Nobody has been more public in their desire for the Big 12 to significantly reform, as well as expand, than Oklahoma president Dave Boren. In fact, Boren helped launch this entire new round of speculation with his proclamation that the conference disadvantaged by not having a conference championship game, 12 members, and a conference network.
During an interview on Thursday afternoon, Boren seemed to back down a little bit on those comments. Earlier, West Virginia's AD said that he expected the Big 12 to make an expansion decision in 90-180 days, Boren indicated that the timeline might actually be "by the end of the year." Any hopes that the conference would make a decision after their next round of meetings, on May 31-June 3, seem awfully remote.
Boren also reiterated that an expansion decision is going to require everybody, yes, even Texas, to get on the same page. From ESPN:
"It's going to take a unified action by the conference," Boren told reporters after Oklahoma's regents meeting. "This is the kind of decision that has to be reached by consensus. It's not the kind of decision where we can say it was 8-2 or something. Consensus will be formed, or it won't.
"And the consensus could be we do nothing."
What's the hangup here? It's about TV. Specifically, a conference network. Let's take a closer look at the issues here.
Why does Dave Boren want a Big 12 network?
Three major conferences have their own networks, and two of them, the Big Ten and the SEC, are making gobs and gobs of money. Despite only being around for two years, the SEC Network's payouts already trump what Big 12 schools are making, and thanks to the Big Ten's expected new TV deal, their per school payouts should easily trump the SEC's in the near future as well. In a few years, a Big Ten school could make double what a Big 12 makes from television. Yes, even Purdue.
That can be concerning from a competitive standpoint, since that extra $15-20 million dollars can buy a lot of facility upgrades, recruiting tools, coach salaries, etc. It can also be concerning from a pure ego standpoint. If the Big 12 wants to close that revenue gap, the thinking amount Boren and like-minded administrators is that they need the same thing the other conferences have...that TV network.
Okay. So why not just launch a TV network then?
There are a lot of reasons for this, but the biggest is because of Texas. Right now, Texas has their own, school-specific TV network, the Longhorn Network. It pays them an average of $15 million dollars a year, and since that has all of Texas' rights locked up, a Big 12 network proposal is basically dead on arrival until Texas decides to relinquish their contract and either fold their network into a Big 12 network, or drop their rights altogether.
The rest of the schools in the conference can't really make Texas do this. Dave Boren said as much, saying that any conference network proposal would need to "make Texas whole", so the Longhorns are still getting their $15 million either way. Texas wouldn't want to cut the network for the same amount of money either. After all, why give up the prestige and exclusive branding of your own network, if you're going to get a financial bonus out of it?
Plus, Texas isn't the only school that has their own rights agreements. Oklahoma gets about $6 million a year from their rights agreements via SoonerSports and Fox. Kansas and West Virginia also have other agreements. So whatever network arrangement the conference makes not only needs to make Texas financially secure, but also Oklahoma, etc. So it would need to make a lot of money.
So if Texas decides to fold in the Longhorn network, does the Big 12 suddenly get a network?
Not necessarily. The struggles of the Pac-12 network seem to highlight the importance of getting a broadcast partner. So somebody actually needs to want to buy a Big 12 network. And based on this recent reporting from Jake Trotter at ESPN (that's a guy you should be following if you care about this story, btw), that's a complicated question.
"I feel that the Big 12 network is an uphill battle," the insider said. "Nobody in the industry wants to spend money right now in the satellite or cable distribution world. Nobody wants to dance in this climate. That is the biggest issue with a [Big 12] network."
Another industry insider indicated that the Big Ten's massive deal does "Show there's money for live content", but the Big Ten's properties, for a variety of reasons, would be more profitable on the open market. If ESPN or Fox buys a Big 12 network, they'd need to buy out the other for their share of the current rights. They would need to expand to increase the inventory of events, and bring in properties that not only gave access to new TV markets, but were marketable in their own right. And all of this, in a more challenging media environment than before, would need to make enough money to pay off Texas, etc off the top, and still be more profitable than their current system.
Is that possible? Maybe! I've been told, and I certainly also believe, that any possible expansion candidate would be taking a serious haircut as far as revenue shares as they moved into the league. It's hard to see how this would work while also handing out huge checks to new members, but that's what the league hopes to answer during these meetings at the end of the month.
What does that mean for BYU?
I have personally felt that BYU's best chance for admission would be if the Big 12 decided to expand but did not create a conference network. After all, without a network, teams with middling athletic departments but access to larger TV markets, like say, UConn or USF, basically have no argument. I think that is still possible, but less likely, compared to either starting a TV network, or just doing nothing.
Do you think the Big 12 will start a network?
My personal opinion is that this isn't very likely. No matter who the Big 12 adds, they won't reach revenue parity with the Big Ten or SEC. The Big 12's population base isn't large enough, even with adding a UConn and UCF, to compete with the Big Ten, and they don't have the massive interest levels of SEC programs. When you couple difficult geography, a challenging time to make a huge investment, and the revenue requirements for Texas, I have a hard time seeing how this happens.
Per ESPN, a Big 12 network would need to generate a collective payout of around $80 million, or nearly five times what the Pac-12 network generates. That...seems pretty hard to do, especially given the prospective expansion candidates on the board.
What are the options on the table if the Big 12 doesn't add a network?
There are a few options on the table. Theoretically, the Big 12 could convince ESPN to buy out their contract with the Longhorn Network. That hasn't been a great move on the ESPN side, but given that Texas is likely to get better over the length of their contract, they may want to wait it out a few more years. The Big 12 could also still decide to expand, and reallocate conference resources to keep Texas from losing any money. That may not be a great deal for Iowa State, TCU, or whoever joins the Big 12, but it might be the best path to keep stability. Both of those options, to be honest, feel unlikely.
The Big 12 could also decide to just do nothing. If their on the field product improves substantially, (perhaps they win a title or two before the end of the Grant of Rights deals), perhaps they can overcome that financial gap with the Big Ten and SEC, and make a run at a ACC or Pac-12 school to expand, then try a network again.
Or, and perhaps more likely, they run the risk of Texas and/or Oklahoma leaving for either the Big Ten or SEC, which would give them improved stability and money. That sends the rest of the Big 12 scrambling for a conference home, or to rebuilding around being a bigger and better American conference.
Who knows what happens next. But any expansion questions can't really be answered until the league has a better idea about what it's doing with TV. Hopefully, additional clarity comes soon.