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Cutting the cord: The dangers of Big 12 expansion

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Big 12 expansion talk is once again reaching fever pitch as Big 12 officials meet to discuss the possibilities, but if they aren't taking a look at more than just markets and the product on the field, they may end up destroying the conference altogether.

Big 12 expansion will be the biggest issue this man faces.
Big 12 expansion will be the biggest issue this man faces.
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Looking around the college football world, it's hard to see any positive impact from conference expansion with each power 5 conference experiencing more harm than good. The B1G fanbase absolutely loathes the addition of Rutgers, to the point where even the New Jerseyans are admitting they're a disgrace (and that's just off the field); and though they're much more ambivalent toward Maryland, most agree that they'd rather play the original teams in their conference. For reference, it's been 6 years since Wisconsin played Michigan.  The ACC was one of the parties pushing for conference game deregulation, with one theory put forward saying they were hoping to have three football divisions so their members could actually play each other. It's a safe bet that NC State and Wake Forest aren't fans of being separated from Carolina and Duke- and that's not even taking into consideration the relative failure of the ACC's first block of expansion. Miami still hasn't made the ACC title game, and if it weren't for FSU and Clemson's resurgence in their respective post-Bowden ages, the entire conference would be a tire fire.  The SEC is still SEC-ing along, but Missouri lost its rivalry with Kansas and it doesn't seem like there's any hope on the horizon for it to ever come back (Ed. note: Seriously, Kansas fans are intense in their not wanting to play Mizzou); and while A&M is happily beating the chest of its conference allegiance, things haven't been so great there either as the reality of being in a division with Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Ole Miss sets in, and the SEC members have been grumbling about discarded rivalries just like the B1G.  The Pac 12 is reasonably happy, but is still a bit disappointed that Larry Scott's idea of a 16 team super conference including both Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Colorado, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma ended up being just Utah and Colorado (no disrespect intended to either program).  Meanwhile, the Big 12 almost collapsed, and while things worked out quite well for TCU, West Virginia became even further separated from its rivals.  To my mind, the only true winners in conference expansion were TCU, Rutgers and Utah (and possibly also Baylor, since they finally have an in-conference rivalry that's mutual), while everyone else ended up either worse off or about the same.

So why did football subject itself to this cataclysm if so many fanbases ended up being unhappier for it?  For the TV markets of course and, thanks to the B1G, conference networks are all the rage!  To make huge stacks of money, though, those networks need to be wormed into the most packages possible, which means that having a university in the New York area (sorry, New Jersey, but you really should be called the "New York area" state) becomes very appealing to northern conferences- so welcome to your new homes, Rutgers and Syracuse!  There are a lot of eyeballs in Texas (not to mention recruits), so no, we don't mind your vaguely cult-like behavior one bit, A&M- you can even bring your friend, the St. Louis media market... uh, we mean the University of Missouri along too!  (At this point Kansas fans are doubtlessly pointing out that Mizzou fits in well in a conference with all of those other formerly slave states, because if you read that earlier link, of course they are).  The Pac 12 got its championship game, but it also scored the Denver market as well as the state with the fastest rising population in the US- not too shabby, really.  Now many feel that the time has come for the Big 12 to expand as well, and markets are being thrown out all over the place- why not UConn to add some of that rich Northeast money?  Cincy would be a good choice too, but how about UCF, that Orlando market and that potential Florida recruiting pipeline, right?  You know what's a really big media market?  Houston!  And they have a team that's available, as my blogmate RobGordon will attest.  What about BYU's national Mormon following, or San Diego State as a foothold into California?  Maybe we should just invite them all and call ourselves the Big TV Market!  All of that hypothetical TV money surely sounds good... but think of what kind of conference it would be if it didn't show up...

Obviously we're not going to add six teams, or likely even four teams, and despite the Big 12 previously owning the trademark for the "Big 14" and Big 16," nobody really expects the Big 12 to add more than 2 teams this time around- but the concerns about expansion are the same no matter how many teams are added.  The good news for expansion proponents is that adding teams wouldn't actually cost the Big 12 much in the short term- the TV contract running through 2025 expands with each team added, so the revenue shares would actually be the same, and money from a conference title game would just add more to the pie- I'll estimate it as being a 1.5 million dollar bonus per school, which again, sounds pretty good. However, when you start to look at the broader picture, things look a lot bleaker for the course of expansion.  All that TV money that drove expansion, broke up rivalries and dropped us into this situation is in trouble, as the early warning signs coming from Conference USA that their next TV deal has dropped significantly show that the gravy train of ESPN and Fox Sports bidding wars may have reached an end.  Sure, Conference USA doesn't have the negotiating power that a P5 conference has, but they're also making about 22 million less per school- and if the networks are that desperate to squeeze every penny out of already penniless CUSA, do you think they're just hoarding that money to try and give more to the Big 12 in 2025?  It's not going to happen- and the entire television landscape may look very different by then.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has made almost 2 billion dollars for Disney at the time of this writing, not including the immense merchandising bonanza that has come in its wake- which makes it all the more shocking that Disney's stock price is actually falling.  "What the heck does that have to do with Big 12 expansion?", you may ask, well the answer is that the stock is falling because ESPN is hemorrhaging subscribers by the thousands as more and more people move away from the traditional cable model to get their entertainment elsewhere.  And if cable providers try to fight back against the cancellations by unbundling networks and letting people pick and choose what they want, or simply pushing ESPN and ESPN2 out of basic cable and into a bigger bundle, ESPN would be in an absolutely disastrous situation.  How bad of a situation are we talking about?  How about a possible 56% loss?  And that's just for the main networks- how many of those cable subscribers ended up getting a package for one particular channel (Investigation Discovery, probably) and ended up with the SEC, Big Ten or even the Longhorn Network and would be eager to save a few dollars?  How good will that move to grab Rutgers look for the Big Ten when the folks in New York actually have to choose that they want the Big Ten network, instead of having it bundled in?  What happens when those record contract numbers go down, as ESPN and Fox Sports aren't quite as enthusiastic to bid against the major networks for TV rights?  . . . You know, suddenly UConn, UCF, Cincy and Houston don't sound quite so appealing anymore.

Looking at the bigger picture, the Big 12 isn't actually in too bad a situation at ten teams.  As long as Texas and Oklahoma remain in the conference, the conference has two superpowers to hang its hat on in negotiations, and the grant of television rights that runs through 2025 should keep those two teams in place no matter how much Oklahoma grumbles in the meantime. By not expanding now, the Big 12 may actually find itself in a much more appealing position for another round of expansion later.  As things stand now, the ACC and Big 12 are the two P5 leagues that have been successfully raided for members and are engaged in a staring contest, hoping to steal key members from the other in order to ensure their own conference's survival.  It's been assumed for a while in the national media that the Big 12 is the conference that will die when things come down to it, which potentially sucks for any team not named Texas, Oklahoma or Texas Tech (thanks to "The Tech Problem")- but the conference does actually have several factors in its favor.  Firstly, when the BCS died and the new bowl arrangements were being drawn up, the ACC wanted their (non-playoff qualifying) champion to play the champion of another P5 league- instead, they ended up with an agreement that their champion would play against the #2 non qualifying team from the Big Ten or SEC.  Which league did the SEC choose to pair with for its non-playoff qualifying champion instead?  The Big 12.  The ACC also has the misfortune of having their TV deal and grant of rights expire first, which means that not only are they likely to take a hit to their revenue sooner (and it may be a big one if conference lynchpin North Carolina gets smacked down for its very bad things), but the Big 12 would actually be in a position to offer at least two years of 25.6 million per school from primary rights, thanks to the aforementioned expanding Big 12 TV contract, and with only 10 current mouths to feed it could be taking much less of a bath in comparison to the ACC's 14 members.  Factoring in that many fans of the ACC's two football power schools seem ready to move on, thanks to the ACC office's perceived "Run by North Carolina schools, for North Carolina schools- and especially basketball" stance, the Big 12's situation doesn't look too bad at all... unless we make decisions based on short sighted market concerns.  After all, no one else is knocking down the door to offer a P5 home to Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, Houston or Uconn- they'll be there for the Big 12 to take if and when it's the best option available.

Not expanding now may be a risk for the Big 12, but the payoff could be the sweetest thing of all- survival.