As Big 12 expansion drags on with no clear outcome, only one constant remains: the league's dysfunction
The Big 12 expansion circus will likely play on for another month. Some type of decision—or at least direction—is expected to come when the league's presidents meet on Oct. 17. But as we near the two-month mark since the league's expansion exploration announcement, the Big 12 has reinforced its status as the biggest laughingstock in all of college sports.
There are weeks like this one when the Big 12 appears like it's auditioning for the next Netflix hit: Making a Mockery. The league engaged 20 schools on expansion and interviewed 11. "I can't fathom this taking another month," said one official familiar with the process. "But I can't fathom why it has taken this long already."
As if the public announcement, three-month timetable and American Idol casting call weren't obnoxious enough, Oklahoma president David Boren decided to speak without a script again this week. And it's never good for the Big 12 when an unfiltered Boren shows up in front of microphones. "I'm not saying there won't be expansion," Boren said at an OU Board of Regents meeting. "I'm not saying it can be automatically assumed that there will be expansion."
And with one quote, the Big 12 reinforced all those well-earned dysfunctional stereotypes. After making a round of calls around the league and college sports the past 24 hours, it was hard to tell who reacted the strongest to Boren's latest comments. Was it the anger from Boren's Big 12 colleagues at Boren reminding everyone—again!—how divided the Big 12 is? Or was it the laughter from officials in the college athletic industry and in other leagues at how consistent and persistent Boren is in his uncanny ability to make a mockery of the league? "It's high comedy," an industry source said Wednesday. "It really is."
Could the Big 12 really go through this whole spectacle and not expand? Of course it could. That's the root of the comedy. What's hilarious about Boren's quotes this week are the hypocrisy of them, considering his public comments about the league being "psychologically disadvantaged" as a 10-team league back in the spring of 2015. Colleagues around the Big 12 wanted Boren to stop speaking out of turn at that point. But now he's the league's chairman, so a voice of consistent dissidence has fittingly become the league's official spokesman. Officials at schools outside of Texas and Oklahoma have pointed to Boren's public comments as creating a perception of vulnerability, as the "psychologically disadvantaged" quote ended up being a huge, well, disadvantage for the league. Credit the Big 12 for its dysfunction being symmetrical.
In making calls this week to find out what's really going to happen in the Big 12, the answer remained a similar refrain: No one really knows. Other than a laugh track at the Big 12's expense—Why is this taking so long? Why can't they shut up Boren? Why did Rice get an interview?—one clear pattern did emerge.
Nothing has happened with the Big 12 in the past two months that gives any hint that the league will survive past its current television contract in 2024–25. There's no consensus on what schools to add, how many schools to add or even if it should add schools. (Athletic directors around the league have long been cool on that prospect, but they have virtually no say in this spectacle.) More critically for the future of the league, neither Oklahoma nor Texas have given any public hint they have long-term plans to stay in the league. That's a question we'd really like to hear Boren answer.
And the league still faces the looming risk of alienating its current television partners, ESPN and FOX, who feel like they are about to be forced to pay nearly $25 million per school annually for inventory that it clearly doesn't value. There's a strong feeling remaining in the television industry that the Big 12 is taking Tony Soprano negotiating tactics to the table by taking advantage of the pro rata clause. "ESPN and FOX have never been more aligned about anything than how they feel about this shakedown," said a television industry source.
So who'll get the last laugh? If you look at realignment history, it's usually the television networks. When the Big East snubbed ESPN's $155 million dollar annual offer in 2011, the ACC raided the league soon after and it never recovered. ESPN didn't mind. It improved the quality of its ACC inventory and picked up the Big East's successor—the American Athletic Conference—for the bargain price of seven years and $126 million.
Here's the uncomfortable question for the Big 12: Do Oklahoma and Texas offer more value to ESPN and FOX in the Big 12? Or are ESPN and FOX better off with Texas or Oklahoma in one of the leagues where they control the network?
If Texas went to the Big Ten, it would be a boon for FOX, the Big Ten's financial partner in the Big Ten Network. If Texas went to the ACC, the same could be said for ESPN and the upcoming ACC Network. Same for Oklahoma, which would likely go to the SEC, where ESPN owns a majority of the inventory and is a partner in the SEC Network.
All off those moves wouldn't be made for years. As for the immediate future, here are the three scenarios most likely to play out for the Big 12.
The Big 12 adds Cincinnati and Houston: 60%
It has gotten so sideways for the Big 12 that the key tenet driving expansion decisions could be what will yield the least embarrassing press conference. Could Boren get trotted out in front of the media and explain not taking Houston? Likely not. Especially a few weeks after the Cougars pounded the Sooners, sold out NRG Stadium and did a remarkable 12.8 television rating in Houston.
Could Boren defend taking BYU? Probably not after a slew of LGBT groups have spoken out against the school, which has an "honor code" that includes the following provision: "Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings."
There's already been a student government vote at Iowa State against the admission of BYU.
The potential of BYU's candidacy has taken a precipitous dip. (Boren had long been considered a huge backer of BYU, which some speculate may be a reason he has cooled on his expansion stance.)
As for Cincinnati, the school has handled this process calmly and coolly. It is the Big 12's safety date, and it's hard to consider a scenario where the Big 12 expands and it doesn't get invited. (Unless something drastic changes in the tenor of how BYU is viewed.)
Houston is a much more polarizing candidate, as myopic coaches and officials at TCU, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Iowa State have all spoken out against Houston's candidacy. But in the end, it's hard to imagine the Big 12 selling the public on not taking Houston, because of its market and football potential.
Nothing happens: 30%
This is the dysfunction option. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby clearly wants to expand, or he wouldn't have endured these two months of nonsense. But the Big 12 has a long history of its commissioners—Kevin Weiberg and Dan Beebe come to mind—not being able to control the presidents.
BYU is toxic, but some presidents still feel it is the strongest addition and brings the biggest national following. Houston has the most potential as a program, but may have the least support. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State aren't giddy about Houston. Texas has come out publicly saying it will favor the Cougars, but there are few in Austin political circles who feel like that's anything more than public posturing. If Texas was serious about supporting Houston, it would have to back it up with action. The chance that Texas votes to extend the league's grant of rights in order to support Houston's candidacy is completely unrealistic.
Basically, the Big 12 needs Houston more than it wants it. It would have preferred BYU, but can't take another spate of bad publicity. (There were already complications with BYU refusing to schedule games on Sunday, but those pale in comparison to forcing risk-averse presidents to take a stand against LGBT groups.) Cincinnati is safe, but it falls into the old line about the Big 12. If there were perfect options for the league it would have expanded already.
But we'll bring this back to Boren standing in front of the media. After an expansion dog-and-pony show that would make the folks at Westminster and Churchill Downs blush, how bad would it look if the league decided to do nothing?
The only thing certain after two months is that this league is nowhere near consensus.
Something wacky happens: 10%
Always leave the Big 12 wiggle room for the unpredictable. Could there be four teams added for a money grab and an entrée into Florida? Sure. But the only school not yet mentioned that is still perceived to have a realistic chance in all this is Connecticut. Yet UConn's chances have dimmed as BYU's candidacy has crumbled, as both could have conceivably been added as football-only. UConn would have placed its other sports in the Big East. (UConn's candidacy really got hurt when the league decided against a television network, as UConn's Northeast market was a much better sell than its football program.)
What else wacky could happen? Nothing should be left off the table. But for now, only Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and Connecticut have a reasonable chance. And it appears Cincinnati and Houston have pulled away. But this being the Big 12, we know there's a lot of time left for something strange to happen.