In the Big 12, as well as the rest of the college football universe, every big decision comes down to money. Unless it generates enough dollars, it doesn’t make sense.
That proved to be the bottom line for the now-defunct Big 12 expansion movement, which league presidents kicked to the curb Monday during a six-hour meeting that concluded at the Grand Hyatt more than three hours before a scheduled news conference to explain the final verdict.
Bottom line: the Big 12 thinks it can squeeze more money out of its existing television partners, Fox and ESPN, by tweaking existing contracts over the next nine years than it could generate by adding new members to its 10-school configuration. So the focus shifts to pocketing fees from ESPN and Fox to close a loophole in existing TV contracts that enables the Big 12 to earn nearly $25 million annually for each member it adds.
The strategy, detailed in a recent Sports Illustrated report, amounts to legalized extortion via the threat of expansion. Big 12 officials would prefer to call it a contract negotiation and the extra financial bump will be tied to whatever figure the networks pay for rights to future Big 12 football championship games from the 2017 through 2024 seasons.
How much is the Big 12 being paid not to expand? That number is yet to be determined but it clearly has the attention of league administrators, who have been exploring expansion possibilities since July 19.
“We have a new piece of inventory with our championship game. So we’re in the process of discussion with both Fox and ESPN on that,” Bowlsby said. “There are components in the contract and we’re going to continue to talk about those. When those things are completed, we’ll go about the process of announcing them. Until then, I’m not prepared to talk about specifics.”
Translation: Fox and ESPN will pay enough for the next eight Big 12 title games to satisfy the league’s never-ending efforts to match revenues with other Power 5 leagues. Big 12 officials distributed $30.4 million per school at last year’s spring meetings, but the league lacks the cash cow of a conference network to produce financial numbers comparable to the SEC and Big Ten.
“We’re always concerned about revenue,” Bowlsby said.
Another point of concern: Remaining in good graces with the Big 12’s primary broadcast partners long enough to renegotiate an extension to its existing TV deals that expire after the 2024-25 school year. Earlier this month, Fox Sports President Eric Shanks made it clear that his network did not favor league expansion.
“We don’t think expansion in the Big 12 is a good idea for the conference. We think it will be dilutive to the product in the short term. In the long term, it’s probably harmful to the future of the conference,” Shanks said at a Sports Media and Technology conference, per the Sports Business Journal.
Speaking of the future of the conference, there is no guarantee Texas and Oklahoma will be interested in a TV rights extension after the current deals end following the 2024-25 school year. Although Oklahoma President David Boren said there was “not a single school in the Big 12 looking to go elsewhere” at present, it is worth noting that an extension of the grant-of-rights from each league school tied to existing TV deals was not discussed during Monday’s meeting. Boren characterized a rights extension as something that does not need to be addressed until the current deals approach their expiration dates.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Boren said.
If I’m an administrator from one of the league’s eight schools not named Texas or OU, I’d be concerned by that stance as I pondered the long-term future of this league now that expansion has been scuttled. But that is an issue to be settled at a later date.
What the league presidents settled Monday is the fact they have broken the hearts, once again, of fans and administrators at Houston, Cincinnati, Brigham Young, Connecticut and other schools seeking invitations to a lucrative Power 5 neighborhood, if only for a short-term stay.
This time, they have done so after spending millions on consultants to reach the same conclusion they reached in 2011, when the Big 12 added only TCU and West Virginia to replace departees Texas A&M and Missouri.
The whole exercise seems like a colossal waste of time and money, not to mention a great reason for spurned schools. But not to Boren, the guy who began the expansion push last year by declaring the Big 12 was “psychologically disadvantaged” in relation to other Power 5 leagues and needed to sound out expansion options.
Now, the Big 12 has spiked all of them.
“To me, gathering of information is never a waste of time,” Boren said.
Somehow, I’ve got to believe administrators from Houston, Cincinnati, BYU and elsewhere feel very differently about that. Especially once they realize they were simply used by Big 12 administrators as a bargaining chip to squeeze out more money from the league’s television partners.