Bernie and the Big East Prisoner's Dilemma

By Steve DiMiceli

The bodies are hitting the floor in the Big East like an episode of the Walking Dead where something actually happens. Pitt, Syracuse, and Notre Dame have already moved to the Big East.  Rutgers is off to the the Big Ten and West Virginia has moved on to the Big 12. TCU joined and quit before they played a game. Another school is likely to join the ACC to replace Maryland and Georgetown and St John's are reportedly bucking to become a non football member match for Fighting Irish. Rumors are swirling that the western football only schools are exploring the option of moving back to the Mountain West which from a competitive stand point is now on even footing with the Big East and the rest of the "Group of Five." It feels like the conference is in a death spiral and at this point I don't  think the member schools really know what chips will fall next or whether or not the conference will continue to exist.

College realignment is becoming a game of limited information for the remaining members of the Big East conference. No one knows for sure what the others are thinking and a prisoner's dilemma has emerged. For those who don't know, the prisoner's dilemma is a scenario in game and social theory where two independent actors have the choice to cooperate or betray. The best possible outcome for the actors is to cooperate and both will gain when they do. In the classical sense, this occurs when both prisoners tell the same story when inquired about a crime and get away with their misdeed through lack of evidence. If both actors betray one another, neither wins but neither gains a true advantage over the other. In the case of Big East basketball realignment, it's probably too messy for this to happen. The two remaining outcomes occur when one player chooses to betray while the other chooses to cooperate. Here the clear advantage goes to the party that decides to betray and in the purest sense, they would be doing something like taking a plea bargain for information that would convict the other party.

For the Big East, the best outcome for all the remaining members minus the sure fire defection of either Louisville, UConn or South Florida to the ACC, would be to stay together and cooperate. With the traditional basketball only powers to go along with Memphis, Temple, Cincy and the schools passed over by the ACC, that's an attractive basketball conference and an ok football conference. If they all choose to stay, they all win. Of course, in the prisoner's dilemma, the outcomes likely depend on the level of trust the actors have between one another. Can the cobbled together members of the new Big East really trust each other when greener pastures, or an improved financial situation might be waiting for them elsewhere? Truth be told there is a great advantage to be won if a member betrays the conference before another member does.

While the Atlantic 10 isn't as clear cut an option as the ACC, Big 10, Big 12 or even the Mountain West for Boise St and SDSt could be, it should present a dilemma for the basketball only schools hoping to stave off a worst case scenario. Again the seven basketball schools cooperating is a mutually beneficial option for them. Even if football collapses, they can save the hoops brand the league has established and pick off some attractive basketball schools without FBS programs like Xavier, VCU, Butler or Creighton  among others. That would still rank them as one of the best basketball conferences in the country even without the football schools and they would stand solidly ahead of any other basketball driven conference. They would have a presence in a number of the biggest TV markets and would command a great TV offer. In the end this would not be so bad, but they would have to assume that no other member of the conference would betray them. If one does like Notre Dame already has, the world comes crashing down.

With Georgetown and St John's rumored to have interest in the ACC, I think there is very little reason for the remaining basketball only schools to feel a strong solidarity with the rest. I would imagine that self interest enters the mind of a number of these university presidents and the consequences for missing the next best thing like joining the A-10 could be dire for some schools. If Big East basketball splits, I'm sure a footbal conference like C-USA or maybe even the Big 12 would find room for Georgetown, Vilanova or Marquette. Depaul, Providence, Seton Hall, and St John's may not be so lucky. If the Big East football folds and the remaining basketball schools fail to cooperate, it's not out of the question that some of them could end up in a lesser conference like the Colonial, Missouri Valley or Horizon if they don't get a bid from the A-10.

So if you're A-10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade, you're in the only true position of power in the prisoner's dilemma, the warden. She could potentially take advantage of the Big East uncertainty by snagging a member school or two that Atlantic 10 fans would have never imagined getting just a year ago. I think Georgetown is likely still too aloof for the A-10 and I think the Big East ending would finally push Vilanova over the edge to start a D-1 football program to compensate for lost revenue. Marquette and St John's might be tempted so they can remove themselves from the instability and powerlessness of being a basketball school in a football conference. Of course, they might also stand to lose as much by downgrading conferences too soon as they do to gain. The remaining three, Depaul, Providence and Seton Hall would have to consider the offer immediately I think. Their fall could be great and if you miss out on the two spots the A-10 could reasonably offer, you could end up with away games against William and Mary, Loyola Chicago or Bradley on your schedule every year. 

Maybe this is pipe dreaming to  think the Atlantic 10 could rob from the once and still mighty Big East at this point. However, drawing from another gaming adage, you never succeed in situations where you don't act. It would not be certain for any of the Big East schools to accept an A-10 invite at this point, but it would be unlikely that they could say no without considering first. There is nothing wrong with McGlade putting pressure on some of more vulnerable members while potentially averting the greatest disaster for her league could face, a cooperative Big East.