By Dustin Dow
The Cincinnati Enquirer
It's the difference between big-time college sports and middle-of-the-road athletics.
It's exposure every week on national TV versus regional broadcasts every now and then.
It's New York City versus Hattiesburg, Miss.
At 2 p.m. today, the University of Cincinnati will accept an invitation to join the Big East Conference in 2005, a defining moment in the history of the university and its athletic program.
Affiliation with the Big East schools will bring national respect to the football program and place an already successful basketball program into one of the most competitive leagues in the nation. It will also give new value to women's basketball and other non-revenue sports that were all but ignored in Conference USA.
But the benefits of leaving Conference USA for the Big East transcend athletics.
It immediately increases the national recognition for every other aspect of the university from fashion design to biomedical engineering.
The impact of this move will be felt on the campus and citywide as the university opens its doors to major Northeast markets that offer enrollment, research and marketing opportunities unavailable in Conference USA. And in moving into the Big East, Cincinnati begins to forge ties with such universities as Notre Dame, Georgetown, Syracuse, Rutgers, Connecticut and Pittsburgh, all Top 100 doctoral universities according U.S. News and World Report magazine.
According to the magazine, Cincinnati now rates as a third tier university, ranked somewhere below the top 150 universities nationally.
"In talking about pure institutions, there certainly is a component of the conference that communicates that those are your peers," says UC spokesman Greg Hand. "Athletics really does provide a level of national exposure you don't get in other circumstances, and it's very important in raising awareness," Hand says.
University of Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher declined to comment for this story.
The Big East was formed in 1979 among seven schools that wanted to create a high-profile basketball league for the television markets in the Northeast.
The league has gone through a series of changes since then, but none more sweeping than the one it is about to undergo. Current Conference USA members Cincinnati, Louisville, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul will be brought in to replace three universities leaving the conference next summer.
Boston College, Miami (Fla.) and Virginia Tech will join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004. It has taken five months to sort out all of this realignment since Miami initially announced on May 31 that it would leave the Big East.
The result will be a 16-school Big East stretching from Rhode Island to Wisconsin.
While the Big East is losing the Boston market, it is gaining Chicago, Cincinnati and the state of Florida. The market factor is particularly important to the University of Cincinnati because the Bearcats now will be playing in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington.
A combined 10,331 university alumni live in those cities, making the move into the Big East attractive from several standpoints, particularly fund raising and enrollment.
"Anytime you get more exposure in a particular market from athletics, it helps," Hand says. "You open a door, but you have to have a message once that door is open."
Greater Cincinnati will be linked to the country's largest metropolitan areas once the university makes the transition to the Big East. Whether it's through televised games or hosting teams from those cities, Greater Cincinnati stands to benefit.
"It certainly speaks well for the city," says Julie Calvert, spokeswoman for the Greater Cincinnati Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's good from the university's academic standpoint and it's another chance to put the city in a high-profile light."
The move has captured the interest of sports fans across the city (think recent national men's basketball champions Syracuse and Connecticut playing at Fifth Third Arena), but also political leaders who realize the value of connecting with prestigious institutions in major cities.
"It is great news for UC," says Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken. "From what I know about the Big East, it's terrific. Great academic and athletic institutions."
That's something Cincinnati missed out on with Conference USA. While there are a handful of attractive institutions in Conference USA, the position of being affiliated with Alabama-Birmingham, Texas Christian, East Carolina and Southern Mississippi pales in comparison to the prestige of Big East universities.
As the University of Cincinnati continues to usher in its Master Plan, which includes the Main Street and Varsity Village developments, Big East membership puts those improvements on national display to be viewed by civic and academic leaders previously outside Cincinnati's realm.
In terms of research, new colleagues and partners will now be available to the university by simple communication within the conference, a common practice in other major athletic leagues.
"The presidents from conference universities get together and talk quite often," Hand says. "And they don't always talk about athletics. If you're going to be doing a lot of collaboration with other schools, it helps to have the president talking to presidents of those schools."
The new Big East
Which universities are in the Big East?
The 2005 members:
University of Pittsburgh
West Virginia University
University of Connecticut
Seton Hall University
St. John's University
University of Notre Dame
University of Cincinnati*
University of Louisville*
University of South Florida*
Big East a big leap for UC
What do you think about UC joining the Big East?
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