The Big 12's latest round of conference meetings has concluded, and conference administrators went back to campus without making any final decisions about conference expansion. But unlike typical Big 12 meetings, administrators did more than just make a few statements about needing more data. They actually made a few big decisions.
The initial prognosis might not have been so great, but now that everybody has a had a chance to catch their breath, talk to their sources, and read a bit, the outlook might not be so gloomy. Let's take a closer look at what's happened, and where BYU (and everybody else) goes from here.
Remind me, what did the Big 12 decide to do again?
Way back when, Oklahoma President David Boren re-launched this entire round of furious speculation when he declared that the Big 12 was disadvantaged because it lacked a championship game, a conference network, and 12 members. Conference administrators decided to address those concerns, by having a conference championship game, and likely splitting into two, five-team divisions. If you think that sounds a little bit weird, since a 10-team Big 12 plays a round robin schedule, it's because it does.
How those divisions work out, or even if they'll go that route, has yet to be determined. Recent championship game history hasn't been kind to Big 12 championship hopes, and regardless of what the analytics company says, it isn't clear holding one will actually help the Big 12's playoff chances. What is clear is that the conference expects to make a big chunk of money from the event. Boren expects the event to bring in $27-28 million a year for the conference.
Conference leaders also decided against pursuing a Big 12 network, which means Texas will be able to keep the Longhorn Network, and the healthy payouts that go along with it.
Why would the conference decide not to start a network? Those have made the Big Ten and the SEC stinkin' rich!
Well, the Big 12 isn't the Big Ten or the SEC. And no matter what Boren, or other administrators might want, business realities can't be ignored. Here's what he said on the matter, via the Hartford Courant:
I would say the marketplace in some ways has decided that issue for us...For six or eight years at least, I have advocated for a conference network. But that was postulated on the marketplace as we've had it. As we know, we're having disruptive technologies coming into the marketplace, economic models for our traditional [media] companies are now being called into question and how they will evolve is uncertain. So this is certainly not the time for us to consider going forward with what we might call a traditional conference network and partnership with very traditional cable companies and others. So that decision really has been made for us ... that boat has sailed.
Any network that didn't fold in the Longhorn Network was dead on arrival anyway, but even if Texas somehow agreed to fold their product in with the Big 12, the conference still lacked the population centers, alumni networks and the pure brand muscle of the Big Ten and SEC, not to mention a potential buyer, all while industry trends are moving away from more traditional networks. Starting a channel was a longshot, and for now, that dream appears dead.
The Big 12 launching a network would have meant expansion would have been a near certainty, since doing so would have grown the inventory the league controlled. But that's not happening now.
Does that mean expansion is dead?
Not according to the people who are talking at the moment, but it does mean it'll be talked about in a different way. Just ask Boren:
Expansion for Big 12 is not dead. Maybe not even wounded. David Boren: "I wouldn't say it's cooled. I'd say it's ongoing."— Kirk Bohls (@kbohls) June 3, 2016
The conference will continue to look over more specific data in trying to determine where to go, but Boren elaborated a little bit on what they're looking for:
"Yes, TV markets are important. Yes, the financial aspect is important," Boren said. "But ... our fans want to see our teams play against great teams. They don't want to see them play mediocre teams. We have to determine what that's going to do to the longtime reputation of the brands at each of the schools and what quality of opponents we're having.
You've probably read about how Boren and other administrators have cautioned against expansion that would be "dilutive".
Okay, but if the Big 12 isn't going to get some big fancy TV network, why would they consider expanding? I feel like I've heard this story before
A hypothetical TV network is one of the reasons expansion was and is being considered, but not the only one. Conference leaders may decide that a round-robin schedule with two divisions and a championship game actually hurts their chances at making the playoff, and decide to expand to create a more conventional schedule. They may also decide to expand because of the financial benefits associated with the move.
Oh yeah, the money! I saw somewhere that the Big 12 could add a BILLION more dollars if they expanded. Not even Texas could turn that kind of money down, right?
Wellll, that's only sort of true. CBS did report that the Big 12 could add up to an additional $1 billion by expanding, but the math is a little more complicated.
The Big 12 has an agreement with their current broadcast partners saying that if the league expands, the partners (ESPN and FOX) need to pay out the same amount of money that they're giving their current members to the new members, ("pro rata"). Right now, that's about $23 million bucks a year. That isn't a new revelation, by the way. We wrote about it last year.
Over the course of the Big 12's current contract, if the conference expanded to 14 teams, the pro rata payments would equal about a billion dollars for the conference. That sure seems like a really big number!
But when we take a closer look, it looks a little less impressive. That money goes to the conference, not directly to individual teams, and if the conference paid every school equally, the difference in current Big 12 member's payouts will be exactly zero dollars.
Of course, new Big 12 members almost certainly won't get equal payouts immediately. In fact, since the Big 12 has all the leverage, they could negotiate pretty favorable terms, giving new members say, a half share, and then working towards a full share over the length of the deal (the Big Ten did something similar with their new additions). I have been told that prospective new members are expecting a significant cut from a full share in the early years of membership. In that case, any difference between a full share and what new members get would get distributed to everybody else.
That's not a big profit, probably a few million dollars per school to start, and then gradually decreasing...maybe less than $10 million per school over the length of the Big 12 contract, if the league only expanded to 12 instead of 14. That's money, but it's not earth-shattering money. The real value from expanding might come from taking money from other conferences, since every dollar spent on increasing the Big 12's media deal by ESPN or FOX is a dollar they can't spent on say, the Big Ten's new media deal (or for that matter, BYU's next media deal, should the Big 12 not add them). We'll have more on this later.
Okay. So If the Big 12 isn't starting a TV network, whose expansion chances are hurt the most?
The obvious answer would be UConn, the expansion hopeful with the worst football team, but the best proximity to major markets. Without a network, the major focal point of their Big 12 bid becomes moot. Officials at the school are not optimistic about their chances. From the UConn blog, A Dime Back:
The Big 12 has been openly exploring adding anywhere between two and four members to its 10-team league and UConn has done its best to position itself as one of those selected.
However, UConn's perception, according to the source, is similar to what many seem to be thinking: It's just not going to happen right now.
Per the story, top UConn athletic officials met to discuss the state of the athletic department, but thanks to the conference not deciding to start a network, along with the reluctance of Texas, officials are not optimistic about their chances. UConn personnel have instead reached out to the Big Ten and the ACC, per A Dime Back.
Texas, FWIW, seems to agree:
Sounds like UT AD Perrin has eliminated UConn. 'It’s tough to play West Virginia a lot … would be tough to play someone similar like that.'— Joseph Duarte (@Joseph_Duarte) June 1, 2016
Any other program whose pitch had more to do with potential, markets and geography, rather than current on the field results, would also be negatively impacted. The two programs that jump out the most would be UCF and USF, thought to be underdogs anyway. UCF recently sent promotional materials to Big 12 administrators, but their argument doesn't look as strong in a post-TV network world.
Do you think this hurts BYU?
My personal thinking is this actually helps BYU a little bit. I have argued before that the most likely scenario for BYU to get into the Big 12 would be for the league to expand without starting a TV network, as that forces would-be candidates to position themselves based on their athletic merits. By virtually every metric, BYU football has been the best football program over the last several years compared to their fellow Big 12 aspirants. It would be very difficult to argue that BYU would "dilute" conference football, seeing as the Cougars are playing at at least a Big 12 league average level *right now*.
Seriously. Here's how BYU's S&P+ (advanced stats) ranking projects over the last three seasons, compared to everybody else.
|School||S&P + Average|
|Big 12 Average||48.83|
If the conference wanted to add a program that would enhance the competitive quality of football and basketball above all else, the question isn't if they should admit BYU, it's honestly who they should add *along* with BYU.
For what it's worth, Jake Trotter of ESPN agrees that this line of thinking seems to make BYU's argument stronger.
What do you think will happen next?
I still believe the Big 12 will come to a final decision before the start of football season. I believe all Big 12 leaders know that letting this drag on will drain coverage away from their programs that should compete for playoff spots this season. Right now, I believe there are three possible outcomes:
The Big 12 doesn't expand
I think this is the single most likely outcome, but certainly not overwhelmingly so. The urge to maintain the status quo is an easy one for an organization, and here, it is clear that the Big 12's most powerful member, Texas, is perfectly happy to continue along without expanding. Three of the ten Big 12 presidents are currently interim presidents, and it's possible those universities are unable to find more long-term leaders this summer. Without stability in leadership, the safest thing to do might be to punt on the decision for one more year, forcing us to do this entire tango again next offseason.
The Big 12 adds two provisional members
An easy way to get around the geographical and administrative concerns of expansion, but still enjoy the financial benefits? Add some football only members.
If the Big 12 decided to add BYU this way, they wouldn't have to worry about Sunday play, and geography becomes less of a concern (if BYU and WVU are in different division, they might only have to make the trip once every three to four years). It's unclear if the full 'pro rata' funding comes out if schools are only added for football, but the Big 12 could reach a basketball scheduling arrangement with the provisional members, for example, to make up for that inventory.
I'm just thinking out loud here, but if the Big 12 doesn't have to think about TV markets or geography as much, one name they might want to revisit is Boise State, a school that hasn't been seriously considered as a Big 12 candidate to date. By adding BYU and Boise as football only schools, the conference could credibly add the two most "non-dilutive" football programs. I'm not saying that's the most likely option, or the perfect one (it doesn't address a travel issue for WVU), but perhaps it shouldn't be completely dismissed out of hand anymore.
The Big 12 adds two full members
Boise isn't really an option in this scenario, but BYU would be. If we're going by "non-TV market focused candidates", your top choices are probably BYU, Cincinnati and Houston, the latter, of course, attracting some more pointed opposition from certain schools that end in -exas.
A lot can change between now and the start of the season, but if you're a BYU fan still hoping for a Big 12 invite, I don't think the news from the last few days is all bad news. In fact, given BYU's facilities, fanbase and football success, I'd wager they're probably the most compelling single candidate, assuming solutions for the more political/academic considerations can be resolved.
We'll see if the Big 12 agrees.