Could the Big 12 have a conference title game in 2016?
The Big 12 presidents meet in Dallas on Thursday and Friday, a long-anticipated gathering that will set the table for the conference's long-term future. The meeting comes at a critical time for the league, as the Big Ten and SEC are pulling away financially from the other three other Power Five conferences. The Big 12 needs to figure out ways to maximize revenue in an increasingly austere time for college sports.
Between the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC, the Big 12 could be viewed as the most vulnerable in its current state. With only ten teams, the Big 12 is the smallest league, the only one without a championship game and is one of two Power 5 leagues lacking a cable television network. (The ACC also lacks a network, but is expected to iron out the remaining issues and announce a network deal with ESPN that could be considered the model for future television deals in the cord-cutting era.)
After conversations with multiple sources within the Big 12 and college sports this week, it's clear that no imminent action is expected from these meetings. Instead, the meetings will likely be a two-day data dump of potential models for expansion, television scenarios and a championship game. Any major decisions will likely come by the end of the summer. "This week will be like cramming for a final," said a source with knowledge of the meetings. "They are going to get a lot of information, then they have to go do something with it."
With three interim school presidents (Kansas State, Texas Tech and Baylor) and a major sexual assault scandal rocking Baylor, the tenor is, at best, indecisive. One industry source put it more bluntly: "I think it's impossible to tell what's going to happen. I don't think there's any way they can make any decisions this week."
As the future of the Big 12 is on the precipice of taking shape, here's a look at the major issues facing the league this week.
We'll start with potential expansion, as that's clearly the most notable agenda item. In short, it's complicated. If there were an obvious school or schools to add, they'd have been added already. Can you expand without a cable channel? Can you start a cable channel without expanding? The data should provide some hints.
The league will consider models for expanding by two teams, four teams and the possibility of not expanding at all. As fun as it is to speculate on different models, these will be data driven decisions based on football prowess, market size and potential cable eyeballs. Fueling the expansion talk is a consultant's study that said the league increased its chances of making the playoff by 10 to 15-percent with a 12-team league.
Before addressing the myriad complicating factors brought by Texas and The Longhorn Network, let's talk expansion candidates. If the league does expand—and that's still a huge if—it would likely do so by two teams. The three best candidates for those two slots are currently BYU, Cincinnati and Connecticut, but this could change after the data from Navigate Research is analyzed. Houston and Memphis are considered legitimate contenders, but remain on the outside looking in. (Credit Houston for making a move the past few months to insert itself into the conversation, as they've generated some momentum.) The long shots are South Florida, Central Florida, Boise State and Colorado State. Temple, San Diego State and Northern Illinois don't really have a pulse.
Recently demoted Baylor president Ken Starr was generally considered to be in favor of expansion (he resigned from the university on Tuesday), but his departure shouldn't mean much in the big picture. Institutionally, Baylor favors anything that will strengthen the league. It also has nowhere else to go and a major sexual assault scandal on its hands. The university will vote for whatever strengthens the Big 12.
The Texas Conundrum
Any ideas of expansion would need to receive the support of Texas, which remains the conference's central power player. While Oklahoma president David Boren is a great showman—he's become a Trump-like caricature in league circles for his outlandish public comments—Texas still holds all the cards. Yes, the Longhorns have had administrative turnover, football uncertainty and general athletic department dysfunction. But an outside athletic official pointed out Tuesday night that the Longhorns have never been in a more powerful position. When they do eventually return to the open market, the distribution paradigm could have suitors like Amazon, Google, Facebook or Netflix. Texas's brand is considered exponentially more valuable than any other in the league. High-end Texas games could be valued like prize fights. (Imagine what a Texas home game against Michigan, Notre Dame or USC could fetch on the open market?) The Longhorns will have plenty of options, and there's no yearning institutional desire to be linked to, say, Cincinnati or UConn.
Texas officials remain skeptical about allowing the Longhorn Network to fold into a greater Big 12 Network. That's the scenario expected to be necessary for the league to both expand and go forward with a network. The Longhorns are locked into a deal with ESPN that will pay them an average of $15 million through 2031. (The Big 12 television deal runs through 2025). While ESPN is hemorrhaging money on the Longhorn Network deal, there appears to be little incentive for Texas to break out of it. As one Texas source put it on Tuesday, "Why would we give up $15 million per year and a branded identity? To get the same money and one-tenth of the exposure?"
The feeling around the Big 12 is that Texas' new leadership—president Gregory Fenves and athletic director Mike Perrin—doesn't have the same emotional attachment to the network as former president Bill Powers and former athletic director DeLoss Dodds. But it's still a leap to rely on collegiality from Texas, whose greed essentially obliterated the league and created the current instability.
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The Cable Problem
Without having seen the data, this is the hardest area to project. On the one hand, there's a narrative that says cord cutters (internet and mobile viewing experiences) are killing traditional cable. The Pac-12 Network's struggles have shown that just having a network doesn't guarantee success, as broadcasting has entered an era of stiffer distribution resistance. The counter-argument is the ACC's imminent deal. The Big 12's biggest problem—outside of its Longhorn Network albatross—is that it lacks leverage. ESPN owns all of the ACC's content, so there's a distinct incentive to create an outlet for it. The Big 12 content is owned by Fox and ESPN, and the third-tier rights are scattered throughout the league. (The Big 12 pays members about $23 million per school, a number that can be bumped to $27 million because of certain schools' third-tier rights.)
If the Big 12 does expand, it's expected to be able to "stay whole," meaning its members won't make less money by splitting the television pie 12 ways instead of 10, even if the conference adds two pedestrian options.
But there's no magic bullet for a precipitous increase, which could lead some league members to prefer staying put. It's important to remember that an expansion decision would require the approval of eight of ten schools, but if one of the two dissenters is Texas, it's hard to imagine the league going against their objections.
Conference Championship Game in 2016?
The Big 12 will inevitably add a conference championship game, as they are leaving at least $20 million on the table annually without one. A few coaches like Oklahoma's Bob Stoops, TCU's Gary Patterson and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy are against it. But it's important to remember the only opinions in these decisions that matter less than the athletic directors' are those of the coaches. And the athletic directors have hardly any say.
The fact that the NCAA recently ruled the Big 12 can add a title game in its current 10-team format makes adding one a no-brainer. One possibility that still exists, although the chances are slim, is that the Big 12 could host a title game this year. The league has had kicked the tires with AT&T Stadium about a game the first weekend in December.
There are Big 12 games scheduled that weekend, but there's enough flexibility in the schedule still to clear that date and make it work. But considering that it's already June, that's unlikely. The championship game will be part of the broader cable and expansion conversation, which means any imminent decision is unlikely. But of the major decisions on the table, a title game coming to fruition has a much higher percentage of happening than the Big 12 adding members or starting a cable network. But the Big 12 will likely need to make decisions on the other matters before trying to sort out a title game.