How can a league be expanding and, potentially, coming apart for the long haul at the same time? Welcome to the Big 12, where all things are possible and everything is never what it seems to be on the surface.
Case in point: Tuesday’s announced plans for Commissioner Bob Bowlsby to sound out potential expansion candidates with an eye toward having a two- or four-team influx of newcomers in the mix to try to earn berths in the resurrected 2017 Big 12 football championship game.
The announcement triggered celebrations from school administrators at Power Five conference wannabes from coast-to-coast, all with visions of dollar signs and long-term stability in college football’s ever-changing landscape dancing in their heads.
The money, without question, will be there for BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, Central Florida, Connecticut or any other school the Big 12 chooses to include in its version of the cool-kids club. But long-term stability? There’s no guarantee of that in the nation’s most dysfunctional major conference.
In fact, a strong case could be made from reading between the lines of comments made by Big 12 administrators that this shapes up as a short-term money grab by existing members to brace themselves for the possibility that the league may not outlive its TV deals with ESPN and Fox that expire after the 2024-25 school year.
It’s a mutually binding contract that we put in place four and a half years ago. So I don’t think we have to make apologies for activating around stipulations that we both agreed to.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, on using expansion as a financial windfall for existing league members through existing TV contracts.
A huge driving force is the lure of additional TV revenues from the Big 12’s existing media partners that require carriers to pay the league current market value for each additional member during the life of the contract. Those newcomers, in turn, could agree to join the league for partial financial shares on phase-in deals similar to the ones given to TCU and West Virginia when they joined the league in 2012 before receiving their first full shares of league disbursements ($30.4 million per school) in June.
Bottom line: For easy math purposes, let’s say the two TV partners are required to pay a combined $25 million per season for each Big 12 addition during the life of this contract. But four new schools agree to phase-in deals capped at $10 million for the 2017-18 school year. Suddenly, there is a $15 million differential between TV money received and revenues disbursed for each of the four schools, accounting for an extra $60 million to split between the 10 existing members ($6 million each) in 2017-18.
It became clear the Big 12 is angling in this direction when Bowlsby cited “a negotiation stage” as a likely step in the vetting process for newcomers and followed up by suggesting there is no concern on the part of Big 12 officials in regard to upsetting existing TV partners in regard to future renegotiations by going down this path.
“It’s a mutually binding contract that we put in place 4 1/2 ago. So I don’t think we have to make apologies for activating around stipulations that we both agreed to,” Bowlsby said.
Nor should they. But why do it now, a month after downplaying expansion talk at the league’s spring meetings?
Because earlier this week, the ACC agreed in principle with ESPN on a 20-year deal for a conference network that included a rights extension from member schools through the 2035-36 school year.
In the Darwinian world of college athletics, a grant of rights makes it difficult financially for a school to leave its league. The ACC deal automatically extended Notre Dame’s membership with the conference in all sports but football and activated a provision that, if the Irish forgo football independence in the next 20 years, they must join the ACC.
From a Big 12 perspective, that triggers concern. Many industry insiders believe the group of Power Five leagues (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) will winnow itself down to four 16-team conferences by the middle of the next decade.
30.4 Million dollars distributed to each Big 12 school from league-generated revenues during the 2015-16 school year.
The ACC deal with ESPN bought staying power for that league. The Big 12 will learn about its staying power in roughly six years, when it attempts to renegotiate its existing TV deals. If this expansion exercise does not go well in the eyes of administrators at Texas and Oklahoma, you should not be shocked if either or both schools make a run for greener financial pastures after the 2024-25 school year.
Oklahoma President David Boren, the chairman of the Big 12 board of directors, cited the ACC deal as a reminder to league CEOs that they “operate in an environment that is filled with change” and must be proactive in securing their financial futures.
Then, he weighed in with thoughts about the unanimous decision by league presidents to authorize Bowlsby to “actively evaluate” the interests of expansion candidates. The announcement represented enough of a shift from June’s expansion stance that, privately, at least one Big 12 athletic director acknowledged being caught off-guard.
By Wednesday, Bowlsby acknowledged it had triggered lots of lobbying from administrators at schools seeking sanctuary in a Power Five league. Multiple sources with Big 12 connections shared theories Wednesday on the likely outcome of this exercise.
The most intriguing possibilities: a four-team expansion involving BYU, Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston; a four-team stunner in which the league raids other Power Five leagues and adds Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Nebraska; and, finally, a scenario in which the Big 12 offers football-only memberships to some schools and full memberships to others to maximize dollars for existing members.
At this point, all scenarios have legs. Bowlsby said he has no timetable, let alone a “fleshed-out plan” in regard to completing this task. But it is a safe bet that an expansion candidate will enhance its efforts to join the Big 12 by playing limbo with its financial demands.
The lower you go, the better your chances.
And be sure to remember that, if you gain acceptance to the Big 12 version of the cool-kids club, a sobering reality check could be there to greet you at the end of the 2024-25 school year.
Big 12 front-runners
Brigham Young: Among teams from non-Power Five leagues, only BYU can point to a semi-recent national championship in football (1984). The school also has the largest fan base in its state (Utah) and draws well in the primary revenue sports. The primary drawback is a historic unwillingness to play Sunday games, which could be a deal-killer.
Cincinnati: The school has a huge enrollment, is in a recruiting hotbed other than Texas (Ohio) and posted a 12-0 record in 2009 while narrowly missing a spot in the BCS national title game that season. The Bearcats, like BYU, have been nationally relevant in both football and men’s basketball in recent seasons.
Houston: The Cougars’ program is on an uptick after last year’s 13-1 finish under first-year coach Tom Herman. The same is true for the men’s basketball program under Kelvin Sampson. The primary question is whether Big 12 television partners view a need for another member in Texas with four other schools from the Lone Star State already in the fold.
Other contenders: Memphis, UCF, UConn