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Big 12 expansion a near-certainty as it aims to avoid being left behind

The Big 12 will explore expansion, and it’s almost certain that it will add teams. The real question is how many?

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On a conference call Tuesday afternoon, the Big 12 conference announced that it has unanimously approved expansion exploration. To translate for those either unfamiliar or simply fatigued by the jargon of conference realignment, that basically means the league has kicked off an expansion frenzy.

A source familiar with the Big 12’s thinking told on Tuesday that it looks “nearly definite” that the league will expand by two schools and “highly possible” the league could expand by four schools. This is major news, sparked in part by the revelation on Monday that the ACC will be launching its own network, leaving the Big 12 as the only Power 5 school without some type of television network. The Big 12 was getting left behind, and Tuesday’s decision is another definitive step to attempt to keep up.

All of the moves in conference realignment can be traced back to two things—money and television. And since the current cord-cutting cable climate isn’t conducive to the Big 12 adding a channel, the league decided instead to maximize its potential television revenue. When it came down to it, all the talk of the importance of round robins and one true champion seems kind of quaint.

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The Big 12’s television consultants put forth a compelling presentation in Dallas on Tuesday. They showed how four new teams combined with the addition of a conference championship game could add nearly one billion additional dollars before the league’s deal with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025.

Oklahoma president David Boren called Tuesday’s announcement “a statement we want to move forward” but “not a decision.” In reality, though, that’s just semantics. The biggest question going forward will be whether the Big 12 adds two schools or four schools. The next question will be if they are football-only members or all sports. A few months ago, adding two schools was considered possible and four unlikely. But the tenor around that has all changed. The Big 12 looks ready to cash in to catch up, and there’s about a dozen schools on the other side of the financial tracks—ie non-Power 5 schools—happy to join them. (Likely without an equal cut of the television deal until the current agreement expires).

The leaders in the clubhouse for Big 12 expansion remain BYU, Cincinnati and Connecticut. The next tier includes South Florida, Central Florida, Memphis, Colorado State, Houston, Boise State and Tulane. If the league does add four schools, there’s really no standout candidate for that fourth slot. (Houston has the best program and television market of available schools, but there’s still some hesitancy within the state of Texas to allow the Cougars to use the Big 12 to potentially leap over current members). Schools like Temple, San Diego State and Northern Illinois don’t really have a chance, but will give it a shot anyway. “They’re going to open it up like an auction,” one Big 12 source said. “They don’t want it to be like they’re out there soliciting schools.”

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The Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Boren said all the proper pragmatic things in a conference call on Thursday. They talked about moving forward, awaiting to hear from schools and Bowlsby vetting candidates. The expectation is that candidates will be presented in October and schools could be added for the 2017 season. But the reality is that the league needed to do something quickly to fortify itself. As one Big 12 source put it: “If we kept status quo, it would have meant moving back.”

And by moving forward, the Big 12 leaders have set off a free-for-all destined to dominate the headlines in college athletics for the next few months. In reality, the Big 12 doesn’t have to solicit schools. The schools are going to come running to their doorstep, pleading to join for a discount price.  

In the current Big 12 television contract, it states that any schools that are added will generate the same payout as the current members. Big 12 schools made an estimated $25 million each in television revenue this past year. (That doesn’t include ancillary payments like NCAA tournament payouts, third-tier rights and College Football Playoff money). So the addition of four schools would mean approximately $100 million annually to the league’s coffers.

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What’s yet to be determined is how much the four schools would be paid up front per year through the length of the contract in 2025.

TCU and West Virginia, for example, initially received pro rata shares upon joining the Big 12 until receiving a full share this year. It’s likely that the incoming schools will be so anxious to join a Power 5 league that they’d take a lower share for the long-term benefit.

The Big 12 will proceed cautiously and pragmatically in public. But don’t let the expansion jargon and coded wording fool you. The Big 12’s announcement on Tuesday throws much of the college sports world into flux. The Big 12 will be growing soon, dangling a lucrative carrot out to those hungry schools on the outside of the Power 5. As the 2016–17 season kicks off, it will be accompanied by another expansion feeding frenzy.