The Orlando Sentinel confirmed the Big East has contacted Conference USA member UCF about potentially joining the league. With a lot of critical details still being negotiated, the Knights may not be formally invited to the Big East until next week.
The league's biggest challenge is convincing new members the Big East would be a stable long-term home with an automatic qualifying Bowl Championship Series bid while its six remaining football members have refused to pledge their support to the conference by raising exit fees. Big East members Connecticut, Louisville, Rutgers and West Virginia have indicated they would accept any invitation to another automatic qualifying conference. USF and Cincinnati would join that list, but no one has expressed interest in adding the two schools.
In an exclusive interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky talked about the an alliance with the Mountain West, the negative impact on conference realignment on universities and more.
Orlando Sentinel: How are negotiations going as you all work on a Conference USA-Mountain West alliance?
Britton Banowsky: "I think they're going very well. We have had a number of very productive sessions. All of them have led to further exploration. And I think we have a degree of momentum right now relative to that idea that I find terrific."
OS: You previously said earning an automatic qualifying Bowl Championship Series bid is an important part of the alliance equation. Would the Mountain West and C-USA wait until the current BCS contracts expire at the end of the 2013 season or would they immediately begin pursuing an automatic BCS bid?
Banowsky: "This thing is in such as a state of flux right now. And so our goal as a group of universities would be to seek access at the highest levels of postseason at the earliest opportunity. We've made enormous investments in the football and it's very important for us to be included as a part of the highest level of college football as opposed to being excluded."
OS: Tulane President Scott Cowen is the new chairman of the Conference USA board of directors. Does his experience fighting for the current BCS structure that includes the opportunity for teams outside automatic qualifying BCS conferences to earn an at-large BCS bid help C-USA and the Mountain West's push for an automatic bid?
Banowsky: "He's very knowledgeable, obviously, about the BCS, its structures, how it works. Having someone as knowledgeable as Scott Cowen is certainly good from a strategic standpoint."
OS: Could the Mountain West and Conference USA partnership generate a substantial jump in television revenue?
Banowsky: "Both of us have existing television partnerships. We have a partnerships with Fox, with CBS and with ESPN for our championship game. The Mountain West has partnerships with CBS and Comcast NBC Universal. And so I do believe there is an opportunity for us to create new inventory that will bring new value. What's beautiful about it is that it is creative. It's a more interesting approach because it involves five time zones and scheduling opportunities that a traditional conference lineup would not be able to do."
OS: Nonconference games are pretty important to members of both the Mountain West and Conference USA. Would the alliance allow schools to continue playing those nonconference games?
Banowsky: "I don't see us playing more than eight or nine conference games just like the conferences are playing right now. In fact, there are a lot of attractive nonconference games on the long-term schedule that are part of our home inventory. That's a critical part of the value we add."
OS: Is Conference USA considering expansion?
Banowsky: "We have had various strategies outlined for quite awhile now. And that's certainly one level of strategy -- adding new members. Obviously we want to add new members that create greater stability for the conference and that would add value to the conference going forward. But we have worked hard at it. We're fairly well prepared for the change when it's time to engage. I think our first hope is that we're able to create something really cool and new and innovative with the Mountain West that moves universities forward in a cooperative way and not at the expense of others."
OS: How does Conference USA respond to current members, including UCF, being targeted for bids to other conferences?
Banowsky: "We're a little different than other conferences because we don't think universities that are aspiring to be better is a bad thing. We want them to get the highest opportunities they can, but in the process we want them to be respectful of our conference. And also while they're here, we want them to be strong members and contribute to our conference. But I don't have a problem with our universities wanting to be associated with a BCS AQ conference.
"That whole BCS AQ status label is very destructive and damaging. What you can see, it's tearing these conferences apart. You'll see the Big East, they're trying to retain AQ status. And their members are scrambling because they feel if they lose their BCS AQ status, that's going to be a marketplace divide for them. And it just might be because the networks and the media have kind of promoted that divide. So it's very damaging for those people who aren't in those conferences and it's also damaging for universities that are in that conference right now but might not have that label in the future. So I think it's problematic and must be addressed soon."
OS: Are you surprised by the conference realignment during the past six months?
Banowsky: "I am surprised and disappointed with the way that many of our leaders have worked through their various processes. It seems like what we need is to better align with the values of higher education, not take our universities away from those values. And athletics has a big role to play because, in many cases, it's the biggest and largest window into a university. What we do in athletics defines for many constituents the university. And so we should be held to a higher standard. I think we are. And I don't think we're measuring up."
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