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Brett Yormark Eyeing Potential Big 12 Expansion on Both Coasts

At the outset of Big 12 media days, its commissioner delivered some veiled messages that speak to how the conference’s outlook has changed during his tenure.

ARLINGTON, Texas — In his second Big 12 football media days address, commissioner Brett Yormark was slightly more understated on the podium. But rest assured, the aggressive commish has no expansionist chill behind the scenes. The lean, cocksure 56-year-old is pursuing deals the way he attacks the Peloton leaderboard every morning.

That should keep conferences on both coasts nervous.

The Pac-12, still meandering toward a media-rights agreement? Keep your members close, especially Colorado. The Big East, lucratively reunited in recent years with 2023 men’s basketball national champion Connecticut? Check in on your Huskies.

Nothing may come of this. The Pac-12 may finally secure a media deal that keeps its remaining 10 schools in the fold and stabilizes the league. The Big 12 membership may resist overtures to UConn, which is a tough sell geographically and as a football contributor. But rest assured, Yormark is taking a year of positive momentum and doubling down on his efforts to elevate the Big 12 in the Power 5 hierarchy.

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark at the conference’s media day in 2023.

In a year as Big 12 commissioner, Brett Yormark has brought stability in the form of a substantial media rights deal that could attract more schools despite the departures of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC.

He’s taking the Big 12 into Mexico City with future events in basketball and other sports, with big plans to do the one thing most conferences have not done effectively: cultivate a dedicated international audience in one of the world’s largest cities. He’s planting a flag in New York City with an event next week at the basketball holy land of Rucker Park—and oh by the way, there are a lot of UConn alums in NYC. (And St. John’s alums. And Syracuse alums. But more on that in a moment.)

Plans are big and getting bigger, even if they’re not all football-centric.

“I’m bullish on basketball,” Yormark says. “Everyone looks at it through the singular lens of what it means to the media deal. I look at it that way, too, but I also look at what basketball can do to create value in other parts of our enterprise. It’s tough to take college football games down to Mexico, but basketball can be a catalyst to international expansion.”

No, that doesn’t mean El Colegio de Mexico is a Big 12 expansion target. But if the people of Mexico City gain an affinity for Big 12 sports, think of the streaming/digital-space growth potential.

Bottom line: Yormark is the college sports shark that never stops swimming. And it’s up to his peers outside the towers of power in the SEC and Big Ten to swim with him.

The Pac-12 has done plenty to disrupt itself in recent years, from the damaging commissioner tenure of Larry Scott to the loss of USC and UCLA to its ongoing and meandering media-rights saga. But don’t discount the role of Yormark as a sower of discord.

In addition to publicly and actively courting expansion of his conference, it certainly seems as if some “sourced” reports about struggles in the Pac-12 media-rights journey might have had a Big 12 lean. And here Wednesday, Yormark delivered a few more subtle signals provoking a compare/contrast contest with the Pac-12.

On media partners ESPN and Fox: “We have the two best TV partners in America.” The Pac-12, meanwhile, is unlikely to have more than one of those two broadcast giants in its future deal, and it might be as a tangential partner at best.

On quickly sewing up the media deal last year, essentially jumping the Pac-12 in line and leaving that league twisting to this day: “That provides tremendous stability and clarity for the conference.” The Pac-12 status is, as of this moment, clear as mud.

On an advantage of having the league’s basketball tournaments in Kansas City: “We don’t have to share the market.” Seems like a reference to Las Vegas, where the Pac-12 is just one of four leagues holding tourneys, alongside the Mountain West, West Coast and Western Athletic conferences.

Those were a few love letters to potential Pac-12 expansion targets, most notably Colorado but potentially the other “four corners” schools: Arizona, Utah, Arizona State. With Pac-12 media day next week and no new media-rights deal on the immediate horizon, commissioner George Kliavkoff better have a plan for how he’s going to finesse that awkward Q&A.

“We have a plan for expansion,” Yormark said on the podium. “I’m not going to really address it today. Hopefully we can execute it sooner than later. If we stay at 12, we’re perfectly fine with that. … If within the value equation there’s alignment (to add members), Power Five or non-Power Five, we’ll look to pursue it.”

Plan A might be plundering two to four teams from the Pac-12. Plan B might be a Colorado-UConn power play—but if Colorado is a non-starter, that probably ends the scenario. Non-football aspirations could involve St. John’s, which has the big-dollar booster backing of Vitamin Water founder Mike Repole and just landed Rick Pitino as its coach. They could involve Gonzaga, the hoops power of the Pacific Northwest, which would get the Big 12 into all four time zones and at least partially fulfill pursuit of a coast-to-coast conference.

And, dare to dream, should the Big 12 continue to pursue an NYC presence, grabbing Syracuse in the fallout from an Atlantic Coast Conference breakup could be a (far) down-the-road idea. Between UConn, St. John’s and Syracuse, the Big 12 could actually deliver a decent slice of the New York City market—at least in one sport.

For now, the fact that there even is a Big 12 media days remains a significant victory. When tentpole programs Texas and Oklahoma agreed to leave for the SEC in 2021, the future looked bleak. But former commissioner Bob Bowlsby and the remaining eight schools kept the ship afloat, then made smart additions of BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston—all of which are making their league debuts here this week.

They collectively do not fill the market-power void the Longhorns and Sooners will leave come 2024, but they provide stability. Whether more members equals more stability remains to be seen.

“I do think there’s strength in numbers,” Yormark said. “But we’re not chasing a number. If and when the opportunity presents itself to stay at 14, we’ll pursue it.”

The way to read that in Pac-12 territory: better get that media deal done, and it better be good. The way to read that in the Big East: UConn is a great fit, but perhaps not a forever fit.

Because the Big 12 is still out there, lurking in predator mode.