's football program ranked 85th in 2011 drawing 19,726 per game, while the basketball program ranked 171st in 2011-12 with 2,252 per game. Both would be last in the new Big East.

Now, I feel compelled to point out that, given that Tulane finished last in Conference USA in both sports, maybe the attendance thing isn't so damning. But that brings me to my next point.

Remember that one undefeated season Tulane had back in 1998, when the great Shaun King led them to a 12-0 record, as the BCS denied them the chance to get destroyed by Tennessee? No you don't; no one does. Tulane hasn't made a bowl game of any kind since the 2002 Hawaii Bowl, and has gone 33-86 (a .277 winning percentage) since. The men's basketball team hasn't made the NCAAs since 1995 and hasn't made the NIT since 2000; over the past 13 seasons, they've compiled a 156-203 record. Even if you think the Big East types are way into college baseball, Rick Jones' squads haven't made the NCAAs since moving into their new digs in 2008. I love the olive and blue, and know by heart the words to the fight song, the alma mater, and the school drinking song, but it looks pretty bad for them.

This is not yours truly trying to inflate the value of my degree. Tulane is consistently in the Princeton Review's top 50, and would replace the outgoing Rutgers as the only school in the Association of American Universities. Look at the list. This isn't necessarily a marketing gimmick; Tulane's in good company. Maybe Tulane is the dorky friend of the Big East, the annoying one with the glasses that lets the jocks copy his homework before class.

I know, it sounds dumb. But dig, if you will, a picture: it's mid-February, and you're in Storrs, Connecticut. It's been cold, gray, and sleeting for four months straight. Everyone is wearing so many layers of clothing you can't even be sure what species they are, let alone how attractive they are. Now the basketball team has an upcoming road trip. Would you rather...
  • Go to Louisville, Kentucky, where it's probably just as snowy and cold, sit waaaay in the back of the Papa John's Center, and yell frustrated obscenities at a dust speck you think might be Rick Pitino as your team disappoints, or
  • Go to New Orleans, where it's a chilly 60 degrees, have a great meal or seven, get trashed in the French Quarter, walk up to the arena five minutes before game time, and get front-row tickets to a guaranteed victory?
Admittedly, this would hold more water if Tulane were an easier trip for their new conference rivals, but don't be so quick to dismiss this: maybe the Big East powers-that-be really like Pat O'Brien's and Commander's Palace.

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