The 2016 Butler softball team celebrates after Sarah Dixon hits a home run in the Big East championship game. The team knocked off St. John’s to win the school’s second Big East championship. Collegian file photo.
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Freshman Kamar Baldwin handled an inbounds pass while Hinkle went crazy. Baldwin took his defender off the dribble and quickly crossed over, giving himself just enough space to bury a mid-range jumper to take a 70-68 lead over Northwestern with 0.4 seconds left on the clock.
“We probably would’ve had a different game that night,” Mike Freeman, associate athletic director for external operations, said. “It would’ve been a good one, but being in the Big East put us in that game.”
Butler was participating in the Gavitt Games, a non-conference challenge between the Big Ten and the Big East early in the 2016-2017 college basketball season. As part of the Big East, Butler gets to participate in this challenge.
Butler University and its athletic program have just begun their fifth season as part of the Big East Conference. Butler joined the Big East in March of 2013 after the conference realigned.
The Big East was Butler’s third conference in three years. Butler quickly transitioned from the Horizon League to the Atlantic 10 and then to the Big East. Butler joined the conference along with “Catholic 7” — DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John’s and Villanova — and Creighton and Xavier. It already had a basketball team competing for two national championships in as many years. However, the Big East allows Butler to do it on a bigger and better scale.
Since moving to the Big East, Butler has captured four Big East Conference Championships. Women’s soccer claimed the first championship in the fall of 2015 followed by softball in the spring of 2016. Men’s soccer won a conference tournament on Butler’s campus and men’s tennis won the school’s fourth Big East title in the spring of 2017.
While men’s basketball has seen regular season success, the program has yet to win a game in the Big East Tournament, going 0-4 in the tournament since joining the conference.
“The move to the Big East has been great for the university,” Freeman said. “Academically, being in with those other private schools in major metropolitan areas with similar characteristics. To be in the same league with the Georgetowns and Villanovas of the world is really good for our university because Butler is a great place, too. The Big East gives us the chance to tell that story a little bit more and continue to attract great kids.”
Along with the move to the Big East came national coverage for all of Butler’s sports. Fox Sports, a TV channel found in 90 million homes across the country, has televised the overwhelming majority of Butler men’s basketball game since joining the Big East in 2013.
Joe Gentry is in his 11th year as the director of TV and radio for Butler athletics. Prior to the Big East, Gentry played a role in the local TV package that covered Butler athletics. He now works alongside Fox Sports to produce Butler’s athletic events on a national stage.
“The Big East name is something we can use regionally and nationally,” Gentry said. “When we can tell ad agencies every game is on national TV, then they can pitch that to national advertisers.”
The national coverage and the increase in level of competition has allowed the athletic department to create a greater experience for its student-athletes.
“We are in class more because we are flying to conference games rather than bussing,” head softball coach Scott Hall said. “Now we are getting on flights on Friday evening and flying back Sunday. We are going to some way better places New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Chicago and Omaha. That is way more appealing.”
Hall said his recruiting philosophy does not change as he still goes after the best players that fit his program, but it took time to adjust to his new opponents.
“The biggest change was familiarity with conference schools,” Hall said. “We had years of data and charts for the Horizon League and then, boom, we are in the A10 and then right back in the Big East. It took time for us to get familiar with how schools play, the type of styles they play, the types of players they have. We have gotten more comfortable within the conference.”
Because of the Big East, Butler’s athletes have competed in some of the most well known venues in the country. Butler tennis has competed at Flushing Meadows in Big East play, which is the home of the 2018 U.S. Open. And of course, Madison Square Garden is home to the Big East basketball conference tournaments.
In the NCAA men’s basketball tournament alone, Big East teams have earned roughly $35 million for the Big East conference since 2016. Revenue is generated through the amount of teams representing the Big East in the tournament as well as the number of contests each team wins. The Big East is also in year five of a 12-year, $500 million dollar contract with Fox Sports.
While athletics are in the spotlight, membership in the Big East Conference impacts the university as a whole.
“President Danko said we wanted to be a Big East Institution,” Gentry said. “The Big East is an avenue to get more students and to reach out in the northeast. If you are coming out of high school looking at private institutions with good academics, we want to be on that list.”
When Butler joined the Big East in 2013, 9,357 students submitted an application to Butler. In 2017, Butler received 14,000 applications from the class of 2021, a 35 percent increase from Butler’s first year in the conference.
While the Big East has gotten more competitive, so has Butler. The Bulldogs went through some early growing pains, but Butler has won two Big East championships the last two years.
“It didn’t come quick because we didn’t have much success early on, but this past year we made a real big step in overall competitiveness in the Big East,” Freeman, associate athletic director for external operations, said. “We are making big strides and making it clear that we belong.”