After years of speculation, dozens of articles, and enough drama to fill multiple seasons of a Mexican soap opera, the story of Big 12 expansion ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. At least, for now.
On Monday, as you undoubtedly have heard by now, the conference announced that they will not, in fact, expand. BYU responded with a statement, similar to many other candidate schools, that reiterated that it believes it can contribute to a P5 conference.
We can harp about what this means for the Big 12, or how administrators may have messed this up, or any number of other things, until we’re blue in the face. But for now, what does this mean specifically for BYU? Let’s take a closer look.
With this decision, what changes for BYU in the short term?
Honestly, probably very little.
BYU’s future schedules over the next few years still feature plenty of engaging, bigger name programs. The Cougars get LSU, Utah and Wisconsin (at home) and Mississippi State in 2017. They have Arizona, Cal, Wisconsin, Washington and Utah in 2018. Games against Utah, USC, Washington and Washington State appear in 2019, along with annual games with Boise State. While there are a few slots to be filled in 2018 and 2019, BYU fans will still get to enjoy games against high profile opponents, and increasingly, they can watch them in Provo.
BYU’s immediate financial future isn’t in doubt either. The Cougars can still count on their ESPN deal through 2018, and likely through 2019 (ESPN has an option year). Even without conference affiliation, there’s no reason to think that structurally, BYU can’t at least continue the status quo over the next few years, which, hey, has been fine.
What happens to BYU’s TV rights after 2019?
It’s a good question, and one that is difficult to answer given the uncertainty of the television industry, but there’s reason to be optimistic that the Cougars will at least have options. Thanks to their independent schedule, large fanbase and flexibility to play on non-Saturdays or in unique timeslots, BYU remains an attractive TV property. They’re also the only major CFB rights package that will hit the market before the next big contracts start to expire in the early 2020s.
BYU and ESPN reportedly have a very good relationship. In the unlikely even that said relationship soured, it seems reasonable to think there would still be a robust market for BYU’s rights, either from Fox, NBC, CBS, or others. Somebody is almost certainly going to want to pay BYU to broadcast their games.
The big question, of course, is for how much money? BYU makes between $6-8 million a year now, reportedly, on their ESPN contract. Would they be able to command a raise? Would they be willing to trade exposure for more money? Would they need to? Will the TV market fall enough that BYU would need to take a haircut? I don’t know. A lot can change by 2019.
Is there another P5 conference that would be interested in BYU?
Probably not. If BYU’s internal policies (see, honor code) were controversial enough to give Big 12 administrators pause, as they reportedly were, there’s no way they’d pass muster from Stanford, Cal, and other Pac-12 institutions. BYU isn’t a fit academically, politically, institutionally, or a host of other factors, and with the addition of Utah, BYU’s positives are somewhat muted for the Pac-12 as well. If that was ever going to happen, it would have already happened.
The Big Ten could theoretically be convinced to expand that far geographically, but BYU would have the same issues. The Big Ten isn’t going to add a non-AAU, religiously affiliated school that’s a gazillion miles away. BYU is too far from the SEC or ACC to be considered a legitimate candidate either. Besides. You don’t want to be in the SEC anyway.
The only practical option, at this point, appears to be the Big 12. And hey, maybe they change their mind again before the end of their TV deal. But don’t bet on it.
If a P5 conference invite is off the table in the near future, what about G5 conferences?
There are two conferences that get brought up the most are the Mountain West, and The American.
I feel like I’ve written about the MWC several times already, along with a lot of other BYU blogger folks, so I’ll just give a quick tl;dr. I would be absolutely shocked if BYU ever decided to go back.
For one, BYU already makes more money as an independent, and plays a better regular season schedule, than they would as a member of the MWC. If BYU was not able to get a Boise-like TV rights deal (one that shared revenue unequally), that difference would be even more dramatic.
There’s also the big elephant in the room...I’m not sure it’s clear enough schools would even WANT BYU back. There’s still clearly some bad blood between BYU and a few other conference institutions, and bringing the Cougars back isn’t in the institutional interest of programs who are already struggling to make bowl games, like Wyoming, or San Jose State.
I can see how improved institutional access to a NY6 could be attractive, but I don’t understand why other writers propose this as a possible solution. BYU does not benefit at all, and many MWC schools don’t either.
What about The American?
I think the odds of this happening after BYU’s TV deal expires are not zero, but it is also unlikely. The AAC does provide improved access to NY6 or access bowl games, and the standard of competition is much higher than other G5 conferences. BYU also enjoys positive working relationships with many AAC athletic departments.
But it is hard to believe AAC membership would be as financially lucrative as BYU’s tv deal, unless BYU’s value completely craters after 2019. AAC membership also locks most of BYU’s games in the eastern and central time zones, and limits schedule flexibility, making games against traditional rivals like Utah and Utah State harder to schedule, to say nothing of say, a major P5 matchup.
Would BYU be willing to give all of that up? It seems unlikely. Not impossible, but unlikely.
Can BYU make all of this moot by going 11-1 or something and making an access bowl anyway?
I personally don’t think so.
I think I’ve changed my thinking a little bit about the sustainability of independence. As long as BYU is able to secure a TV contract at least comparable to what they’re earning now after 2019, I don’t think it’s impossible for them to continue a similar run of success...that is to say, produce a Top 40 level product, beat a few good teams, flirt with Top 25 bids, and be a big national story for the first five weeks or so of the season.
If that’s fine, great.
Doing more than that, over time, I think would be very hard to do. Independence makes securing seven home games, a benchmark most P5 programs hit, very difficult. And it makes recruiting at a peer level to their opponents even harder.
BYU’s current 2017 recruiting class? It’s ranked 94th in the 247 Sports Composite rankings, behind squads like Ball State, Rice, Texas State, and Florida Atlantic. It probably won’t finish that low, but another ranking in the 50s or 60s seems likely.
Can BYU regularly beat multiple teams who are recruiting in the 20s and 30s, with only six home games, with enough regularity to crack the top 15 for multiple weeks, all on their current budget? I don’t think so. Very, very few programs have been able to do that in the BCS era.
But if independence just means keeping the status quo for a little while longer, that’s really not so bad. And after that? You just never know.