The Big East has struggled for respect both on and off the field. This year is no exception with no teams in the top 25 of either the AP and USA Today polls. Feels like 2005 all over again, except they have slightly more stability when it comes to getting games on television.
2008 was the 1st year of a new six year deal with ABC & ESPN for the football rights to the conference. 17 games are guaranteed to be televised on ABC/ESPN and at least three games are supposed to air on ABC. In addition, up to four games can appear on Thursdays on ESPN and two games could appear on Sunday nights if needed. A minimum of five games will also appear on ESPNU. The conference's extra inventory of games is owned by ESPN Regional Television, who syndicates the conference's game of the week under the banner of the Big East Network. The regional game often reaches about 40-50% of the country through a combination of affiliates comprising local over-the-air stations, regional sports networks and local cable channels. Games can also be selected for exclusive web streaming by ESPN360.com.
One of the issues that affects the schools is the number of weeknight games that make up the games that ESPN selects. ESPN pre-selects many of the best Big East telecasts before the season starts for weeknight telecasts and it often leaves the conference without a marquee game to watch on Saturdays. Over the past four years (three of them under the previous downgraded contract put together when Miami, VT and BC left for the ACC), the Big East has had 63% of their ESPN/ESPN2 telecasts occur on non-Saturdays. That count does include some games played during Labor Day weekend, but it resembles a number that sits much closer to the non-AQ conferences that show games on ESPN than it does the Big East's AQ conference counterparts. Because of the spread out nature of the conference and how some of the states where these schools are schedule high schools, some schools are more receptive than others to the weeknight games than others, particularly the Friday night games.
Another issue that affects the Big East's telecast schedule is a requirement placed in the contract by ESPN that games must be available for selection by ABC/ESPN on the final Saturday of the regular season (aka Championship Saturday). Because the conference is required to schedule this particular week for ESPN and due to the lower number of members, it stretches the regular season schedule out even more. This was more noticeable in 2008 when the regular season was stretched over 15 weeks. Half of the conference had three off weeks and several Saturdays only had a single telecast available. The conference appears to put a lot of value on the Big East Network game, so when only one game is available on a weekend, it automatically reverts to the Big East Network instead of being available for a national telecast.
So where does this leave the conference? The Big East will continue to have a perception problem at least for the remainder of this contract and its get going to get worse before it gets better. Around 1/3rd of the slots on ESPNU on Saturdays will end up going to the SEC. The Big Ten and SEC will own close to 60% of all time slots on ESPN and ESPN2. The ACC will likely be favored over the Big East because of the names of the schools its has, regardless of whether some of those schools are underperforming on the field. And the rumblings of schools being added or leaving will not end as long as long as the Big East remains an eight team football conference inside the body of a sixteen team basketball conference.
The conference, which may have the best coverage of its men's basketball on ESPN, may need to decide at some point whether the lack of Saturday coverage it is receiving on ESPN is worth it.
EDIT 1:24pm 8/23 The five minimum games on ESPNU are separate from the 17 games that have to appear on ABC/ESPN.