This is the first of a multi-part series where I take a look at expansion in the Big 12. In this article I will discuss where things stand today and what is being said on the subject, but first I'd like to begin with a confession of my own feelings on the conference.
From Day One, I have hated the Big 12 Conference due to the structural imperfections created when the founders went with the 12 team plan rather than the more balanced 14 team plan that included BYU and UNM.
From about 2000, I had become convinced and was telling people on the Big 12 would collapse under the weight of these on-conference political problems and the non-competitiveness of Baylor. When the Big 12 was at the peak of it's power, the conference arrogantly refused to pursue the addition of power schools north of Texas like BYU, Louisville, Notre Dame, or Arkansas as full or partial members to address the balance of power issue that frustrated Nebraska and Missouri.
Just like the membership of the football WAC, the membership of the Big 12 were slaves to conference conventional wisdom which says you do the minimum required to achieve your immediate goals and you never sacrifice a little today for a better tomorrow.
Due to this lack big picture thinking, the Big 12 ---the shotgun wedding, turned soap opera, turned reality TV show of conferences --- has endured a 4 year meltdown. The resulting sliver of a conference is now at the bottom of the power conference pecking order.
For years I have wanted to see the Pac-12 steal Texas, Texas Tech, OU, and OSU, destroying the Big 12 in order to create a new power conference that owns the western half of the US and pushes angel investor money and research jobs into Texas.
But after years of wanting it to happen, the dream has lost it's appeal to me.
I think the addition of Utah to the PAC -12 ---defensible as it may have seemed --- really was not optimal for UT, further waters down the PAC, and probably hurts the chances of the PAC-12 ever adding the UT block.
If you ask around, the PAC-12 does not seem to appeal to UT alumni at all today. There is talk that UT's new president and the UT board have a great deal more ambivalence to the idea of PAC membership than previous incarnations. That likely kills any chance of any action that would trigger a conference implosion, something that would amount to a premature cancellation of the Grant of Rights deal prior to 2025-6.
I have pondered the PAC membership over the years, and I realize that even I find the thought less appealing now. Frankly, some of it for me is that I have simply grown tired of seeing the Pac-12 blow what should be an easy transaction because of false pride. They should have forced the issue and taken Oklahoma and Oklahoma State when they had the chance a couple years ago. That was their opportunity.
A move west does not seem likely to happen unless OU figures out a way to convince Kansas to join them in a move out west --- a move that would force the issue with UT. Given the state politics in Kansas and Oklahoma and the finances involved with the Big 12 Grant of Rights deal, I find it hard to imagine that as even a slight possibility until maybe 2022 at the earliest.
That creates a lot of time for the Big 12 membership to get their house in order.
Conventional wisdom paints an ugly picture. CW suggests that the Big 12 will eventually collapse over lack of significant markets outside of Texas.
CW suggests that the Big 12 might expand to 14 schools, but a two school expansion to 12 ---of any expansion takes place --- is far more likely.
OU president David Boren would like Big 12 expansion to occur soon. There is little to suggest that UT's leadership is not still leading a small group of supporting schools, like Texas Tech, against the idea.
Realignment guru Frank the Tank suggests that if it happens the conference is likely to add 2 schools. His matrix suggest BYU and Cincinnati are the most valuable candidates, but that Oklahoma is pushing hard for Houston instead of BYU. (This is very much in line with how conferences expand, adding the minimum number of schools to hit immediate goals and with key voices in the conferences pushing down on the scale for one school or another.)
Clay Travis of "Outkick The Coverage", another lawyer turned realignment writer, also hints that 12 schools is the likely number, but advises that in the Big 12's position, he would advocate an expansion to 14 instead by adding 4 geographically dissimilar schools --- BYU, Cincinnati, Memphis and either UCF or USF.
He advises such an expansion (combined with conversion of the Longhorn Network into a Big 12 network) could deliver some significant value to the Big 12 bottom line. His computations put that value far, far below the payouts the SEC is likely to receive though.
His aggressive plan for the Big 12 still has the conference looking like the junior partner in the power 5 conferences both financially and academically.
The Dude of West Virginia, yet another long-time realignment writer, rightly points out that there are ways to make expansion less painful. When Nebraska joined the Big Ten, they were put on a reduced payment schedule until they "vested". TCU and West Virginia were handled similarly when they joined the Big 12, with a 5 year stint as effectively junior partners with reduced payouts. He advised that the Big 12 is considering extending that to 7 years for future expansion candidates. He notes that at 40% of a full media share payment (to start) a new candidate would still make 4 times as much in the Big 12 as in the American.
He also reports he has been told by fans that there are "secret deals" between the Big 12 and Cincinnati, BYU, Houston, and Colorado State for those schools to join. While expansion talks always begin behind closed doors, he rightly points out that the logic behind having a secret deal (at this point, with the gap in values between the power conferences and the rest) is suspect and calls the whole rumor into question.
He also advised that #11 has not been picked but Boise State and Colorado State are not being considered at all and that the Big 12 will go east to expand the footprint (although BYU is still an option).
A common refrain among Big 12 fans is to just expand to 16 --- usually the recommended schools are BYU, Memphis, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Houston, and UCF or USF.
Given the "do as little as possible to meet the goal" philosophy that most conferences operate under, I think such an expansion is unlikely, (although to me it would make more long term sense than a small 2 school expansion).
That is a lot of noise about Big 12 expansion out there today and most of it is not very positive.
As someone who likes looking at the minority view on sports business issues, I have come to believe there is an achievable path forward for the Big 12 that might actually satisfy all parties and that may actually not be a bad thing for Texans. There is a way forward that is more profitable than the status quo in the short term, delivers a strong power conference in the center of the US and doesn't alienate either of the conference's two power schools. Further, the right moves by the Big 12 membership could actually yield a conference worth UT keeping alive long term.
To get to that, I think a clear understanding of the conference needs is required. Part two of this series will cover that.