Requiem for Big 12 Expansion

October 17th was a whirl wind day for fans of Cincinnati, Houston, BYU and several other schools being vetted by the Big 12 Expansion Committee. I’ll freely admit, not much was done at work. Work was secondary. My mind was elsewhere and Twitter was full of rumors while the Big 12 Presidents met behind closed doors. I impatiently waited for my usual Twitter “Expansion Insiders” (@MHver3, @flugempire and @MSM00SE) to update while my phones battery life plummeted.

I have always found conference expansion and realignment fascinating. This is a fact I can likely attribute to my love for Bearcat basketball and football coming of age around the time that the Big East collapse was imminent. Conference realignment left Cincinnati on the outside looking in, while our old friends Louisville, Pitt and Syracuse moved on for greener pastures. My interest in realignment was taken to a new level this past July, when the Big 12 announced their plans to explore expansion. Big 12 expansion seemed certain. Would it include my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati?

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I spent more hours than I’d care to admit scrolling through the boards of Bearcat Journal and absorbing every bit of expansion info I could get my hands on. Trying to determine fact from fiction was impossible most of the time. But the facts pointing in expansion’s favor were glaring:

  • At ten schools, the Big 12 has the fewest members of any so called “Power Five” conference. Oklahoma President Bob Bowlsby admitted that at ten schools, the Big 12 was at a “psychological disadvantage” in respects to the newly formed College Football Playoff.
  • Navigate Research, a firm hired by the Big 12 to crunch the numbers on expansion, found that expanding could increase the Big 12’s chances of getting a school to the CFB Playoff by up to 21%.
  • While the SEC, PAC 12, ACC and Big 10 conferences created (or were in the process of creating) conference television networks to expand their product and revenue, the Big 12 chose not to. Big 12 expansion would add new television markets to the conference, and make a conference network more feasible.
  • Expansion would increase the value of the conference, and cost member schools nothing out of their own pockets. The Big 12’s current TV deal with Fox and ESPN pays out close to $23 million annually to each school, and includes a pro rata clause for any additional school added to the conference. This means that the current schools would not have to split the pot by additional shares. The TV networks would by contract have to pay an additional $23 million to each new school.

Expansion seemed a given. Facts are facts. The Big 12 would be leaving money on the table, and be decreasing its chances of making the College Football Playoff by not expanding.

 

My hopes for expansion took a slight turn on August 1st, when rumors of Fox and ESPN interference began to pop up. Fox and ESPN, faced with the potential of paying out an additional $23 million to each new Big 12 school, were pushing back against expansion. While it took a little while longer for the main stream media to catch on, last week other reports began to filter out. ESPN and Fox not only did not expansion, they were willing to pay the Big 12 more money per year to drop expansion all together. Despite this, I still felt reasonably confident. Rumors (provided by my favorite twitter “insiders” that I mentioned above) were that ESPN was 100% against expansion, while Fox was in favor of adding two additional schools. This rumor made sense to me for one reason: the schools most heavily considered by the Big 12 (Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, UConn) were already in a conference that ESPN controlled. Why would ESPN want to pay out $23 mil to Cincinnati when they already controlled them for a fraction of that in the American Conference? Fox however, has no current ties to a majority of expansion candidates. Fox theoretically would have no issue with paying additional money for expansion, bringing new markets and schools under their grasp.

 

October 17th was the day marked on the calendar. The Big 12 Presidents board meeting, and the day the final decision on expansion was expected to come down. On the morning of October 17th, I still felt reasonably confident that expansion would occur, and that Cincinnati would become a member of the Big 12. Around 2pm, just before my phone died, it became apparent that this would not unfold. The Big 12 was not expanding. ESPN had won.

 

While I could write another entire post about the incompetencies of Big 12 leadership, I’ll save you the trouble. You can read all about that on other sites. The fact of the matter is, the Big 12 made expansion a public spectacle – a competition over a coveted seat at the Power Five table. To not expand was inappropriate and frankly embarrassing for their conference (read: fantastic article by Stewart Mandel). The Big 12 had the opportunity to stabilize their conference for the long term by making the right moves in expansion, while simultaneously preventing itself from becoming the laughing stock of the college sports world. In the end, it appears the Big 12 took the money that ESPN offered and ran with it. Now that expansion has been tabled it is clear that schools like Texas and Oklahoma are embracing the instability of the Big 12 in order to pave their way to other conferences in a few years. The Big 12 sealed its fate on October 17th.

 

On a more optimistic note: I do believe that the American Athletic Conference can become a decent home for the Bearcats. It is already close in basketball. Our league if full of talented coaches, outstanding academic institutions, and up and coming athletic programs. Several programs have already arrived. I believe that in a stable college sports landscape, the American can become a member of the Power Six. Only time will tell. We should support and root for the American as hard as we can. I would not be surprised if one day, the American is ironically the desirable landing spot for a few Big 12 schools. While expansion once again left Cincinnati on the outside, a school as great as ours will persevere if we are patient.

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