Friday, January 15, 2016

4 facts about the future of the Big 12

The Big 12 now has the option of having a conference championship game and the annual expansion rumors about the conference every offseason are not going to decrease despite this new exemption. There's a lot of disagreement about whether or not adding a championship game is even a good idea for the league. It might have helped Baylor or TCU in 2014, although you wonder if either outcome to that final would have helped those teams get in over eventual champion Ohio State, and it could have hurt Oklahoma in 2015.

Overall, there's a lot of fundamental misunderstandings about the league and its out there and I think it'd be valuable to take a moment to reflect on same basic truths about the current climate that will dictate what the future of this league will be.

1. College football is dominated by TV money

College football is seeing inflated expenses and arms races that are threatening the financial health of multiple schools for the simple reason that it's immensely profitable. Schools get three major financial benefits from having big football brands, one is an increase in applications and enrollment as prospective college students unquestionably make decisions based on which University will give them a fun college experience and football plays heavily into that calculus. Another is increased alumni investment, as the college team becomes a vanity project for a particular community of professionals.

Finally, there's the TV money. In an age where live television is losing its appeal, sports are becoming exceptionally important to cable companies and TV advertisers. Most realignments over the last several years have been entirely dictated by TV money and the kind of broadcast contracts that could be garnered by different program pairings.

2. The Big 12 has a small geographic footprint and limited share of the nation's major TV markets

The Big 12 can basically be summed up as the state of Texas. While the Lone Star state holds 27 million people and the three metropolitan areas of DFW (six million people), Houston (six million people) and ASA (Austin/San Antonio, four million people) which are all major TV markets that move the needle, the other areas in the conference are bereft of large populations.

Kansas has 2.9 million people and no metro area with even one million people, Iowa is the same. West Virginia is a very small state who's program tries to pull in eyes from surrounding metro areas in other, heavily-contested areas like Pittsburgh. Oklahoma has nearly four million people but OKC is only 1.5 million people and the flagship program, Oklahoma, has traditionally been as much of a North Texas entity as an Oklahoman one in terms of alumni diaspora and TV markets.

Every other major conference in college football has a bigger population and bigger share of the valuable TV markets there are to be had.

3. There are no good expansion candidates that would significantly increase the Big 12's geographic footprint

Just consider the schools that often come up as possible additions to the Big 12 and you can see the desperate shape of the conference in trying to keep up in the arms race of expanding TV deals.

UCONN? Not only is Connecticut a terrible cultural match for the rest of the league and miles away from even West Virginia, will that really move the needle for the conference when they renegotiate the next TV deal? Cincinnati? Same story. BYU would be one of the better options but the Cougars may have better choices, are not a major program, and are in a different time zone than any existing Big 12 team.

There are no programs out there that will be suitable replacements for Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas A&M, it's all downhill from here for the league.

4. The league is built around Texas and Oklahoma

Fans of the league's smaller programs hate this point but the fact of the matter is that these programs include massive alumni bases, traditional fan bases, and are responsible for delivering the league the vast majority of the value on their TV deals.

This has a few complications for the rest of the league, the first being that keeping these two programs happy and uninterested in leaving for the Pac-12, Big 10, or SEC is of the utmost importance or else that TV money spigot is going to get shut off in a real hurry.

Additionally, the teams' rivalry is built around the Red River Shootout, a neutral site contest in Dallas' Cotton Bowl that takes place early every October. These programs do NOT want the possibility of facing each other in a prospective Big 12 championship game because this would dilute the "winner takes all" stakes of the Big 12's current biggest game.

That means they need to be paired in the same division if the league expanded and went into a divisional format...which combined with the fact that they'd also shared that division with the other Texas programs means that Big 12 divisions will perpetually be lopsided. There's little chance of building a non-OU/TX division that can regularly even field a top 25 team, much less a worthy foe in the Big 12 title game.

A conference championship game would simply become a speed bump that does little to bolster the case of the league champion or else a trap game that ruins the league's chances of a playoff berth. That's a lose-lose scenario.

When you consider all these factors it becomes clear that the Big 12 is going to exist for so long as it suits Texas and Oklahoma for it to exist. Because Texas is currently tied to the Longhorn Network contract with ESPN, that could be a while yet for the Longhorns but Oklahoma has little to hold them back if they got a better offer elsewhere (Big 10 West?) and then it would simply be a matter of time before it all came undone.

When the Longhorn Network contract is up, Texas will no longer be tied to it and could enter into an agreement to be a part of a league network if they wanted to move on to greener pastures. There was a time when Texas was pushing for a greater league emphasis on league deals but the rest of the conference was happy with how things stood, now everyone is tied down to bad deals and making poor short-term decisions while the rest of college football is thriving.

I love watching this league, but news like the possible addition of a championship game doesn't change the fact that the future of the conference isn't too bright.

1 comment:

  1. I think most observers would agree that Texas has a nice setup at present and would like to preserve it. If you keep OU happy, the league has a future. Period. But that's a big "if" and no outsider can really predict that at present.

    I will quibble about splitting the Texas schools. It can happen. Put OU, OSU, Tech and Texas together, put TCU and Baylor on the other side. The Frogs and Bears might not like it, but if it's for the good of the league, they'll fall in line. Honestly, in the event of expansion, it really would be for the best -- each division gets 2 games minimum against Texas schools every year. You split up the "power" a bit better than the old N/S split. It's entirely doable. Just mho.