Expansion Project Vol I
Expansion Project Vol II
The fact that BYU is positioning itself to join a Power Five conference is an indication of where the college sports landscape is headed. Not too long ago the Cougars were confident they had the support to follow Notre Dame’s lead and go independent. Now Notre Dame is basically in the ACC and BYU is trying to punch a ticket to the big leagues.
As non-Power Five schools go, BYU has one of the strongest resumes of those wishing to join. Not only is it touting a laundry list of Hall of Fame NFL quarterbacks, but has been competitive in men’s basketball as well. However, that doesn’t mean everything is wine and roses. Let’s see what the numbers tell us.
While BYU ranks near the middle of the FBS, it out scores several Power Five schools and much of that has to do with enrollment and alumni base.
At nearly 30,000 students, BYU would rank either fourth or fifth in the Big 12, basically matching size with West Virginia. On top of this the BYU alumni base is large and active. While spread relatively thin outside Utah, they are still active in supporting the Cougars.
What is a bit odd is that, even with that large fan base, BYU isn’t making all that much off its licensing. You’d think with that sort of support merchandising would be in full swing, however, BYU rivals TCU in this category, a school with 20,000 less students.
I wonder just how much either the Big 12 or BYU can gain from each other that they don’t already have. BYU does a solid job scheduling difficult opponents already to elevate its exposure and its brand is pretty set. I cannot imagine that BYU would continue to schedule so aggressively in out of conference match ups if it has a grind of a Big 12 conference schedule, so does the season become a wash? If this is the case than desire to join a Power Five conference seems to really be to gain access to the College Football Playoffs. Does the Big 12 want to provide more access, which would take away some from the current members? Doubtful and 1984, which is clamored by about everyone pushing for BYU, was 32 years ago. Most who live in the coveted 18-35 demographic have no idea it happened and even Colorado and Washington have more recent football championships.
Speculation aside, this addition would obviously be providing a solid brand name to the Big 12, even if it lacks the cache of Notre Dame’s addition to the ACC, and definitely will not be seen as “watering” down the Big 12. That is a strong check mark to make on the resume.
For as much as BYU brings to the table with their brand, they really have a difficult time when it comes to their location.
The Cougars are over 1,200 miles away from the center of the Big 12 and nearly 2,000 miles away from West Virginia. They are 872 miles from the nearest Big 12 member, Texas Tech, who is still 350 miles west of Dallas. In no situation is adding BYU easing travel for anyone.
Most travel budgets in the Big 12 doubled by adding West Virginia and the Big 12 has had to schedule specially for the Mountaineers to ensure they had back to back Saturday/Monday road games in Texas to cut down on issues with players missing classes. Now you’d have another school in a different time zone from the bulk of the members, but this time it would be west, complicating travel even further.
An additional issue with looking west has to do with timing for games. For basketball most Big 12 prime time games happen at nine eastern, with West Virginia allowing the networks to start some home games at seven. For football, most Big 12 games air at the popular noon eastern slot. This game for BYU would be at ten in the morning locally. Due to this, most western games air at night. The Pac 12 has had tremendous issues this past two years on the bulk of their games airing at prime time Pacific, but that is nearly 11pm on the east coast and their ratings are suffering. If the Big 12 wants to increase its media deal it needs to ensure it can play games at the peak times for the highest ratings. The Mountain and Pacific time zones do not provide that benefit unless you schedule out of sync, which hurts ticket sales.
The issue with location for the Cougars isn’t really improved too much by the market. While BYU’s fanbase is spread out nationally it is concentrated in Utah. When factoring in a potential conference network you only get to classify the local market for carriage. The positive here is that Utah is a new market for the Big 12. The negative is it is a state the size of Iowa or Kansas. Most of that resides within the Salt Lake City DMA, which is #34 in the nation at 884,000 homes or about the size of Kansas City. Is that a large enough of a market to not really pull any other metro areas around it?
In short, BYU resides in a healthy market, but definitely on an island from the Big 12 and in the wrong direction than the bulk of college sport viewers.
Financially BYU is one of the stronger non-Power Five candidates, primarily due to rabid fan support. If it was in the Power Five it would reside within the lower half and rank 8th in the Big 12, powered by running in the black. In this sense BYU is similar to the Big 12, whose members use very little subsidies to support their athletic departments.
Their revenue, however would be 10th in the Big 12, but only by about 10% less than the 9th place team. BYU isn’t relying on credit to build its athletic department, unlike most of the non-Power Five, but still has a way to go to compete directly with the top of the Big 12. Forty percent of the Big 12 has revenues nearly double that of BYU and, while an increased media rights deal will help the Cougars start to catch up, the buy in will likely be long as those same teams cement their advantage.
Make no mistake though, BYU is the class of the non-Power Five options in this category and it is nearly all due to their fan base. BYU’s attendance is better than many programs already within the Power Five and it would be in the top half of the Big 12.
The Cougars currently average around 57,000 fans for their football games, many of which are against inferior opponents. On top of that the men’s basketball team averages just shy of 16,000 fans per game, again against non-Power Five competition. Only Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa State perform better in the two major sports than BYU within the Big 12.
However, the attendance boom for BYU seems to center on those two sports. Diving a bit deeper into the Olympic sports and we start seeing a lot more empty seats. Women’s basketball, for instance, averages half the audience of the Big 12’s lowest performer, TCU, and five times less than the Big 12 average. Ironically, the drop off in attendance to these secondary sports was so extreme that if you only measured them BYU would be second to last in attendance among the non-Power Five expansion candidates.
Football is king, however, and men’s basketball has a lot of value for network partners, so the drop off should only matter if a Big 12 Network comes to pass. If not, then there should be plenty of people in the seats when the Big 12 comes to Provo.
It is in the categories we cannot compare that BYU has a lot of potential issues. No one doubts that their brand provides some benefit for scheduling. This is why many Big 12 schools already schedule BYU in the main sports in out of conference play as it is. There is a train of thought that asks, “do you need to add them to the conference to continue to do this” and the answer is clearly no.
The issues revolving around BYU stem from it being another religious university, yet one with a bit more restrictions than both Baylor and TCU, being owned directly by the religion, as opposed to just affiliated, and with 99% of the students being from that religion. That lack of diversity causes concern with how BYU will fit with the Big 12’s culture and having 25 LGBT groups ally to send the Big 12 a letter asking them to shun BYU isn’t really a gold star in the diversity column for the Cougars, especially with the Big 12 pushing language into not only the bylaws but also each member’s operations that reflect their support of inclusion.
This conversation on diversity is much deeper than can be addressed in a quick capsule and it is very likely that for every person who angrily writes me about not going deeper into it there is another who yells at me for making it too big of an issue. The fact is it is an issue, regardless of how great of an issue you believe it may be. In that sense, it will play some role in expansion discussions. Outside this topic there are other intangibles that will likely come up; academics, Sunday play for the team sports, and missionary work.
To be clear, it isn’t that the Big 12 is against students going on missionary work, it is that when athletes do it you can gain some advantages in regards to having older students play. In one sense, it becomes like a religious red shirt and the other schools are not quite sure how to factor for it. Probably not a game changer, but something that is giving those who structure rules fits.
A much larger problem is Sunday games. This has absolutely zero effect on football and men’s basketball, but numerous other sports play on Sundays if for no other reason than to share facilities. This presents a scheduling issue to deal with on top of the location problem, reducing flexibility that is already compromised for the additional travel for multiple schools.
And lastly, while the university’s academics rate well with undergraduate populations, there are some major concerns that BYU doesn’t really classify as a high research university. It ranks about 219th in R&D expenditures, below Texas State University and North Texas, not to mention other expansion schools like Memphis, who are also not known for their academics.
While all of these are qualitative, as opposed to quantitative, categories, it is difficult to forecast how the presidents of each of the Big 12’s universities will view them. Some may not believe they are issues at all while some may consider them deal breakers. This will be the case with all of the non-Power Five candidates, however, so it is best to view them as wild cards when you need eight votes. At the end of the day though scheduling them out of conference doesn’t link your cultures as membership does and the diversity issue may be big enough that BYU would be left alone by the Pac 12 and Big 12 even if they had a brand like Notre Dame or Ohio State.
Adding all of the categories up, not just the featured ones we discussed, we get a glimpse of the value the Brigham Young University could provide the Big 12 currently.
Its financial strength and sports branding is clearly a step above most of the candidates that are talked about constantly. However, its location score really hinders the university.
As stated in the article on location, there are 150 million people east of the Big 12 and about half of that west of them. In order to look west the Big 12 needs a few things to be happening, either:
- There are no potential candidates east of the Big 12 to bridge the gap to West Virginia
- A candidate west of the Big 12 is so powerful the Big 12 simply cannot pass up the opportunity.
- Or there are multiple strong candidates available to cover the western area.
None of those seem to be in play as it is hard to imagine who else west of the Big 12, with a brand at least the size of BYU, would be interested in joining the Big 12. Most of the schools in the Mountain West already score far below the AAC, not to mention the Power Five conferences. Additionally, it isn’t like there is a lot of competition for BYU’s services. The Pac 12 has little to no interest in the Cougars, taking the Utes instead, which leaves no other Power Five conferences within a thousand miles of Provo.
This makes it so the Big 12 doesn’t really have to be concerned about the growth of BYU west of it. There are far bigger brands like USC, UCLA, or Oregon west of the Big 12 already and none are, like BYU, competing within its footprint. If you want some fans in Utah, schedule home and homes.
This is what makes BYU such a conundrum. If they were located east of the Mississippi or were a state school they’d be snatched up in a heartbeat. But being off on an island, both culturally and geographically, in the vast western wilderness will make it difficult for the Big 12 to fully realize whatever potential BYU brings.
©2016 Number Monkey Media
©2016 Number Monkey Media