The chatter leading up to the Big 12’s conference call update among national scribes was that the Big 12 wasn’t likely to pursue expansion. I was expecting a relatively uneventful phone call as well. Heck, that was the thought even immediately after the meeting concluded. Instead, conference officials threw open the doors to speculation, as they announced that instead, they’d start formally evaluating bids to join the conference.
Rather than hanging on every word and rumor to try and decipher if the conference would expand or not, the big question now appears to be not if the Big 12 will expand, but when, and if the conference will expand by two, or four teams.
So what changed?
The biggest development happened late Monday night, as reports came out saying the ACC had finalized an agreement with ESPN to start a conventional TV network. The specific financials of the deal have not yet been released (expect more information at the upcoming ACC Media Days), but they’re almost immaterial to the Big 12’s thinking here.
The big takeaway is that the ACC has extended their grant of rights agreement past their current TV deal and into the 2030s, essentially making it impossible for another conference to poach one of their members (and this includes Notre Dame, who has a contractual obligation to join the ACC if they formally join a conference during this time window).
That makes the Big 12 the only conference without a TV network, and by far, the most likely to be poached themselves when their TV deal is over, perhaps by the Big Ten or the SEC. In order to protect themselves, and in order to get their share of the pro-rata increases from their TV partners, they’d need to expand. And now, it’s clear that their candidate pool isn’t getting any more attractive. Bowlsby admitted that the ACC deal had an impact on the decision to pursue expansion during the conference call.
So here we are. While the Big 12 didn’t commit to a specific timeframe, they did mention that new teams could be added as soon as the 2017 season, and that a vote would happen this fall, either in September or October. I would not expect this to drag on and on.
So what’s next?
What does this mean for BYU? There’s going to be a lot more noise over the next few weeks, but here is what I’m thinking now:
- Timing-wise, I think this is great for BYU. Given the criteria the Big 12 specifically mentioned they’d use to evaluate candidates, (strength of athletic program, fanbase, access to media markets, institutional reputation, integrity, academics, research), BYU ranks very favorably compared to the other likely candidates, like Memphis, UConn, UCF, USF and more. Unlike virtually every other candidate program, BYU has been a consistently very strong program for multiple years.
But there’s no guarantee that happens forever. Houston is the favorite to grab another New Years Six bowl appearance this season, and another huge year, complete with a Top 25 finish, could easily make folks forget that BYU had been a statistically better program over the last five years. Memphis sustaining some level of success will make their negatives look a little less negative. And BYU is about to enter into perhaps their most difficult schedule ever, with a new coach, new scheme, and a fair amount of uncertainty.
Right now, if we’re just talking athletic departments and athletic infrastructure, BYU has the strongest case. But if we’re having this conversation in say, 2018, that might not be the case, or at least, it might not as much of the case. Given that BYU has some off-the-field matters to overcome, getting a chance to make their pitch when their comparative strength is highest is a big plus.
- The Big 12 also has said that they would be willing to consider a football-only membership. That would solve a ton of logistical problems for BYU (namely, the Sunday-play issue), but I’m personally not sure that’s an outcome BYU fans should hope for. It would depend significantly on the financial terms of the arrangement, and it seems reasonable to assume that an affiliate member would command even weaker terms than one who is joining in every sport. It’s already going to take a while for BYU to get anything resembling a full-revenue share (the Big 12 has all the leverage here), and competing in a Power 5 program without Power 5 resources will make that adjustment period even harder. It’s better than nothing, but an affiliate membership, unless the financial terms are pretty generous, could make the learning curve tougher for BYU to compete for division titles.
- If you search around for the leading candidates, you’re probably going to hear a bunch of different names. I really don’t think this is a settled decision on any level, and the financial negotiations (who is willing to take a low cut?), could play a big role. Based on what I’ve read, and from what I’ve heard, I can say that Cincinnati feels confident about where they are right now, and that other candidates include Memphis, UConn, Houston, UCF, USF, Colorado State, and Tulane (yes, Tulane).
- If you made me handicap this right now, I would say that Cincinnati is the overall favorite, followed by BYU, then Memphis, UConn, Houston, Colorado State, UCF, USF and Tulane, in that order. But you can find media members who are much more confident in Memphis or UConn if you look. I think a lot can change here.
- I was very surprised that BYU actually put out a statement after the Big 12 teleconference. That feels very un-BYU-like to me. If anything, I don’t think BYU would have done that if they didn’t feel some level of confidence in this process.
- Buckle up, because if you thought following this story was exhausting before, it’s about to get a lot more white knuckle.