After months of consultant reports, school presentation, and enough speculation to fill a library, the Big 12 announced on Monday that they are not expanding. Not holding off on expanding, not putting it on hold…not expanding. Confused? Don’t be, it shouldn’t have been a shock to any of us. All of this expansion talk and research and presentations was for two main reasons; mouths and money.
The reason expansion conversations were even given any time within the Big 12 boardroom was primarily to make Boren, the most vocal proponent of expansion who stated the Big 12 was “disadvantaged”, put up or shut up. The Big 12 has always been a collection of individuals, as opposed to a team, but most schools kept their business “within the family”, so to speak. Outside big money donors, two individuals have stood out in the Big 12 for shooting their mouth off, Texas Athletic Director Deloss Dodds and David Boren, president of the University of Oklahoma.
Dodds retired, but Boren has continued his approach of using the media to force the Big 12 to deal with what he wants, instead of promoting the direction of the conference. Several times in the past Boren has blown up other plans while pushing for a secondary deal with nothing more than ill-timed sound bites. Understand that no one in the Big 12 wanted to expand, but his public comments made it so the Big 12 had to address what its chairman was saying. Several schools, including Texas, used this to lure him into a trap.
By agreeing to look at expansion with a critical eye, the Big 12 created the opportunity to put the concept of expansion, which has been a constant conversation since 2010, to bed. If they pay to collect numbers from consultants and quantify the benefits, there was an agreement on the table to either expand if the benefit was there or end the process for good if there was not. Unlike most of the speculation, it was not set up to be an anecdotal conversation. The numbers were very black and white.
In the beginning, when talking of expansion, Boren was thinking schools like Louisville, Arkansas, and LSU would be available, not understanding, or perhaps caring, that his public comments were poisoning the water and making the Big 12 appear unstable. Once the process began it became obvious that what all of us already knew was true – the only schools applying where those from outside the Power Five.
That’s when Texas sprung its trap.
Almost a day after the unanimous decision to look at expansion, the University of Texas publically supported the University of Houston’s bid as an expansion candidate. Texas Tech, the other public university in the Big 12 from Texas, followed suit. Houston was the one school Boren wanted nothing to do with because recruiting is already becoming far more difficult for Oklahoma than it was in the past and many Sooners come from Houston.
Tom Herman’s Cougars, who have some serious talent, have recruiting classes that average around 158 miles around the campus. Oklahoma is 430 miles from Houston and its players have an average distance of 515 miles to campus. Only Kansas and Iowa State had higher averages, the Big 12 in general averages 386.16 miles as a conference. Promoting another drain on Texas talent was a no go for the Sooners, but the Longhorns move made it so that if Oklahoma wanted to expand it had to swallow a very bitter pill.
With those two moves, Oklahoma’s power in the room diminished significantly. They could no longer impose their will on the process because someone else not only said they cared, but said who they care about. Additionally, the benefit of specific schools was quantified. The quiet members of the conference finally out maneuvered the loud.
Even with Texas’ support, Houston never had enough votes. You need eight votes and the message out of Dallas was the presidents wanted it to be unanimous. This is what eventually killed Big 12 expansion in this new approach – no one could get eight votes, let alone ten. Houston had four votes against, BYU had at least three votes against, Memphis had at least three votes against and Cincinnati, who is basically the vanilla in this sundae, wasn’t sexy enough to bring in on their own.
In a nut shell this is why Big 12 expansion was destined to fail, at least immediately. Come 2023 the conversation could be completely different. At that point media contracts from three conferences all start getting negotiated, putting a lot of options in play. Additionally, the big stink after Hurricane Matthew was the division LSU was causing within the SEC, pushing back against any sort of compromise until it got exactly what it wanted. This may feel like a one off issue, but it is a glimpse of unhappiness that has been brewing for years percolating to the service. It isn’t to the point that A&M was at in 2010, but there are many in Louisiana who are tired of Birmingham and it isn’t going away.
This isn’t to say any of that is happening, it is to point out that six years from now is going to be a much different world than we are seeing today and the college football landscape could be facing changes that make television programming seem adorably quaint by comparison.
Which gets us to the second reason the Big 12 pushed to talk expansion, money. When the Big 12’s Tier Two media deal was renegotiated in 2011 it allowed a swap of games with ABC/ESPN so that Fox received some Tier One games and ESPN received some Tier Two content, including basketball. The problem is that was only a renegotiation with a slight extension and their Tier One deal with ABC, which is light on content compared to other Power Five conferences, is still the old deal from before realignment even started. This has the Big 12 undervalued compared to the new contracts that have been put on the market lately.
The key leverage the Big 12 had was language placed into the contracts that gave the Big 12 a prorated increase per team for anyone who joined the conference. In a sense, it was a pre-negotiation the Big 12 put in place that the networks never expected would come to be. With that clause the Big 12 could add a Group of Five program and be paid as if they added schools like Texas and Kansas.
As I proposed when the Big 12 initially discussed expansion, the conference could add two teams and increase revenues by around $50 million initially, which would grow to nearly $80 million towards the end of the contract. The Big 12 doesn’t want to expand, but it does want more revenues. Instead of paying $50 million for two teams the networks already pay little for, they could pay the Big 12 $40 million more per year to not expand, which would grow to $70 million.
That means the Big 12, which makes about $25 million this year per school on its contract, would make $29 million, which is one million less than what the SEC paid out from its media contract, including the SEC Network. This doesn’t include the Big 12’s Tier Three deals nor the new championship game, which begins in 2017.
In a sense it normalizes the Big 12’s media contract against the other Power Five. That’s the real reason they were talking seriously about expansion; to bring ESPN and Fox to the table who want nothing to do with this prorate clause.
The Big 12 doesn’t need more teams, it just needs updated media deals and post season success. More importantly, they need less mouths. It seems they’ve taken the first steps to get back on the same page together and that is critical if they ever want to entice bigger brands.