Big 12 Expansion: Politics, Polls and Petty Fans

“Do you remember that thread on KillerFrogs that devolved into a fight about conference expansion?”

The Big 12 has more drama than an afternoon soap opera. This should not surprise you considering the two anchors in the conference: one has their own network and the other is led by a career politician. For nearly 5 years the Big 12 has been in constant flux.  In 2010 Nebraska and Colorado bolt, in 2011 Texas A&M and Missouri leave for the SEC, followed by the addition of TCU and West Virginia.  The media enjoys nothing more than reminding everyone the Big 12 does not have a championship game AND missed the playoff in 2014.  Therefore, the Big 12 is one step above the Sun Belt.

Few topics generate as much message board conflict and conversation as expansion. Most will agree if there were two amazing targets the Big 12 would have been added them in 2011. At the same time fans also know that a secure and prosperous Big 12 is not feasible with 10 teams and no championship game. Adding quality teams will require leadership, which the Big 12 has lacked since the day Dan Bebee became commissioner.

Two topics need clarity before discussing what are real options for the Big 12 to secure a future fueled by expansion: The Longhorn Network and the Grant of Rights.

Believing that Longhorn fans wanted to watch Mack Brown clap and replay the 2006 Rose Bowl on continuous loop, ESPN gave America the gift of The Longhorn Network. The Big 12 is unique with their “3rd tier” content.  Long before TCU was invited to the Big 12, the conference agreed that rather than forming a network, schools could sell their own content picked up by ESPN, FOX or any other media outlet that would broadcast their games.  Texas A&M, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska all agreed their schools could sell their media rights, which amounts to two home football games, ten basketball games and plenty of baseball.  Texas signed a deal with ESPN to create the The Longhorn Network, as the conference media deal allowed.

The LHN is a double edge sword: if your school was on TV 24 hours a day you would watch it- cue up the Rose, Peach and Alamo please.  While DeLoss Dodds has confessed to watching the 2006 Rose Bowl 40 times, the LHN has become a punchline. Poor distribution combined with losing football has ESPN on the hook’em for over $300 million.  Texas did what the conference said it could, the conference got mad, Aggies left, and ESPN gets the bill.

Contributing to the drama is the idea that every conference is about to poach Oklahoma.  The bi-monthly pop off by President David Boren of the University of Oklahoma troubles these waters.  Yet, the grant of rights secures the Big 12 until 2025. Brilliant bloggers who took a correspondence class from Liberty Law School will tell you the GORs could be challenged in court. But I am yet to meet a university president that wants to risk $250 million so that the Kansas Purdue women’s soccer game can be broadcasted on tape delay.  The question is not will the Big 12 blow up next month, but what will it take now to secure a prosperous and competitive Big 12 past a date order by the court?

When Big 12 Presidents and ADs met nearly two weeks ago there was no vote for expansion, but there were the first steps towards that consideration.  A media group in Chicago was commissioned to study viable options for both expansion and network.  Since this meeting Freedom of Information requests from Cincinnati media has revealed what many had assumed, that Cincinnati is making their best pitch to the Big 12 and certain Presidents are listening.

I am not a journalist, nor do I pretend to be an insider, but conference expansion is an issue I have followed and consumed for nearly six years.  What follows are the best of what I can piece together from a few random sources at a few schools, time wasted on twitter and good old fashion networking. Do with it what you will.  I may end up being wrong but I stand by what I write.

ESPN and the University of Texas, for the first time ever, are open to the idea of rolling The Longhorn Network into some version of a Big 12 Network. This will allow all 3rd Tier rights to be tied together to create a Big 12 Network run by both ESPN and FOX. There’s a lot that has to happen in terms of dealing with Fox, which holds all 3rd Tier rights in Big 12 aside from Texas and Kansas. The other issue that will make all Big 12 fans feel like it’s 2007 again is that Texas will get the first $15 million off the top in order to receive the same amount currently received from The Longhorn Network.  This paves the way to expansion for the sake of eyeballs and not merely quality programs- think Rutgers and Maryland.

The next paragraph is only true if the first paragraph comes to fruition. The two top targets for expansion with a network are different than the top two targets without a network. Suddenly Cincinnati who has been a viable option becomes a top target. While they offer quality sports they also offer the state of Ohio. But the top target for conference expansion if a network is in play is the University of Connecticut. While UCONN’s women’s basketball program makes Alabama football look like Kansas, more importantly they bring the entire media market of New York City. The Big 12 foot print would literally double with the addition of UC and UCONN.  More eyeballs, more money, stronger conference.

A Big 12 Network extends media contracts into the future, which bring stability.  The addition of two large markets produces a network that is economically viable.  And this being the Big 12, I would assume UC and UCONN would be brought in at an even slower pace economically than TCU and West Virginia.  What does this do for the conference short term?  It is not a home run.  Unless LSU and Arkansas want to join the Big 12 there are no home runs.  In the short term it addresses the perceived disadvantage of not having a conference championship game, which the CFP Committee has deemed critical.  I don’t agree that it’s critical, but they do and that is all that matters.  In the short term is also calms the waters and creates a united front in the most viable way possible, a Big 12 Network.

This move is about future strength and the potential future additions.  A conference network, a conference championship game in Jerry World and projected viability towards the the future will allow the Big 12 to make further additions down the road.  The hypotheticals are endless and really not worth consideration, but that’s why God made message boards.  Florida State, Clemson, Miami and Louisville sure would be nice additions.  SEC will not expand into duplicate markets and the Big 10 requires AAU status.  Perhaps it is someone else’s turn to be anxious about conference stability.  TCU fans have only been dealing with it for 22 years.