Outside of a few excellent sound bites, this week’s official Big 12 Media Days event heralding the onset of the college football season provided little in the way of concrete information regarding the conference’s future expansion plans. Naturally, given the disappointing conclusion to last season’s inaugural College Football Playoff (purely from the Big 12’s perspective, that is), realignment was the predominant topic bandied about in Dallas over the last couple of days. And despite almost every participant being questioned about the topic, there appears to be neither an imminent nor a definitive decision, in either direction, on the horizon.
That’s not due to a lack of transparency on the topic amongst a number of Big 12 power brokers, however. Back in June, Oklahoma President David Boren opted to eschew equivocation, stating that the conference’s failure to expand left it “psychologically disadvantaged” in comparison to its larger brethren (though Boren was careful to simultaneously emphasize quality over quantity, stating he does not “favor adding two more members unless they meet very high criteria”). Kansas State head coach Bill Snyder adopted a similarly decisive position on the matter, reflecting fondly on the Big 12 division titles his program has accumulated over the years and, amusingly, suggesting the conference should perhaps entice former founding member Nebraska to return. Both FoxSports and ESPN published anonymous surveys of Big 12 coaches and players, respectively, that suggested an overwhelmingly desire to expand. And Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby addressed the topic directly, stating that while expansion lacks the “critical mass” among the university presidents at the “present time,” he also believes that “four or five” university presidents could be persuaded in either direction.
“…how much potential revenue the Big 12 is foregoing by not having twelve actual members.”
Yet despite all this smoke, there is little in the way of actual realignment-related fire. And a major reason for that, seemingly, is the NCAA’s decision earlier this year to relax the restrictions in place for holding a championship game. With the glaring difference between the Big 12 and the rest of the Power Five now taken care of, does that obviate the need for expansion? While that factor’s a part of the analysis, for certain, it’s equally important to look at the Big 12’s current situation not just in terms of “Can we have a championship game or not?” but in terms of how much potential revenue the Big 12 is foregoing by not having twelve actual members.
Using just this past college football season alone as a test case, the lack of twelve teams in the Big 12 could have cost the conference not only a definite spot in the College Football Playoff, but a chance at a second spot (and the potential dream “all Big 12” final game). Assume, for example, that most of the Big 12 season results would have stayed the same simply by adding two additional members (who by their very definition will not be current football “powers”). In this scenario, there would have been a very real possibility that an 11-1 Baylor would have been playing an 11-1 Kansas State in the then-real Big 12 Championship Game. In addition, an 11-1 TCU would have been sitting at home as the Big 12 “South” Division runner-up (as the unbalanced, eight-game conference schedule could have very well resulted in Kansas State not playing either Baylor or TCU during the regular season). In that scenario, the winner would have been a shoe-in for the national semifinal, with the loser almost assuredly being one of the New Year’s Six. Further, had Georgia Tech held on in the ACC Championship and knocked Florida State out of the top four, that 11-1 TCU squad (a non-division winner) would have been in ideal position to snag the final national semifinal spot. Given that we know that a conference will receive 6 million dollars per team selected for the national semifinal and 4 million dollars per team selected for the remaining New Year’s Six bowl games, the Big 12 left some serious money at the table just this past season by not having twelve teams.
In addition, a 12-team conference would undoubtedly send more teams to bowls each year by virtue of the unbalanced schedule it would be forced to implement. While the Big 12’s nine-game, true “round robin” schedule makes for a nice marketing slogan, it also guarantees that it will send less of its teams to bowl games every year as compared to its twelve-team conference rivals like the SEC, Big 10, and ACC (who only play eight conference games). Again, this past season’s results are instructive: the Big 12 sent only seven teams to bowl games, as opposed to the Big 10 sending ten teams; the ACC eleven; and the SEC twelve. That’s at least three missed bowl games, just this past season. And these figures will continue to add up, year after year, till expansion takes place.
Finally, it’s been reported – via the mouth of Big 12 Commissioner Bowlby himself – that the lucrative television contract that the conference enjoys contemplates a proportional expansion should the conference add more schools, meaning that it’s not accurate to assume that adding two additional members would simply result in carving out two more pieces of the overall pie (rather, it seems, the overall pie would increase to allow for even larger helpings for individual members). Admittedly, the Big 12 will have to get somewhat creative, in that there does not seem to be two currently unattached universities that could immediately deliver previously-untapped “home” media markets (the real driver behind realignment, as we are all aware). But even allowing for the fact that the Big 12 can now have a championship game with its current membership, the totality of the circumstances suggest that the Big 12 will continue to analyze potential expansion opportunities in an effort to level the playing field, both from a revenue perspective and to avoid the unfortunate events of this past December.