By the time you read this, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby could be perched over a plate of dry-rub ribs in Memphis asking FedEx executives how much money they can funnel into conference coffers through title sponsorships to help the hometown college secure an expansion vacancy in a Power 5 league.
He could be on campus at BYU, assuring administrators that their school, which offers the best international brand and the most valuable football program of any expansion candidate on the free-agent market that Texas politics will not trump the Cougars’ candidacy … this time.
Or he could simply be sitting in his office in Irving, digesting data and giggling about how much positive publicity the league is receiving these days. Rest assured, all the “pick us” tweets and emails directed toward Big 12 administrators is music to the ears of a group that has spent the past six years hearing where they fell short in the estimation of disgruntled former members.
This much we know: Bowlsby, as of last week, is the point man sounding out the merits of Big 12 expansion candidates. Later this fall, he will offer his findings to Big 12 school presidents who envision extending two to four invitations to newcomers interested in joining the 10-member league.
Bowlsby does not plan to offer public updates. But he has made it clear that expansion candidates must be willing to accept partial shares of league revenues during the early stages of their membership, much like the phase-in agreements given to TCU and West Virginia in 2012 before both schools accepted their first full shares of league-generated revenues ($30.4 million per school) in June. Although the league prefers to grant full memberships, Bowlsby said football-only memberships could be offered.
Clearly, existing members are going to take care of themselves first. But in doing so, a six-pack of key considerations cannot be overlooked. Among them:
BYU must be involved: Conference expansion is all about football and finances, regardless of the league digesting the data. Not only is BYU the most valuable football program among the obvious and available options, based on its January valuation of $99.46 million from the Wall Street Journal, but the Cougars also have the most fans of any college in Utah and filled 92.2 percent of their seats last season in a 63,470-seat stadium while playing an independent schedule with Boise State as the most attractive visiting team. Even if the school is granted a football-only membership (and it deserves better), the dollars attached to a BYU addition make too much sense for the Big 12 to overlook.
Keep Texas and Oklahoma happy: For this league to exist beyond the 2024-25 school year, when Big 12 television contracts expire, administrators from Texas and Oklahoma must be on board with the newcomers. Texas administrators have weighed in heavily in support of Houston, likely because of political undercurrents that could benefit both schools. That support from one of the league’s two foundation pieces trumps a lot of statistical shortcomings that can be attached to Houston’s candidacy.
Be creative behind the scenes: Rick Neuheisel, a former UCLA coach and quarterback, created ripples last week when he told Sirius XM College Sports that he would not be surprised if his alma mater pondered a Big 12 opportunity. Frustrations about financial shortcomings of the Pac-12 Network would be the primary reason and other sources within the Big 12 have suggested Arizona and Arizona State might share similar sentiments. Such movement would be stunning from a member of another Power 5 league, but the Big 12 has seen the door swing in the other direction. In this environment, no option truly seems off the table.
Geography is irrelevant: In today’s climate, assembling a strong digital footprint means more than travel concerns for a league that soon will be divided into divisions. A Connecticut addition would raise the Big 12 profile on the East Coast. A Houston addition should help the Big 12 counter recent gains made by SEC telecasts in that market. That would be two significant markets to impact, even if it’s only a small uptick in both areas.
Growth potential matters: Oklahoma President David Boren, chairman of the Big 12 board of directors, has stressed the value of emerging programs and cited TCU as an example during its Big 12 tenure.
That makes it notable that the Wall Street Journal placed a higher value on existing football programs at Central Florida ($94.65 million for a program that started in 1979) and South Florida ($92.55 million for one that began in 1997) than it did on established Big 12 programs at Baylor ($89.69 million) or West Virginia ($81.8 million).
UCF (enrollment 60,767) and South Florida (48,793) probably bring more to the table than most fans in Texas realize.
Football defines the brand: With all due respect to the Big 12’s strong basketball performances in recent seasons, this league will sink or swim beyond the 2024-25 school year based on the national relevance of its football teams. Toward that end, the expansion candidates with the best cumulative football records over the past five seasons are Boise State (52-14), Houston (47-20), Cincinnati (45-20), BYU (43-22) and San Diego State (43-23), an expansion sleeper on the West Coast. When push comes to shove, it’s hard to believe that three of those five — Cincinnati, BYU and Houston — will not be mentioned when Bowlsby presents his findings to Big 12 presidents later this fall.