Big 12 Expansion: What to Watch for

After months of speculation, Big 12 institution presidents are meeting today to discuss expansion, among other issues. Will the Big 12 expand, and what would expansion mean for the University of Kansas?

For years now, the Big 12 has been talking expansion. Ever since TCU and Baylor were left out of the inaugural College Football Playoff, ostensibly due to the Big 12’s lack of a championship game, powers that be in Big 12 headquarters in Dallas have considered expansion the best way forward. The continued talk of expansion comes even as the NCAA changed their longstanding rule preventing conferences with fewer than 12 teams from having a championship football game. After the Big 12 Championship Game was launched in June, some institutions still wanted the Big 12 to expand to 12 or 14 schools. The movement gained substantial momentum last summer, when Big 12 presidents and chancellors voted unanimously to give Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby the green light to explore expansion.

Who wants expansion, and why?

On its face, expansion makes a lot of sense for smaller schools in the conference, especially the schools without a clear fallback plan in the event the Big 12 disintegrates. Expansion brings a sense of stability to the conference. With 12 or 14 teams, the conference can survive some defections. Oklahoma seems to be a likely candidate, with President David Boren growing increasingly frustrated with the conference (read: Texas and the Longhorn Network). The additional schools will also bring in more television revenue, potentially enough to start a conference network, as the Big 12 will be the only Power Five conference without one once the ACC Network launches in 2019.

There’s not a lot we know going into Monday’s meeting. What we do know is that there aren’t enough votes in the body to extend the Big 12’s grant of rights past its expiration in 2025. Texas and Oklahoma are against an extension, and Kansas is likely against it as well. A grant of rights is a legal agreement whereby member schools pool and release their claims to negotiate television contracts to the conference. Its purpose is to both leverage the resources of all member schools, as well as to prevent them from leaving the conference at the first sign of trouble.

To expand, or not to expand?

This leaves the conference with a couple options. The first is to do nothing. I think it’s probably the most likely as well. Without obvious expansion candidates and no grant of rights extension, the Big 12 will lean on the new conference championship game and continue to convince Texas to give up the Longhorn Network for a Big 12 Network. This would also keep Fox and ESPN happy, since their 13-year, $2.6 billion television contract did not take into account expansion. The second option is to not expand, but extend the grant of rights. I find this very, very unlikely. It would keep the conference stable, but institutions like Kansas, Texas, and Oklahoma would argue not proactive enough to stave off irrelevancy.

Expansion comes with its own issues. First being that there aren’t any obvious candidates to join the conference. The 11 finalists are Air Force, BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Connecticut, Houston, Rice, South Florida, SMU and Tulane. The only three that are even halfway realistic in my opinion are BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston. BYU brings a huge, international brand, a foothold in the mountain west, and great football tradition. BYU’s religious affiliation could cause some friction among conference leaders. Cincinnati brings a geographic rival to West Virginia, and solid revenue sports, but doesn’t bring a large TV market. Houston brings an up and coming football program, as well as some territory lost when Texas A&M left for the SEC. Does the Big 12 want yet another school in Texas, making it even more difficult for the existing schools to recruit there?

Hangups to expansion

Expansion does not solve the grant of rights or other television issues. ESPN and Fox will not be happy about expansion, as the contract stipulates that they’ll pay full price, reportedly $20 million per school per year, to the conference for new members. They would not want to pay Cincinnati, a regional brand and institution, the same as Texas, one of the biggest institutional brands in the country. This naked cash grab may force Fox and ESPN to abandon the conference altogether when the existing deal expires in 2025. This would be very counterproductive for a conference that wants to expand for stability’s sake.

The final option would be to expand to 12 or 14 and extend the grant of rights. This is one of the least likely options. It would have to gain the support of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, plus Fox and ESPN. It would also lock in the Big 12 for a minimum of five years beyond 2025, an outcome that the larger institutions do not seem keen on. At the end of the day, I do not believe any school has the eight votes needed for an invitation to the conference, and the grant of rights will not get extended.