Trying to read the tea leaves and interpret/predict Big 12 expansion is mostly pointless in principle, because one is most assuredly going to be wrong. And not just wrong, but often times spectacularly wrong.
Since I have no fear of being spectacularly wrong, you’re in luck! You’ve come to the right place to read a few words on the subject.
First off, a primer. That link should give you some decent insight. And this one. And maybe this one too. If you don’t want to read all that, the short version recap is this: The Big 12 is a conference that suffers a fragile ego, due in large part to its having been raided by other leagues earlier this decade. Stuck at 10 teams and stuck with a TV contract that is by no means terrible but which still lags behind that of its competition (in particular, fellow “major” conferences Big 10 and SEC), several schools in the conference are seemingly unhappy and pushing for expansion. Or maybe they’re just sort of mildly concerned. Or maybe this is all an act and we don’t know.
This is the part of the process that I think confuses people the most: They can’t predict what the institutions will do, and they can’t do that because each institution is subject to the whims of multiple individual people. Presidents. Boards of directors. Powerful boosters. Athletic directors and coaches (not really, but it’s best to be polite and include them anyway). The point being, what if one of these people has a louder voice than the others? What if said person is having a bad day? Or is just a generally irrational person? And what if the media and common layman can’t predict who might wield the most influence, what they might think on a given day, or even what they might think today?
You’d be served up a nice helping of “fuck if I know” ice cream, which is what all the reporting on this topic reveals. The best one can do is try to approach this from a logical vantage point and guess at the things that seem to make sense. That doesn’t mean the key figures in this play will act rationally at the end of the day, but it does give the observer a better understanding of perhaps what *should* happen.
And thusly, I’ve written well over 300 words without getting around to talking about expansion, which is what this article is supposed to be about.
So yeah, expansion. The Big 12 wants more money. It wants more exposure. It wants more respect. I really don’t think I’m going out on a limb with any of those statements. Some of the schools in the league want more stability. Some don’t. Some have more particular wants and desires. Some don’t. But the big goals that apply universally seem to be: more money, more exposure, and more respect. If you believe expansion can get you those things, you expand.
The Big 12 is talking about doing this. It’s all over the headlines. But does expansion pass the smell test? Is expansion, for lack of a better term, a good idea?
And that’s the best answer you’ll get from anyone in the business (or outside of it for that matter). Let’s look at each of the Big 12’s assumed goals one-by-one and see how expansion affects each of them.
This one’s easy (if you’re keeping up with things, that is). Yes, expansion equals more money in the short term. In the long term that becomes really fuzzy (like REALLY fuzzy), but in the short term, it’s a yes.
Well, here are more Cliff’s Notes. The Big 12’s current TV deal has a stipulation written into the contract that says each team the league adds gets the same amount of money the other teams in the league get … IN ADDITION to the money already doled out. So if, for instance, teams in the Big 12 get around $25 million apiece from ESPN/FOX already, those networks kick in another $25 million for each new addition.
But doesn’t that just maintain the status quo?
No, because new teams have to essentially “buy” their way into their new conferences. By this, I mean they take reduced shares of conference distributions for a set number of years until eventually they are made “whole.”
This is standard practice across the college landscape. And what it means is that a new addition to the Big 12 might throw $25 million or more into the pot, but then would only receive – oh, I don’t know – maybe half that? Everyone’s spit-balling on the actual number, but the point remains: The new schools don’t receive that full amount, and the old members get the money they don’t receive.
Now, some might have you believe that the networks would be less than thrilled about the potential additions (probably true), and that the networks would therefore be vindictive against the league when the deals run out in 2024 (probably way less true). There are simply no guarantees with any of this. “Cord cutters,” people who are moving away from cable, are cutting into the sports networks’ bottom lines, giving them fewer subscribers, fewer dollars, and less cash to broker these blockbuster TV contracts with athletic conferences (and also, let’s be fair, less reach … this becomes important as Internet competitors like Netflix may eventually become realistic/attractive alternatives).
Will the Big 12 get more or less money in eight years when it renegotiates? No one can answer that, but the one positive thing the league can point to is a likely increase in suitors for their content thanks to said mentioned Internet options. Less overall money? Not if the media gets into a bidding war, and that remains likelier than not.
But regardless of the long term, the short term is open and shut.
More money? Check.
This one might be even more straightforward than the money question. The amount of games a league holds the rights to, particularly conference games (in which league members play one another), directly affects the amount of games that make it onto TV. Now this might seem like common sense (and it is), but a lot of people miss this. The Big 12, by adding more teams, has access to more games it can sell, which makes them more money in the abstract (we’ve already talked about the reality of the money), but perhaps more importantly, it gets them more games on TV.
All those “Come to the Land of Beef” ads for your favorite local university get that much more rotation, as does the league’s opportunity to sell itself as an entity. (The S-E-C knows this better than anyone. Also, this becomes more important later on.)
But the exposure aspect doesn’t just extend to regular season football games. It means more basketball games, more women’s volleyball matches, more everything. More games = more exposure.
And let’s also not forget to mention that the Big 12 has agreed to add a conference title game. This has been done to make more money sure, but also to increase the league’s chances at making the College Football Playoff (the grandest stage in the sport). And the game itself is a marketing tool. “Championship Saturday” has become an opportunity for leagues to showcase their best and brightest in an effort to impress the playoff committee AND the general populace. The Big 12 to this point has not been able to leverage this. Now they will. And a championship game makes so much more sense with 12 teams rather than 10 (partly because of logistics, but also partly because it makes it more likely, not less, that a Big 12 team advances to the playoff).
So you get more games to showcase your teams, you get to take advantage of the biggest Saturday in the sport to showcase your best and brightest, and you increase your chances of making the playoff, which is where you really want to be at the end of the day anyway.
More exposure? Check.
I always go back to David Boren’s words on this matter, because they’re honest and they ring true.
Like it or not, the Big 12 has achieved a measure of hilarity throughout the course of the past decade it would really rather not have. And if there’s a punching bag amongst the top conferences, the Big 12 is it.
(The Big 12 is the “one true champion” in this regard.)
Does expansion solve this?
Well … um … maybe? Hopefully? Possibly?
I’m not naïve enough to expect that the Big 12’s selections for expansion — be they BYU, Memphis, Houston, or someone else – won’t be looked down upon by the majority of fans in the country for the simple fact that the Big 12 picked them. The Big 10 got some flak for picking up the likes of Rutgers and Maryland (as they should have), but it’s going to be a whole lot worse for the Big 12.
This is a league that can do no right because it is perceived that way: That it can do no right. That perception doesn’t always align with reality, but it exists. So whether BYU is a better football addition than Rutgers (and let’s all LOL at the notion that Rutgers is anywhere close to being a prestigious football program), the Big 12 will get shit.
And so long as the Big 12 underachieves nationally compared to its peers, those insults will be deserved. Losing bowl records and a lack of national championships paint the conference as a loser. Only winning solves that.
But the good news is…
Adding teams probably boosts the league’s winning profile.
The explanation for this is twofold. The first part is very math-y in nature. This blog post explains it pretty darn well. In summation, if the Big 12 decides to go down to eight league games, its opportunity for wins goes up because you’re not giving half your league an extra auto-loss. But even if the league stays at nine, simply by adding divisions and altering the schedule you’ve given several teams the reprieve of not having to play Oklahoma (or some other heavyweight) in any given year, thereby taking away an auto-loss from them. Either way, there are less opportunities for image-crippling losses, and therefore more of an opportunity to rise in the polls (and rising in the polls helps in perception).
The other side of the coin is the simple fact already mentioned that the math on this points to a better possibility of a Big 12 team making the playoff. Getting there gives the Big 12 an opportunity to actually win the thing. Thusly, the league increases its chance to win a national title(s) in the next eight years.
Now, none of this is guaranteed, and that’s the rub. The Big 12 could get unlucky and have 7-5 K-State upset 12-0 OU in the Big 12 title game (or some variation of that) eight years in a row. The odds are against that happening, but you never know. Likewise, a team(s) may not take advantage of their scheduling advantages of avoiding OU and still manage to lose to someone else along the way. These kinds of things tend to happen in a game dependent upon lucky bounces to determine results.
Now, if you expand to 16 and add a bunch of teams that no one wants to play and “water down” the league, you risk doing more damage than good. But the odds of more wins and therefore more prestige go up in a move to either 12 or 14, and that’s a good bet to take.
More respect? Possibly (but only if the wins come in).
So what now?
I don’t know. But I do have recommendations based on what I feel I know about the situation at this point.
Clearly, expansion looks like a good strategy on the surface given the three stated goals. And again, I understand there are other factors at play (such as stability, a not unimportant concern for schools like Iowa State and Kansas State who might get left behind in a conference Armageddon scenario), but Texas probably doesn’t care about that. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we understand that a school like Texas really drives the bus here.
Going to 14 gets the league more money than going to 12. It also provides more exposure. But it gets really tricky when you start to look at the respect factor and weigh that. It’s more risky to add 14 teams than 12 within the context of brand management, and does it become worth it in the final analysis? Would Texas feel good about road trips to UConn or Colorado State, for example? I don’t really know. It once again comes down to winning, I suspect, but I’m a lot less comfortable that all four additions would be well thought of and net positives than I am about two (The league gets shit on regardless, but the severity of said shit differs. My particular vote, such that it is, goes to BYU and Cincinnati, but I see a lot of positives for some of the other candidates as well.).
Given all of that, I believe there’s an opportunity for the Big 12 to negotiate with the networks on this. If they get down to 12 instead of 14 and allow the networks input on who the additions should be, it affords the Big 12 negotiating power. But what concession might the Big 12 get out of this?
Selfishly, I would love an extension of the GOR (Grant of Rights … this is the schools signing away their media rights for the length of the media contracts) as it helps stabilize the league in a currently unstable time. And who knows, maybe Texas and OU would be in favor of that as well? (If the dollars are good enough, I suspect they would be.) But a more natural bargaining point might be the establishment of a Big 12 network.
The ACC’s move to get this concession, in the wake of ESPN telling the Big 12 there was no market for it, no doubt stings the leadership around the Big 12 quite a bit.
For the record, I don’t think league networks are money-makers long-term. But let’s get back to perception and exposure: The Big 12 is missing an opportunity without a branded network to market itself on a continuous basis. And perhaps just as significantly, the Big 12 is now the only Power 5 league without one. The most ideal outcome for the Big 12 might well be an expansion to 12 with a league network thrown in for good measure: More money, more exposure, more respect.
Does ESPN want a say in expansion? Okay, the Big 12 is no doubt listening, but what are you going to provide in return?