It's the offseason, and after the NFL Draft this weekend, this biggest events for the next few months tend to center around various NCAA and conference meetings and discussions. The biggest meetings for this summer, of course, are with the Big 12, where fans across the country are hoping for some sort of definite answers about possible Big 12 expansion.
The pro-expansion wing of the Big 12, (namely Oklahoma and West Virginia, but could include others) appears to be concerned with three things: The Big 12 lacks a conference championship game, it lacks the (at least) 12 teams of the other conferences, and it doesn't have a conference network. Theoretically, adding two other programs would allow the conference to hold a lucrative title game while lessening the risk of a rematch, obtain symbolic parity with other power conferences, and improve the framework for an eventual television network, which could theoretically improve the financial standing for all members.
Thanks to recent NCAA legislation, the Big 12 doesn't need to expand to host a championship game (although holding one without expanding does guarantee a rematch). Whatever perceived disadvantage the Big 12 suffered from only having ten teams didn't keep Oklahoma from making the College Football Playoff or from the conference having an excellent basketball season. And no matter who the conference adds, a TV network isn't especially likely, and even if it did launch, it wouldn't come close to financial parity with the SEC or ACC.
That isn't a knock on the potential Big 12 expansion candidates, it's just the reality of the Big 12 conference makeup. Right now, the Big 12 has two huge, national brands, Texas and Oklahoma. They have another, Kansas, for just basketball. The other programs, even ones that are successful athletically, are limited to regional appeal thanks to their alumni size, rural locations, lack of history, or some combination thereof. Big Ten programs, with large alumni bases, history and more urban locations, or SEC teams, with state-wide fanaticism, are more attractive television properties.
But even if the Big 12 can't achieve total financial parity with television, in my estimation, it would still be in the best interest for the Big 12 to expand in the near future. We'll dig into which programs a little later on, but here's a closer look at the rationale for expansion in the short term.
Expansion is a ploy for stability, particularly with Oklahoma
Outside of West Virginia, one Big 12 institution has been especially public and fervent with it's desire to expand, and that's Oklahoma. Some have speculated that Oklahoma's public and forceful advocacy of expansion is actually a leverage play, as they seek out conference affiliation options outside of the Big 12. With the Big Ten's massive new TV deal, and with expansion serving as basically the only way the SEC can renegotiate theirs until the 2030s, Oklahoma will have plenty of suitors.
Most of the rest of the Big 12, as currently constructed, cannot afford to have Oklahoma, one of the few major brands in the conference, leave. A Sooners departure jeopardizes league affiliation for everybody else. Any legislative move that could perhaps solidify Oklahoma's Big 12 long-term membership is worth any short-term financial haircut. Oklahoma's president appears to support adding Cincinnati already. There isn't a move to bring the conference to financial parity with the others, but if adding two more programs helps Oklahoma stay, the bulk of the conference needs to support it.
Expansion is also a step to prepare for a Post-Texas, Post-Oklahoma world
Of course, it's possible that adding two more programs does not, in fact, keep Texas and/or Oklahoma in the Big 12 after the next round of TV deals in the mid 2020s. After all, barring a complete collapse in TV revenues, the Big Ten and the SEC will be able to provide more money, and more stable conferences, than any Big 12 configuration. Either major program could decide that the promise of enhanced revenues (or, in the case of the Big Ten, academic prestige) wins out over historical affiliations, and leave. Kansas could also be a potential Big Ten target.
The last round of major realignment showed how vulnerable other Big 12 schools might be in the event that the Big 12 loses their anchor members. But if the conference expands now, the rest of the schools have a better chance at keeping a power-ish conference together. A league with, say, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Kansas State, West Virginia, Iowa State, BYU, Cincinnati and say, Memphis, is still a solid basketball and football conference, a cut above The American and one that should still be able to secure a viable TV contract.
There are no guarantees in another significant realignment scenario. Any move the other half of the conference can make that would help them a solidify a stable future in the event of a nightmare scenario is sound and worth doing, again, even in the event of a short-term financial haircut.
Well, If this was a slam dunk, the Big 12 would have done it already, right?
I see this line the most, especially from other journalists, and while there's some truth to it, I don't think it tells the full story.
It's true that adding two teams from the possible candidate pool would not significantly improve revenues. We know that the Big 12's TV payouts are not diluted by expansion. That comes from now having to divide up bowl money, NCAA Tournament money, and College Football Playoff money among 12 teams instead of 10.
By adding two programs likely to compete in both bowl games and NCAA Tournament appearances, conference members are further protected from financial loses. Only the CFP playoff money would need to be broken into smaller shares, and that could potentially be offset by a lucrative conference championship game.
So then the question becomes, could members be willing to risk manageable short-term losses in exchange for improved depth and stability? That's less of an obvious question. Plus, it's worth mentioning that this conference hasn't exactly nailed every "slam dunk" before.
If TV markets were so important, why did conference leadership turn down the chance to add additional markets (Louisville, Pitt, BYU, etc) to add two programs that add nothing from TV (TCU and WVU)? Why did Big 12 leaders allow the Lornhorn Network, or let lucrative members like Nebraska or Texas A&M walk away? Why has this conference been a source of drama and intrigue since basically forever?
If recent history is any indication, Big 12 leadership doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt to make the "obviously" right call.
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Expanding, ideally in the short term, is probably the best way for the bulk of the Big 12's membership to create stability and insurance for themselves in the future. Of course, there are specific programs that will accomplish that goal better than others, and we'll dig into those, and why, next.