Big 12 expansion? It's the topic that won't die. And as many have expected, it appears we will have a definitive conclusion to the debate that has defined the modern day life of this conference sometime this fall.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and OU President David Boren have made it clear: They know what they need, they know where they are looking, and they want to take action.
However, after a lengthy conversation with a TCU administrator regarding the particulars of expansion, things may be a bit more cloudy than they appear. Or, at least more cloudy than Bob Bowlsby and David Boren wish to admit.
We Don't Have An Agreement To Expand
While University Presidents have agreed to explore expansion candidates, the path to making expansion a reality is much less clear.
Approximately six current Big 12 presidents agree that expansion is a must, regardless of the prospective new members. Two more schools are "on the fence," wanting to see the competitive nature of the Big 12's top four sports (football, baseball, and men's and women's basketball) maintained, not diluted. I was also told two current members still disagree that a 12, 14, or (yes) 16 team league would be better than the current 10-team format.
This disagreement is being driven by two primary factors: Oklahoma's inclusion in the College Football Playoff in 2015, and the value of the current Big 12 TV contracts. Due to Oklahoma making the College Football Playoff in just the second year of the tournament, many think the round-robin format is still the way to go. And, while money is always a big part of the discussion, there are people who don't believe the Big 12 is at a significant revenue disadvantage. The current Big 12 TV contract, which runs through the 2024-25 season, will push the conference's distributed revenue to the $400 million or $40 million per member level within the next five to seven years, not far off from where the ACC and Pac 12 are expected to be at that time. When you add the value of Big 12 members' Tier 3 deals (avg. $5m per school), the gap between the Big 12 and other Power 5 conferences closes even more.
At the end of the day, with school presidents in charge of expansion, action still appears likely. "They are looking less at money and contracts, and more at the stewardship of their universities and the conference as a whole. That's why these conversations haven't died, and will continue until resolved. If the athletic directors were in charge, expansion would have died long ago."
Agreement on Future Members Will Be Tough
In what will be a major surprise to nobody, my source indicated that they are expecting heated debate on each of the perspective new members, with obvious pro/con points for each. In general, my source suggested that while the path to 12 was fairly clear, problems arise when considering options for 13th, 14th, or more members.
Cincinnati, UCONN, and Houston are the leaders in the clubhouse. In fact, my source intimated that Cincinnati was #1 on most lists, but that didn't make it a slam dunk. Who is the 12th? There is a strong push to avoid any more regional abnormalities, i.e. teams that are conference members but are on an island when compared to the rest of the conference's geographic footprint. So, the addition of BYU would have to be accompanied by Colorado State or Boise State, as an example.
The opportunity to add football-only members adds intrigue and complication to the debate as well. The Big 12 could opt to add two members and be a 12-member conference, with one or two football only members in addition. This option, which would likely see Cincinnati and Houston added as the 11th and 12th full-time members, would open a lane for BYU and Boise State to be added for football only. This solves several problems at once. It increases the overall value and size of the conference, adding strong TV inventory across all sports, while adding a few compelling TV match-ups in football as well. Boise State at Texas, OU at BYU, as an example.
But, when it is all said and done, my source believes that simplicity is likely to win out. While some of the bigger solutions may look sexy, the likelihood that eight Big 12 Presidents agree on all the components of a big move is unlikely. As it stands today, Cincinnati is likely the easy 11th member while the debate over the 12th member will center around UCONN and Houston. My source believed, despite reservations, that Houston would win out. Also: "I wouldn't be surprised to see UCONN find a home in a Power 5 conference before the Big 12's process is concluded."
Renegotiation Is Still An Option
While expansion has been the #1 focus thus far, there still remains a possibility that the Big 12 could renegotiate its contract with ESPN/Fox while keeping membership at 10 schools. There are three reasons for this:
A) ESPN/Fox could save considerable money by simply changing the terms of the current agreement rather than allowing the pro-rate clauses to be activated. Increasing the current fees by 17.5%, rather than having the Big 12 add two members, would be worth it for ESPN/FOX. That would also give each Big 12 member approximately $5 million more per year in the 2020s, without the hassle of a larger membership and larger conference footprint. This option would also include a contract extension and extension of the conference Grant of Rights through 2030-2031. Many believe the Big 12, thanks to the existing Tier 3 contracts in place, will survive until that point regardless of expansion.
B) The buy-in to the Big 12 will be steep for prospective members, at an anticipated six years and $75 million (through the 2023-24 season). Will schools agree to it? You'd think so, given the value of being in the Power 5, but there is still some concern that prospective members will seek a less one-sided deal.
C) There is a strong belief that on or before the expiration of the existing College Football Playoff TV deal with ESPN (2024-25), the annual tournament will expand to eight teams. Given the need for more TV inventory to support the high fees ESPN is paying ($470 million per year), this seems like more of a certainty today than it did one year ago. If the College Football Playoff did expand to eight teams, the Big 12 would be at an advantage to stay at 10 members.
And adding more fuel to the fire was a Sports Business Journal report Monday morning that stated the Big 12's media partners, ESPN and FOX, are not happy with the Big 12's usage of the pro-rata clauses in their contracts and don't intend to stand on the sidelines over the next few months. Again, a renegotiation of the Big 12 media deal, including the newly minted Big 12 Championship Game for football, could be a more likely ending for the Big 12's expansion carousel.
Ultimately, the theme from my conversation was strong; We aren't there yet, there are plenty of places where this could fall apart, and the simplest solution will likely prevail at the end of the day.