Big 12 Media Days: Expansion Coming Soon?

In a reversal from earlier this spring when the Big 12 decided to table expansion, the conference leaders have now given commissioner Bob Bowlsby the directive to explore adding two, and possibly four schools, to the league.

A few days ago, and certainly two months ago, the Big 12 Board of Directors, the Presidents and Chancellors of the Big 12 Universities seemingly had no interest in expanding, at least little interest. At the late spring board meeting the group unanimously approved a football championship game starting in 2017, came to a conclusion with its consultants that a Big 12 television network was unlikely with the economic climate and situation in sports rights fees and available platforms, but technology was evolving.

Expansion was tabled while the board soaked in the presentation of its outside consultants. However, the news on Monday that the Atlantic Coast Conference had negotiated a conference TV network with ESPN that would start this fall on a digital platform and then go linear in 2019 may have been the fuel the Big 12 needed. You see, the Big 12 has seemingly been in reverse or neutral when it came to being aggressive and pursuing new members.

It was the Big 12 that did more shrinking by losing Colorado, Nebraska, Texas A&M and Missouri. The ACC, which also locked in its members, including part-time member Notre Dame, by extending the grant-in-rights agreement through 2036, means there will be no stealing ACC football schools like Clemson, Florida State or Virginia Tech for some 20 years. In fact, it would seem that all Power Five schools are now locked in for awhile.

The Big 12 looks to find the best from the group of five schools to get the league back to 12 or even up to 14.

Chairman of the Big 12 Board of Directors and University of Oklahoma President David Boren said the board has Commissioner Bob Bowlsby checking the resumes of schools that have shown interest and campaigned to join the Big 12. 

"The board today directed the commissioner to actively evaluate their interests and to report back those evaluations which he will make back to the board at a future board meeting," Boren said. "So there was continued interest expressed and expansion and the direction to the commissioner, I think, reflects that and we will look forward to receiving back from him the information that he gathers as he evaluates the interests of all of those who have contacted us, the other universities." 

It may not take very long as Bowlsby hinted he and the Big 12 staff would work quickly.

Candidates include Cincinnati, which has made it very public they want in. BYU atheltic director Tom Holmoe released a statement on Tuesday night confirming that the Cougars are interested and worthy.

They aren't the only Cougars interested as Houston has campaigned the Big 12 and the Pac-12. Big 12 football coaches don't want to admit Houston and give them legitimacy in recruiting. But leave Houston out there and another conference might take them and pry open a bigger entry into Texas for an entire conference such as the SEC or Pac-12. South Florida, Central Florida, UConn, Memphis, Colorado State, and Boise State are among other candidates, but the talk is south and east is more enticing than west. 

"It's possible that this could extend to our October board meeting, but it's also possible that we could have a special meeting sometime between now and then," Bowlsby said. "But I would say clearly it's another step in the process."

A step initiated by the new ACC network that has to make ACC commissioner John Swafford feeling tremendously accomplished and secure with those 20-year grant-in-right agreements.

"Obviously the announcement that something has been agreed to with the ACC, we don't know all the details at this point," a slightly frustrated Boren said. It was Boren that really wanted a conference network for the Big 12 for several years. Frustrated by the Longhorn Network and what it was doing for Texas.

"But it indicates that we live in a very fast-changing world, situation is changing quickly. New technologies are being adapted and the reports on the ACC indicate some exploration of new platforms as well. We simply don't know enough at this point in time to evaluate what the financial terms may be and whether or not a network, a linear network, what the shape of it will be or what the financial terms will be going forward. But it does indicate to us that we are continuing to operate in an environment that is filled with change, even over the period of a few days a matter can change. And we felt the need to receive an update from our consultants, including their best advice on what the impact of any ACC agreement with media partners might have on our conference."

Bowlsby made it clear that the Big 12 is covered if it brings in new members. The current payouts are guaranteed to the current schools and the Big 12 television contracts smartly call for balloon rights payments should the conference expand.

"Well, you know we have provisions in our existing contracts that were negotiated along with the 12-year agreements that we made," Bowlsby said. "And those stipulations were put in the contracts in anticipation of the possibility of fluctuations. And not only do they address very specifically the additions of institutions, but they also address the deletion of institutions. So the contract was anticipatory of the change that is present in college athletics, and I have to give a lot of credit to Kevin Sweeney, our counsel, for having the foresight to negotiate these things and have them in their contracts." 

I asked both Bowlsby and Boren what they were going to be looking for in the schools and both men really jumped at the chance to detail there thoughts.

"Obviously we're look at the strength of the athletic programs, their competitiveness," Boren started."We're looking at the fan base; we're looking at access to media markets. And also we're very much looking at the reputations of these institutions for integrity. We're looking at the academic standards of these universities, the level of research and teaching at these institutions.

"So we're looking at a whole composite of factors, not just any one factor. So it's really impossible to single out any one. All of those things will come into play and we'll be able to look at, say, a range of how these universities compare, those that have expressed interest to us, how they compare with each other in all of those categories. And we're very seriously concerned about all those categories, because we obviously stand for athletic competitiveness, winning in the right way. We also stand for academic excellence. When we use the term student-athlete, we use that very seriously and that's just not a slogan." 

"And the other thing I would add to that is that we -- I would say that we are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow, that will bring stability to the conference and that have a high top end, will benefit from an affiliation with the schools that are currently in our conference," Bowlsby, who will be the chief analyst, added. "And I think those that will -- you know, they're going to join a family. And it's important that they strengthen the family and we strengthen them."

The Big 12 Board of Directors also met with a contingent from Baylor as they had expressed their desire several weeks ago to get more information the situation at Baylor and what the member school was doing to change the climate on campus and correct a myriad of wrongs and poor actions in response to sexual assaults on the campus involving Baylor students and student-athletes including several in football.

"In response to the board's request for information, the Big 12 Board of Directors today was given an update by Baylor representatives on the university's investigation of sexual assaults on its campus. Baylor interim president David Garland, regent's chairman Ronald Murff and regent David Harper, academic and student affairs committee chairman of the board of regents, met with the Big 12 board for over two hours," Boren said.

"The details provided today are a necessary step in helping the entire membership to gain a better understanding of the past actions and how the university plans to deal with the issues identified in the Pepper Hamilton findings. We were assured of the university's commitment to keep the conference apprised of what was going on as we move forward. My board colleagues and I sincerely appreciate the leadership of interim President Garland during this very difficult period of time. And we support his efforts for absolute compliance with appropriate rules of all kind. We are pleased also by the commitment made to the regent's chairman, Mr. Murff, to our board today to support appropriate institutional control going forward and to assure full Title IX compliance."

Two issues, Baylor and expansion, that in the past have been poorly handled. For the best interest of the Big 12 we all need to hope that Tuesday was the dawning of a new day with more compassion and understanding when it comes to the Baylor issue and more aggressive and demanding attitudes when it comes to expansion and competing with other Power Five leagues in college athletics.  

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