NEWPORT, R.I. - The last time the Big East worked on a television contract, no one really knew exactly what the league had to offer.
That was around 2007, when the fragile conference had reorganized by replacing Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech with Cincinnati, Louisville and USF. The basketball league had swelled to 16 teams. There was talk about the possibility of the Big East losing its automatic qualifying status to a BCS game.
Certainly not ideal circumstances for negotiating a television contract.
Things are different now. Though the league is coming off a lackluster 2010 in football, commissioner John Marinatto brimmed with confidence about the status of the Big East heading into the next round of television negotiations a little more than a year from now.
The league has a stable membership to deliver, now including TCU. The automatic qualifying status of the Big East is no longer in question. The Big East also has an opportunity to "bat last," Marinatto said, following the example of the other five BCS automatic qualifying conferences, who recently scored lucrative broadcast deals.
The only question is what kind of "inventory" - also known as the teams and television markets - the Big East will deliver to a potential suitor.
The de facto deadline for any move the Big East will make is September 2012, when the 60-day exclusive negotiating window begins with ESPN.
Marinatto called them the "most important television negotiations in our history."
The league has been built on media markets, mostly in the Northeast and stretching to the Ohio River and into Florida and now Texas. What other media markets might be attractive for football? Orlando? Houston? Philadelphia?
The Big East office won't need to solicit for candidates looking to join. UCF could be an attractive candidate with its new stadium and success in Conference USA. Houston and East Carolina have been rumored as potential candidates from Conference USA. Independents Army and Navy have been in the rumor mill for three or four years. Even Temple, a member from 1991-2001, has been mentioned after Temple recruits made curious comments to the media about the possibility of the Owls rejoining the conference.
The closest any program has been to joining the Big East as a football member since TCU a year ago is Villanova, which plays in the Football Championship Subdivision. Like Connecticut did when the Huskies moved up a division, Villanova as a basketball member would have an opportunity to move from FCS directly to the Big East.
Before April, it appeared Villanova would move up from the Colonial Athletic Association, but at the last moment the Big East's football members stalled the plans. One of the main concerns is Villanova's stadium, which has a capacity of 18,500. Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium is the smallest facility in the Big East at a capacity of 35,000.
The Big East is continuing to investigate expansion possibilities including the number of potential members and specific candidates. Expansion is further complicated by the basketball side of the league which includes eight basketball-only members.
The scenario creates a league in which programs like Seton Hall, Providence and DePaul have limited common ground with programs such as TCU and USF.
"There is no magic number," Marinatto said. "We are a non-traditional conference. We find ways to make things work."
Some of the path has been paved for the Big East to make a rebound from the $33.3 million per year contract with ESPN that ends in 2013.
The Big Ten and SEC have broadcast contracts worth more than $200 million per year. The ACC's contract is worth $155 million.
The biggest domino, though, may be the Pac-12. The league agreed to a $3 billion contract with ESPN and Fox, which would be worth a reported $250 million a year. The Pac-12 also will establish its own national and regional television networks.
Marinatto called the deal "a shock to all of us," but he got the chance to pick the brain of Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott just a few weeks ago at the same site of Big East media day in Newport, R.I.
The Big East was built on basketball, but television revenue from football will keep the league, in whatever incarnation that may be, together.
"We can't make a mistake this time," Marinatto said. "We have a 13-month runway to September 2012."
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.