Evaluating candidates for possible (albeit unlikely) Big 12 expansion
Bless you, Oklahoma president David Boren.
It had been a relatively slow college football offseason. Heck, before Boren threw us some raw meat Wednesday, it had been almost 48 hours since the last A-list rap mogul got arrested and accused of swinging a kettlebell at another human in a Power Five program’s weight room. The boredom was crushing. But thanks to the former Oklahoma governor and U.S. senator, we now have something to talk about.
At a board of regents meeting, Boren mentioned that the Big 12 should “strive for” 12 members, according to Ryan Aber of The Oklahoman. Guerin Emig of the Tulsa World later offered up these quotes from Boren.
Boren on Big 12: "I'm an advocate of living up to our name. I was an advocate of it when we saw Louisville go other places and other things"— Guerin Emig (@GuerinEmig) June 24, 2015
Boren: "I like being 12 rather than 10. I like that as long-range stability for the conference. Is it urgent? No."— Guerin Emig (@GuerinEmig) June 24, 2015
Boren on Big 12 adding 2: "We should if we can find the right partners... Something we should strive for while we have the time, stability."— Guerin Emig (@GuerinEmig) June 24, 2015
Boren would like the Big 12 to not-so-urgently find two more schools to increase the stability of a league that nearly imploded in 2010 and again in ’11. In that second year, the dawn of Texas’s Longhorn Network and Boren’s flirtation with the Pac-12 played key roles in the losses of Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC. That the SEC was a far more stable league with better long-term financial prospects probably had something to do with that, too.
But much has changed since then. The Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia to replace the two schools that left in 2011. Boren advocated for Louisville instead of West Virginia, and the Cardinals probably would have been a better geographic fit. (One of the great mysteries of realignment was why some Big 12 leaders said proximity to an airport was important and then spurned Louisville—whose campus is right next to the airport—for West Virginia—whose closest decent-sized airport is in Pittsburgh. But the decision was also based on what television executives preferred at the time.) Six months after the Big 12 added its two newest members, the chairman of Florida State’s board of trustees complained to Warchant.com that the Seminoles should look into potential Big 12 membership.
That would have been the time for the Big 12 to strike. Now? It’s tough to find two schools that would help the Big 12.
Was more expansion possible in 2012? Maybe. Maybe not. Eric Barron, Florida State’s president at the time, was adamant that the Seminoles were satisfied with the ACC. But if trustees wanted to talk to the Big 12, Florida State probably was on the table. A combination of Florida State and anyone else would have allowed the Big 12 to be true to its name and would have thrilled television execs into handing the league enough money to ensure none of the existing members had to take a pay cut.
It took another year and losing Maryland to the Big Ten to get it done, but in April 2013, the ACC schools—Florida State included—signed away their media rights to the league through the 2026-27 school year. That effectively ended a wild period of realignment because it meant the members of four of the five wealthiest leagues were locked in for the life of their conferences’ TV contracts. (The SEC doesn’t have a grant of rights deal because it would be insane to leave that cash machine of a conference.) The ACC’s GOR essentially limited the Big 12’s expansion options to BYU and the members of what the College Football Playoff call the “Group of Five” conferences.
This is what makes Boren’s comments Wednesday so puzzling. To add schools, most Big 12 members would need to be convinced that the new members could be added without forcing the current members to take a pay cut. Boren said Wednesday the Big 12’s media rights deal would allow the league to add schools without anyone having to cut their share. “The contract says that our main television contract … if we grow from 10 to 11 or 11 to 12, their payments to us grow proportionally,” Boren told The Oklahoman. “So everybody’s share stays the same. If it’s ‘X’ dollars, it stays ‘X’ dollars."
That may be true of the portion the schools receive from the TV deal, but the Big 12’s revenue sharing policy means the schools would also have to split bowl and College Football Playoff money 12 ways instead of 10. That would cut into the bottom line by a few million. That’s not a big deal for Oklahoma, but it is for Iowa State or Kansas State. The Big 12 distributed $225.9 million to its 10 members for the 2014-15 school year, meaning it would need to choose two schools that would convince ESPN and Fox to add about $45 million a year to its media rights deals. Some of this could be achieved by adding a football championship game, but the NCAA is about to scrap the rule that requires at least 12 teams split into two divisions before a conference can stage a title game. Once that happens, the 10 current Big 12 members could start such a game—if they wanted—and keep all the money for themselves. Since that game would probably be worth $20 million, that means the two new additions would really need to bring an additional $65 million a year to cover what the current members would make by staying at 10. Even if the current TV deal would rise by two shares, someone would have to convince the networks to cover the rest.
So, out of BYU and the members of the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West and Sun Belt, which two schools can hit that number? Which two can hit even half that number? Probably none, but let’s look at the likely candidates anyway because it’s June and we have a Power Five school president expressing a desire for his conference to expand.
The school, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, brings the largest potential audience. BYU is to Mormons what Notre Dame is to Catholics. Of all the remaining expansion candidates, the Cougars probably are the most viable from a brand-name standpoint. BYU’s refusal to play on Sunday could present scheduling issues in every sport except football, though.
The Broncos are a national brand and a decent TV draw, but they live in the nation’s 109th largest television market. Realignment has mostly been about opening new television markets. That makes Boise State’s candidacy problematic.
The Bearcats have five double-digit win seasons in the past 10 years, and they are situated in a large market not currently in the Big 12 footprint. Unfortunately, Cincinnati’s football team is at best No. 4 in the city’s sports pecking order behind Ohio State, the Bengals and the Reds. This will be a common theme. All of the remaining big-market schools don’t necessarily deliver much of that market.
If basketball mattered in conference realignment, the Huskies would already be in a Power Five league. But football drives this train, and UConn football isn’t moving the meter in its own area. Plus, Storrs is even farther away from the Big 12 schools than Morgantown.
The Cougars were quite successful under Art Briles and Kevin Sumlin and probably will be again under Tom Herman, but they have a location/timing issue. The Big 12 already has the Houston market thanks to its collection of Lone Star State schools, and it isn't in a pinch like when it added TCU. A friend from Houston did, however, convince me that Houston’s candidacy is bolstered by the existence of Killen’s Barbecue in nearby Pearland. Wagyu burnt ends are quite persuasive.
If Justin Fuente were to keep the moribund-before-he-got-there Tigers winning and Boren somehow talked his fellow Big 12 presidents into leaving money on the table and expanding, this would be the greatest Cinderella story of realignment. Memphis is a decent-sized market and a good geographic fit.
Orlando is the nation’s No. 18 market and will only move up, and UCF officials have done a good job in recent years of shedding the commuter-school vibe. Ten years ago, most of the college football fans on campus would have identified as Florida or Florida State fans. That is changing, and the sheer size of the student body (61,000) means the number of earning— and spending—alumni in 2035 will be quite attractive. If the Big 12 is looking to bolster itself for the impending realignment when the current Power Five TV deals expire, the Knights could be a decent pickup in ’25.
Tampa/St. Petersburg is the nation’s No. 13 television market, and a lot of what I wrote about UCF applies to the Bulls as well. But the question for both of the Interstate 4 rivals is how many eyeballs do they actually bring? Orlando and Tampa remain Gators and Seminoles towns.
So while Boren may want to get to 12, he’s going to have a hard time convincing his fellow presidents that they can do it without taking a pay cut. But we do appreciate him giving us something to talk about on a Wednesday in June.