Questions abound as Big 12 takes first step toward expansion

Tuesday’s announcement that the Big 12 will evaluate other schools for possible expansion brings about an abundance of questions over who and what may be impacted.
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DALLAS — For the last question of a SiriusXM radio interview Monday, I asked Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby if he’d like to have the membership and the format of his league set for even a little while. “Forever,” Bowlsby joked. “I’d like it set forever.” Then Bowlsby gave a more serious answer to preview Tuesday’s meeting of the Big 12’s presidents. That answer included this: “I just think we’ve done the statistical research. We’ve done the data analysis. We’ve listened to the consultants. We need to get down the path and make some decisions.”

As Bowlsby left the room during a commercial break, I asked him if that meant the league’s presidents were going to examine two options, the latter of which is “get off the pot.” Bowlsby only smiled. At that point, most of the rhetoric coming from within the Big 12 suggested driving a stake through the idea of adding schools. A conference television network seemed unlikely for several reasons. No pair—or foursome—of available candidates seemed to add the brand or competitive value the league sought.

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So what did the presidents do Tuesday? They authorized Bowlsby to “actively evaluate” the interests of the schools wishing to join the Big 12 and report back to the presidents. In other words, they moved down the path toward expansion. This is the Big 12, so nothing is ever certain. But given Bowlsby’s obvious push to make a decision one way or the other, this decision certainly sounds like the first step toward adding schools that would begin Big 12 play in the 2017–18 school year.

So let the speculation begin in Provo, Cincinnati, Orlando, Houston, Tampa, Memphis, Storrs, Boise, San Diego, Fort Collins and New Orleans. Will the Big 12 add two or four schools? Will the league want to lock down cable households or simply bring in the strongest brands? Bowlsby and Oklahoma president David Boren declined to answer those questions specifically on Tuesday. “There likely will be a two-stage process of some sort that will involve some preliminary work, and then a secondary process as well,” Bowlsby said Tuesday in a teleconference. “Perhaps even a fact-finding but also perhaps even a negotiation stage.”

So what changed? Boren was the one who threw coal in the realignment furnace last year when he said the Big 12 was “psychologically disadvantaged” because it only had 10 members. This quote came in reaction to the Big 12 getting left out of the first College Football Playoff following the 2014 season. But by May, Boren seemed to have changed his tune. Oklahoma made the playoff last season. Texas seemed determined not to give up the Longhorn Network, which—combined with a marketplace that seems averse to new cable channels—effectively killed the idea of a Big 12 Network. At that point, expansion seemed unlikely. Tuesday, the presidents did exactly the opposite. “It's a forward step. It's a positive step,” Boren said. “It’s not yet a decision … about when we expand or the way, the form this would take. But it's definitely a forward step, and I think it shows momentum on the board to very seriously consider this as a possibility.”

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One potential reason for the change of heart was the news that leaked Monday out of the ACC. That league and ESPN had finally come to terms on the network they began discussing in 2013. This network would indeed be a linear (available through a cable or satellite provider) service that starts by August 2019. Perhaps more importantly, ESPN had extended the ACC’s deal through the 2035–36 school year. That also extended the ACC’s grant of rights agreement, meaning a school choosing to leave the ACC would effectively forfeit the broadcast rights to its home football games until the deal ended.

It was probably this second factor that intrigued Big 12 presidents the most. When it created its network, the SEC extended its deal with ESPN until 2034*. For most Big 12 members, whose league nearly fractured in 2010 and 2011 and is held together now only by a grant of rights that lasts through the 2024–25 school year, the idea of long-term stability is probably quite intriguing. So if the Big 12 can add members and then negotiate a deal that lasts as long as the SEC or ACC’s, that would be attractive to most members. In an interview posted Tuesday on the Big 12’s website, Bowlsby certainly seemed intrigued by the idea. “It just occurred to me it wouldn’t expire until I’m 85 years old,” Bowlsby said. “So it’s got a long tail on it.”

*By contrast, the Big Ten recently agreed to six-year deals with Fox and ESPN. This is a reflection of the Big Ten’s confidence in its stability and the fact that its rights are the most valuable in college sports. Given the opportunity, the SEC might have done the same, but the timing of the creation of the SEC Network forced that league to make the deal it made. The Big 12 and ACC could not be as confident in their stability as these other two. That’s why the ACC made the correct choice and why the Big 12 would seek a long-term deal.

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But would network partners ESPN and Fox give the Big 12 such a deal simply for adding two or four schools that weren’t considered valuable enough to be added to Power 5 leagues during the last round of realignment? There is a clause in the current contract with each network that requires a pro rata fee increase for each new school added. In other words, if each Big 12 school makes $20 million a year from the Fox and ESPN deals now and the Big 12 adds two schools, Fox and ESPN would be on the hook for an additional $40 million a year. The question I asked Bowlsby on Monday is whether Fox and ESPN could tell the Big 12 that the $30 million or so a year that the networks must pay to broadcast the new Big 12 football championship game (starting next season) is part of that $40 million. Bowlsby said he doubts they could.

“It’s all a negotiation,” Bowlsby said Monday. “There isn’t any doubt about that. Fox and ESPN both have the option and the obligation to carry [the championship game]. … We don’t prescribe for them how the do it, and they don’t prescribe for us how we do it. It’s very much a partnership. While the case could be made that they paid us for it once before, the contract is very clear that the revenue is additive.”


Another question is how this move helps the two Big 12 superpowers that would be courted by other leagues when the Big 12’s grant of rights expires. Texas could join any league it wants, but it would have to fold the Longhorn Network to do so. The Big 12 is actually a very good deal for Texas, and it might be the most attractive deal to the Longhorns. Remember, Texas wouldn’t be able to boss around Ohio State, Michigan, USC or UCLA. Oklahoma is another matter. The Sooners would be attractive to another league—down the road, the SEC might be willing to take Oklahoma and Oklahoma State—but it was Boren who pitched expansion as a way to keep the league together. So it’s quite possible the biggest dogs in the yard are completely on board.

But would Fox and ESPN, which have seen revenues fall because of viewers cutting the cord, be willing to commit similar dollars long term? Or would they tell the Big 12 to come back when the current deals expire and negotiate then? That remains to be seen. We know the Big 12 is serious about enforcing that pro rata provision in the contracts. “I don't think we have to make apologies for activating around stipulations that we both agreed to,” Bowlsby said Tuesday.

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While we’re asking questions, let’s ask the one on everyone’s mind. Which programs would the Big 12 take?

That depends on what the league is looking for. In the previous round of realignment, leagues looked for schools that would bring more cable subscribers into the league footprint. If the Big 12 isn’t planning to start a network—and the prospect of that still seems quite difficult even in the wake of the ACC news—then accumulation of territory is less important than the accumulation of competitively and commercially viable brands. So let the politicking begin…

This is the group (listed in alphabetical order) that likely will pitch the Big 12 on joining:

  • Boise State
  • BYU
  • Central Florida
  • Cincinnati
  • Colorado State
  • Connecticut
  • Houston
  • Memphis
  • San Diego State
  • South Florida
  • Tulane

We’ll have time in the next few weeks to break down the pros and cons of each candidate. Officials at these schools will be polishing the presentations they’ll make to Bowlsby. Bowlsby, meanwhile, has his marching orders. He asked his presidents to make a decision, and they did. It was not “get off the pot.”