For a change, the conference known more for talk than action did something to strengthen itself in a proactive manner.
Friday’s decision to return a Big 12 football championship game to the league schedule, effective in the 2017 season, may or may not provide an improved pipeline to the College Football Playoff for the 10-member league.
But the odds suggest it will, and Big 12 presidents voted unanimously in favor of adding the game Friday. Oklahoma President David Boren, chairman of the Big 12 board of directors, approved the move and the message it sent.
“We followed common sense. We didn’t say we’ll study it for five more years,” said Boren, who has been calling for meaningful reforms to stabilize the league for the past year. “We took action.”
The move is expected to add roughly $3 million per school in annual revenues for a league that disbursed $304 million Friday in conference-generated earnings for the 2015-16 fiscal year. That is an average of $30.4 million per school and, for the first time, included full shares for fourth-year members TCU and West Virginia.
But the big development on the final day of the Big 12 spring meetings was not record-setting revenues. It was the resurrection of the title game, last played when the league had 12 teams and was divided into two divisions in the 2010 season.
By bringing it back, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the league will enhance its opportunity to reach the CFP’s four-team playoff bracket by 14 percent on an annual basis, based on research done by paid consultants.
In the two years of the playoff era, the Big 12 has seen its 2014 co-champions (Baylor and TCU) omitted from the bracket despite posting 11-1 records and watched last year’s champion, Oklahoma, squeeze in as the No. 4 seed with an 11-1 mark. A conference title game, in Bowlsby’s estimation, is needed whether the league aligns itself with two five-team divisions for the 2017 season (possible) or simply sends its top two teams in the CFP rankings to its title game (also possible).
“I think it positions us in a very good place,” Bowlsby said. “The proof is in the pudding. We’re two years in and we’re batting .500. And we’d like to bat higher than that. We think this gives us the best chance to do that.”
Time will tell. Friday’s move, at the very least, marks an overdue shift out of neutral for a league too often caught napping when action is needed. The best example: the current 10-team configuration.
It also marked a win for Boren, the league’s longest-tenured president who has called for sweeping changes within the league, to cap a day of clear compromises behind close doors.
In January, Boren called for expansion and creation of a conference network in addition to resurrection of the championship game in football. He finished 1-for-3 at the spring meetings but departed Friday as a happy camper.
More expansion discussions will unfold this summer, Boren said, although league-wide zeal for that idea seems tepid at best. During Friday’s news conference, Boren acknowledged his push for a league network officially is dead, which he described as a casualty of the current marketplace.
Another perspective: it is a concession to Texas, which has zero interest in folding the Longhorn Network and relinquishing the $15 million annual payday it triggers from ESPN. Texas’ take from LHN, combined with Friday’s distributions, made this a $45 million year for the folks in Austin.
One of those folks, Texas athletic director Mike Perrin, weighed in with a thumbs-up for the revamped title game. In a statement, Perrin said: “Given our round-robin format … it could be the most intriguing matchup of any conference. I’m excited to hear it was voted in today and that the Big 12 will once again be a part of Championship Saturday.”
The next order of business: finding a way to sell a guaranteed rematch of a regular-season game to fans, assuming the Big 12 maintains its nine-game conference schedule.
One possibility is having the league divide into two five-team divisions, with all crossover games between schools in opposite divisions played early in the season to assure several weeks of separation between the regular-season game and the rematch. Another possibility is to pick the two highest-rated teams in the CFP rankings at the end of the regular season.
Bowlsby said there is a “high likelihood” for the five-team division format when the 2017 season opens, but nothing is final. Nor is there a site for the 2017 game, which will be televised on Fox. During the remainder of the Big 12’s current TV contracts, which run through the 2024-25 school year, Fox will show the title game in odd-numbered years and ESPN will carry the game in even-numbered years.
Bowlsby said he would prefer the game to unfold at neutral sites, with AT&T Stadium in Arlington a logical landing spot. NRG Stadium in Houston, the Alamodome in San Antonio and Arrrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., also project as candidates.
Asked about Big 12 expansion, this week’s other hot-button topic, Bowlsby said: “We don’t know if there is an expansion process. We are still evaluating this.”
A championship game in football, on the other hand, has been signed, sealed and resurrected. Bowlsby said it might be the only significant tweak the league makes in efforts to close the financial gap on the SEC and Big Ten, the two Power 5 leagues that earn more money on a school-by-school basis than the Big 12.
“It’ll be enough of an action if our continued research compels us to not do anything more,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t know what the next chapter is. But I feel good about the title game. It was an obvious and unanimous choice.”