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updated 2:54 PM CDT, Jul 28, 2018

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Big East Conference, despite distances, may lure Gonzaga basketball to where prestige, money await

The rise of Gonzaga to number-one ranking among college basketball teams and its early plunge into NCAA tournament oblivion sparked interest and attention beyond the usual sports-fan ranks. And so will the possible next chapter for the little Spokane school, if it successfully pursues membership in a reorganized Big East Conference, where media riches can abound.

 

If, Gonzaga exits the West Coast Conference, as is being increasingly rumored on both sides of the country, much of the conversation would focus on the role athletic success has come to play in not only the image but also the broader financial success of smaller private universities.

 

What's become known in recent weeks as the Catholic 7 group of top-tier basketball powers is splitting from the football-playing members of the 34-year-old Big East Conference at the end of June to form its own conference, which will retain the Big East name. Gonzaga has reportedly reached out to officials of the new Big East to indicate an interest in becoming a member.

 

That may come as a shock to many Gonzaga basketball fans, but not to those who know that Bulldogs coach Mark Few has wanted out of the WCC for a number of years. And as the financial picture offered by membership in the Big East sinks in, there's likely to be growing pressure to work out the geographic challenges and make the move to a conference where media revenue can provide riches.

 

The Catholic 7 schools -- DePaul, Georgetown, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, Villanova and Marquette -- will become a 10-team league by adding Butler (as the only non-Catholic university but a private school with high academic standing), Xavier and Creighton before the start of next season.

In 2014-15, the new Big East is expected to add two more teams, with Dayton and St. Louis the leading candidates to join and thus create a 12-member alignment.

 

Gonzaga, which reportedly spent $5.3 million on all aspects of the basketball program and had revenue of $6.1 million (that was two years ago, the most recent year for which figures are available), would rank in the middle of the Big East pack in both categories.

 

Marquette, with $10.3 million in basketball expenses and $15.6 million in revenue, and Georgetown, at $8.6 million and $9.5 million, top the Big East teams, though Villanova had $8.0 million in revenue and Xavier, a Jesuit university in Cincinnati, had revenues of $11.2 million.

 

The figures come from the U.S. Department of Education, which requires NCAA schools to report what's called "equality in athletics" information, and were reported last October in the Memphis Business Journal, which did an exhaustive review of the numbers and reported the rankings.

 

You can search "NCAA college basketball expenses" and find a CNN breakdown of all basketball revenue and expenses for the 2008-09 season, though CNN notes that comparison between basketball revenues and profits "is interesting, but not precise." That's because schools have latitude in their filings and may assign revenue and expenses to different sports, meaning schools that play football may skew the basketball information, but that's far less likely among these non-football schools.

 

Gonzaga's expenditure and revenue totals are well beyond schools in the WCC, but stack up comparatively well with major western schools, including many of the Pac-12 schools. Figures reported by Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State and University of California showed expense and revenue similar to Gonzaga's attributed to men's basketball.

 

Those close to the Gonzaga basketball program are well aware that several years ago, Few, wanted to become an independent. But because the conference had let it be known that other sports wouldn't be welcome to stay in the WCC if Gonzaga exited for basketball, the idea was set aside

 

 There's no official comment from either Gonzaga or the Big East members on a possible role for Gonzaga in the basketball-driven new alliance of Catholic schools. But sports bloggers have begun to toss out the possibility.

 

Except for the challenge of distance, Gonzaga would be viewed as a logical member of the group. And a longtime friend of mine at Marquette observed "Gonzaga would add so much to this conference."

 

Distance remains the challenge to overcome in any discussions going on about Gonzaga and the Big East, given the fact that the closest school would be Omaha, once Creighton joins the conference.

 

But the fact a number of trustees got together several years ago to put up $150,000 each to allow Few to charter flights for the team's trips rather than the tedious and draining commercial travel would ease some of the challenge of distance.

 

Seattle businessman Jack McCann, a 17-year member of Gonzaga's Board of Trustees, who is among those involved in supporting the charter-flights, says it came about when concern by some trustees that Few might be lured to another school with a big-money offer talked with the coach about what they could do for him.

 

"In typical fashion, Few said 'I'm not worried about me, but I am concerned for my guys and the drain of travel,'" recalled McCann, who declined to directly address the Big East rumors.

 

But with that arrangement to help players with travel challenges by putting up the money for charter flights, the trustees may have, without specifically intending it, set the stage for Gonzaga to accept any offer to join the Big East.

 

No matter its hoop success over the past 15 years, Gonzaga has been routinely described as a successful "mid-major" team, a description that basically describes the few schools like Gonzaga that have achieved success despite being in conferences that aren't quite big time.

 

 

All that would change, in both image and income, for Gonzaga with membership in the Big East.

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