- After deciding not to expand, the Big 12 emerges from the ordeal as the biggest loser. A look at what we learned from the expansion process and what’s next for all involved.
When the announcement that the Big 12 wouldn’t expand finally came on Monday evening, it was delivered in the most fitting way. There was Oklahoma president David Boren giving so much more than a press conference. He so hammered home the talking points that he’d spent the past 18 months obliterating that it felt more like a performance. He used words like “strength,” “unity” and “cohesion” so many times that it sounded almost like he was trying to convince himself.
The biggest loser in the Big 12’s public expansion process wasn’t any of the 11 schools that eagerly signed up to take part in the Big 12’s public pageant. It was actually the league itself, which spent three months reinforcing its place as the fifth league among the Power Five conferences and the most vulnerable to be raided in the next decade. The Big 12 buried the positive momentum from a year when Oklahoma made the College Football Playoff and Final Four with a cumbersome, unnecessary and ridiculous three-month dog and pony show. “It was perhaps a little more of a sweepstakes than we thought it would be at the beginning,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
It was one of the few honest comments on a day dedicated to spin. Boren must have felt like he was back on the Senate floor, as he issued some filibusters that would make his old Congressional colleagues blush. “What I heard over the last 24 hours as our colleagues spoke very candidly among ourselves was the strongest expression of unity and cohesion and commitment to the conference that I’ve ever heard,” Boren said, marking off his talking point checklist.
This was particularly rich, as the strongest expression of Big 12 unity until recently was how angry everyone was at Boren for his willingness to speak into every microphone shoved in front of his face. He undercut the league at every turn, from his infamous “psychologically disadvantaged” comment to him recently hinting there wouldn’t be expansion at a time when he shouldn’t have been talking about the league. (Check out Stewart Mandel’s fine summation of everything here, where he says that the Big 12 owes some apologies for its process.)
So with Boren issuing a fitting salvo of insincerity for the final chapter of this charade, here’s a look at what we learned and where we’re headed.
What did the Big 12 get out of this?
We’ll never really know a finite number of what the Big 12 will get out of this, as this is all going to be part of a complicated larger negotiation involving the addition of a Big 12 title game. That addition is going to be worth nearly $200 million to the league over the next eight years.
Consider the elimination of the pro rata clause—that would have led to nearly $25 million annually for each added school—as part of the bigger negotiation. Bowlsby mentioned other potential elements on Monday, including starting a third-tier network and changing kickoff windows as the type of things that were being discussed. Ultimately, the Big 12 will get more money and has some leverage in all the other discussions.
One thing it also did was avoid alienating its television partners, which viewed the pro rata clause as a loophole and would have been seething mad if the Big 12 did expand. That could help the Big 12 in its next negotiation.
Was this an elaborate bluff to get the Big 12 more money?
At some point over the past three months, the suggestion has been made that the Big 12 embarked on this expansion expedition in order to bilk its business partners out of a few extra million dollars.
I ran that theory by a few people in the Big 12 and involved in the process over the weekend. The best answer that emerged was that the Big 12 isn’t savvy and sophisticated enough to pull off such an elaborate escapade. Think about it. Could a conference that can’t agree if the sky is blue and can’t control its board chair really pull off such an elaborate ruse? That would be giving the Big 12 too much credit. This is a league that has trouble figuring out who won its conference some years.
If the conference spoke to 20 schools and invited in 11 for in-person interviews, it would be the college football version of Wag the Dog. (In that 1997 movie, Hollywood spin doctors fabricate a war in Albania to distract the country from a political sex scandal.) The Big 12 doesn’t have the cohesion or vision to pull that off.
Where does the Big 12 go from here?
As Boren bumbled through the past few months, the perception and concern grew around the league that Oklahoma was window shopping for other conferences. Boren made the point on Monday that there was no discussing of extending the league’s grant of rights because those discussions typically only come up when tied to a media rights deal.
That’s certainly correct, but also a bit disingenuous. If Oklahoma and Texas really wanted to commit to the league and extend the grant of rights, the other eight schools would have eagerly agreed and Fox and ESPN would have likely engaged as part of a greater negotiation. It would have been a strong ploy by the league to show unity.
Boren reaffirmed Oklahoma’s commitment to the league. He’s also 75, and likely won’t be OU’s president when the current Big 12 media contract expires in 2025. (You can’t fathom the cheering in Big 12 athletic departments when he finally steps down.)
In the industry, Oklahoma isn’t viewed the same way as it is in Boren’s mirror. The SEC would never take Oklahoma State with the Sooners. The Big Ten certainly wouldn’t take both either, as they are poor academic fits. Texas has far more options than Oklahoma. Pledging loyalty six or seven years before any real decisions are made is hollow talk.
Still, any Big 12 defections come down to fundamental questions: Would OU or Texas go to a league where they have to play better teams to reach the national title game? Would they be O.K. with not being able to act boorish or arrange preferential financial deals? Those aren’t easy questions.
Where do schools go from here?
BYU: Ultimately, the tenor of Big 12 realignment changed when Foxsports.com reported about the potential backlash from LGBT groups over BYU’s honor code. The honor code reads: “Homosexual behavior is inappropriate and violates the Honor Code.” BYU was long considered the best bet to get a Big 12 invitation, as it has a national following and longstanding football tradition. The Pac-12 will likely never be a landing spot, as it already has the Salt Lake City market with Utah and the honor code issue would remain a big deal. This whole saga appears to have solidified BYU as an independent for the near future.
UConn: There’s been a popular media theory floated that UConn could explore moving to the Big East in basketball and then move football somewhere else. That’s highly unlikely, as the $10 million and 27-month wait that’s required to leave the AAC is virtually untenable. (Cutting back the 27-month window would cost more money.) UConn would have paid it knowing there was a Power Five payday on the other end, as it would have made the money back quickly. That wouldn’t be the case going to the Big East. UConn is one of many schools facing difficult financial decisions, as it’s nearly impossible to fund football on the AAC’s modest television contract. (The AAC deal runs through 2020 and pays just $126 million from ESPN for the entirety of the deal. There’s a secondary deal with CBS, but the spending significantly outweighs the income for most AAC schools.)
Houston: No school improved its profile more than Houston the past year, as it rushed to build and upgrade its facilities. Its football success the past two seasons showcased the logical reasons for the Cougars to be in a Power Five league. There’s a proven talent base, market and ability to command big television ratings. That’s a foundation. But where could they go? No easy answer there. Houston has two challenges. It needs to sustain its momentum after Tom Herman’s expected departure at the end of this season. (The notion he’d have stayed if UH reached the Big 12 is a bit naïve, as jobs like LSU, Texas and USC are still exponentially better.) And UH still needs to figure out how to find revenue to keep up with its increasing expenses. Neither is an easy challenge.
Cincinnati: There was perhaps more optimism for Cincinnati than any school the Big 12 looked at. There’s a solid recruiting base and market and improving infrastructure. BYU and Houston proved divisive candidates. BYU had thorny scheduling issues because it won’t play on Sundays. Numerous Big 12 schools didn’t want Houston because they felt like that would cede the city as a recruiting ground. UC gave West Virginia the neighbor it wanted and seemed like a safe play. Like most schools in this process, there’s no logical fit for the Bearcats outside of the Big 12.
UCF/USF: Neither school was really considered all that seriously. They need to focus on building their football programs into national powers with consistent local support. When that happens, it will allow the schools to present a much better case. The markets and recruiting bases are there. There’s just not enough consistent history of winning, full stadiums and big ratings to support a major-conference candidacy. At least for now.
AAC: One can imagine a few employees of the American Athletic Conference clinking glasses of celebration in Providence on Monday night. The outlook for the league looked bleak in August. But is sitting tight good enough? “We are not going to sit back and be identified as irrelevant and accept status quo,” said a source in the league. “We don’t want to be labeled by others as not adding value. It’s not true. We expect our leaders in the league to find solutions.” Could that mean the AAC looks at adding schools before its next television negotiation? That likely depends on whether the AAC can find value in the new media market—Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, etc. Would attempting to lure a brand name like BYU or Air Force change the financial paradigm on a deal? BYU would be unlikely to go, but much will depend on what the marketplace looks like in a few years. All we know is that it should look much different, but speculation beyond that is tricky.