NEW ORLEANS — Tulane president Scott Cowen and Athletic Director Rick Dickson stepped off the stage and shared a prolonged embrace.
The pair had just announced all Green Wave sports are joining the Big East Conference, starting in July 2014. It is Tulane’s first conference transition since becoming a charter member of Conference USA in 1996.
“I’m proud to announce the Big East is coming to the Big Easy,” Cowen said. “My first task this morning was to officially sign the agreement between Tulane University and the Big East. My hand actually shook a bit when I did it. I am so proud of our university.”
Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco said the decision to include Tulane into its league is part of a “national football conference” strategy that features large television markets and appealing matchups, rather than traditional regional ties. Aresco said he foresees the league finishing its expansion with either 14 or 16 football-playing members.
The Big East also announced Tuesday it would add fellow Conference USA member East Carolina as a football-only participant starting in 2014.
If current expansion holds and no departures take place, the league’s teams will cover 12 states, 12 of the top 50 Nielsen media markets, and six of the top 25 media markets, according to Tulane. The conference will span 24.3 million households — easily the largest number in college football.
The moves were spurred on by a burst of activity last week, which began when Rutgers from the Big East and Maryland from the Atlantic Coast Conference were plucked by the Big Ten Conference. From there the wheels of realignment were pushed in motion across the country, including rampant speculation about the ACC potentially poaching Connecticut or Louisville from the Big East.
The shift is nothing new. The conference’s membership has gone through upheaval over the past year, losing Syracuse, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, TCU and Notre Dame while adding Temple, Boise State, San Diego State, Memphis, Central Florida, Houston and SMU for the 2013 football season.
Navy will join as a football-only member in 2015, bringing the total number of football schools to 14 pending no additional changes.
“This was all part of the game plan,” Cowen said. “It came together a little bit faster than we thought, honestly. But that’s because realignment ended up moving faster than we thought it would.”
The process to move Tulane from Conference USA into the Big East didn’t even begin in earnest until last Tuesday, according to Dickson, who said the Big Ten’s aggressiveness is partly to thank for his new affiliation.
“These are all moving pieces, and I don’t think anything is settled,” Dickson said. “But the way I look at it today, we basically replaced Rutgers. Now, I still don’t know who is going to end up where, because things are still moving pretty fast. But we feel this move puts us on much better ground than we would have been without it.”
Dickson and Cowen both said the transition to the Big East will provide a significant jump in television revenue, no matter what schools the league consists of, offsetting any additional travel costs from playing in a conference littered with major television markets and a geographical footprint spanning from San Diego to New York.
“The increase is significant,” Dickson said. “I would guess it’s two-and-a-half to three-times as much money, if you compare it apples-to-apples today. The unknown though, and we’re trying to get a read of it as much as we can, is what the next round of TV contracts will yield.”
Tulane also expects a revenue jump from hosting all of its Big East football games in the soon-to-be-built Yulman Stadium, which is set to hold 30,000 people on its Uptown campus. However, the basketball team’s newly renovated Devlin Fieldhouse may host only a handful of conference games starting in 2015.
Dickson said current Big East stipulations regarding arena size will likely force the Green Wave to host most league foes at the New Orleans Arena, since Devlin’s 3,600 person capacity is too small to play 80 percent of the home conference schedule.
In the end, Cowen said, all of the details will work out, but there was never a question about whether to say yes to the Big East. Once Cowen expressed Tulane’s position and potential, he claimed it was obvious the Green Wave have found a new home, with familiar companions and an ability to grow.
“We know our colleagues around the country, and we have had our ear to the ground for years looking for a place to improve,” Cowen said. “We knew an opening would come, and it was just a matter of what was the right time and what was the right conference for us.
“I’m not concerned at all about the future of the Big East.”