We have seen this scenario played out often and in a public forum.  Whether it is a celebrity divorce or politician cheating on his wife, the end result is usually messy and uncomfortable.  Imagine the scenario when a high-profile spouse announces publicly her intentions to divorce her unappreciative, incompetent husband only to be told, “Honey, that’s nice and all, but you still have to stay in the house and live with me for another 27 months.”  That’s exactly the situation West Virginia University found itself in after filing for divorce from the Big East Conference.

West Virginia had offered much stability to the Big East Conference after Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College bolted for perceived greener pastures in 2003. Two BCS bowl victories, a Final Four appearance, 6 straight years of 9 or more wins in football and the highest television ratings (yes, a state so small dominates the Big East football television sets) were what WVU delivered for the Big East Conference in the 8 years since the original defection.  Last month, Pitt and Syracuse announced their intentions to leave the Big East, UConn went on a public courtship with anyone who would listen, and Louisville and Cincinnati did the same.  The newest member of the conference, TCU, reneged and decided to bolt for the Big 12 even before playing one down of football in the conference.  For years, WVU has been the viewed and treated as the redheaded stepchild of the league. The Northeastern schools and fans view WVU as the “hillbilly school” we have to tolerate because of their results on the field and on the court.  With all the instability surrounding the future of the Big East Conference and 2 more schools exiting while several others publicly displayed affection for other conferences, WVU did the smart thing and accepted the Big 12 invitation.  WVU did the even smarter thing by preemptively suing the Big East Conference to extract itself without having to serve the 27-month prison sentence imposed by the bylaws.

Today, the Big East Conference sued WVU for Breach of Contract.  The Big East Conference alleged WVU breached the Big East bylaws by attempting to leave the conference before the 27-month waiting period has ended.  In particular, the Big East has asked the court to order specific performance of WVU’s obligations requiring them to remain in the conference until June 30, 2014.  The Big East has also requested the court to impose an injunction prohibiting WVU from leaving the conference absent compliance with the bylaws.  The most interesting disclosure of the Big East lawsuit was in paragraphs 17 and 18 of the complaint:

“The agreement between the BIG EAST and ESPN permits ESPN to negotiate a reduction in the rights fees it owes to the BIG EAST in the event that a member school leaves the Conference for any reason.”

“The agreement between the BIG EAST and CBS permits CBS to negotiate a reduction in the rights fees it owes to the BIG EAST in the event that a member school leaves the Conference for any reason.”

Furthermore, paragraph 34 of the complaint states:

“The withdrawal of Defendant WVU prior to July 1, 2014 would trigger rights on the parts of ESPN and CBS to negotiate for reductions in the rights fees payable under their respective contracts for the broadcast of BIG EAST football and men’s and women’s basketball games.”

The ESPN television contract was signed in September 2006 and runs through 2013.  The Big East commissioner elected to forgo signing a new contract earlier this season during an exclusive negotiations period.  Commissioner Marinatto rolled the dice thinking the Big East could extract a higher fee once TCU began competing in the league.  Allegations have since surfaced that ESPN may have been involved in influencing the ACC to raid the Big East after the conference chose to wait to sign a new television agreement at the end of the current contract (a tactical negotiating error of biblical proportions by Commissioner Marinatto).

The CBS television contract was originally signed in 1994, amended, and runs through the 2013 season for men’s and women’s basketball broadcasts.

If WVU leaves the league before July 1, 2014, ESPN and CBS will force the Big East to renegotiate their television contracts.  Do you think ESPN and CBS will be willing to pay more or less for the watered down league?  Now we know what the real issue is…money.  WVU wants to flee a sinking ship for a better conference and more television revenue.  The Big East wants WVU to stay on the ship so it doesn’t take on more water.  As of today’s date, some 40+ days since Pitt and Syracuse announced their intended departure and TCU’s rebuttal of the league, the Big East has yet to formally announce any new additions to the conference.  It’s time to leave folks and WVU did the right thing by filling their lawsuit.  WVU could not afford to wait on Marinatto to move.  Marinatto is reactive, not proactive.  The Big East “reacted” again today.