Expansion was inevitable ... until it wasn’t.
The Big 12 announced in July that it was going to explore candidates and evaluate resumes, with expansion by two or four teams looking like a certainty.
But the league has opted to stay put, according to Pete Thamel of Sports Illustrated. Chip Brown of Horns Digest also confirmed the news.
Source: Status quo in the Big 12. No members added. League still discussing adding more TV revenue from ESPN and Fox.— Pete Thamel (@SIPeteThamel) October 17, 2016
Sources also told SB Nation that there will be “no expansion at this time.”
Here are a few reasons why.
Wait, so was this all a lie?
True, Big 12 realignment has been in the news for six years now, with four teams leaving and TCU and West Virginia joining. When the whole “one true champion” thing backfired in 2014, new rounds of expansion talk really started brewing.
The Big 12 never promised it would actually expand, though.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby announced at July’s conference media days that his conference would begin evaluating potential members. He publicly solicited applications, but he didn’t guarantee the conference would expand.
Any team would need eight of 10 presidents to vote in its favor in order to be added. Oklahoma president David Boren said later Monday that the decision to hold steady was unanimous.
So who didn’t get in?
It was widely reported that as many as 17 schools were trying to get in on the Big 12 expansion sweepstakes, but three widely reported favorites stood tall throughout most of the process: BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston.
One of the biggest arguments for Houston is also an argument against Houston.
The Cougars looked like a slam dunk. They’re smack-dab in the heart of the recruiting hotbed that is Texas. They have the hottest coach in college football, Tom Herman. At one point, they had the conditional support of Texas heavyweights.
But a lot of what makes them attractive also makes them dangerous:
“Only 85 players [on each team]," [former Oklahoma coach] Barry Switzer said. "Don’t give them credibility. I’ve always said if I could get the top 30 players that came out of Houston every year, I’d play for the national championship every year."
“Hell no,” Switzer said when asked about the idea of empowering Houston.
You can call it scared; you can call it pragmatic. But if Houston got into the Big 12, it’d further muddy the waters of a high-stakes recruiting area. Why should Texas, Oklahoma, TCU, or Baylor want to validate any more competition in the state?
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy knows the deal, and a Kansas State coach who formerly coached UH agreed.
"Anyone that’s not in Texas will have a more difficult time recruiting Texas if another Texas school gets in this league,” Gundy said.
But it’s not only the upper echelon that may suffer.
It’s best to look at the non-Texas lower tier of the Big 12 as to why the Cougars might not be so popular. These are the schools with the least to offer in population and TV markets, and the most to lose if another Power 5 program emerges in Texas. It’s in that bloc’s interest to avoid Houston in favor of two (or four?) candidates from outside markets, like Cincinnati, BYU, or one of the directional Floridas.
Speaking of BYU ...
The other slam dunk of expansion, if you go by nothing but the numbers. The Cougars have football and basketball programs good enough to compete, solid academics, money, a national fanbase, and great attendance in a decent media market.
The major issue appeared to be geography, as the Cougars are nearly as far west of the Big 12’s center as West Virginia is to the east, which would spread the conference across nearly the entire width of the country.
But in August, an LGBTQ advocacy group sent a letter to the Big 12 regarding BYU’s honor code, and BYU’s public candidacy began to erode.
The Princeton Review ranked BYU No. 6 on its list of the least LGBT-friendly schools, behind only Tennessee among FBS universities.
BYU has a legal right to include this in its Honor Code, just as the Big 12 has a legal right to invite a university that guarantees equal treatment for all students. BYU has made its choice, and the Big 12 will soon make its.
The Cougars also had the matter of not being able to play on Sundays, for religious reasons, though it didn’t appear that’d be a problem.
Cincinnati felt like a solid choice all along, but you don’t expand from 10 to 11 just to add Cincinnati.
The Bearcats were not shy about Big 12 candidacy, pitching themselves well in materials sent to the league:
UC has made a "half a billion dollar commitment" to athletes over the last decade. This means new buildings, seats and upgrades to athletic facilities.
"UC only hires the best coaches. Coaches who recruit, coaches who win and coaches who put the student athlete first." The footage shows Tuberville and UC men's basketball coach Mick Cronin. Tuberville is described as a "big name" football coach who has "been to the top of the mountain" alongside video from his undefeated 2004 at Auburn.
The Bearcats have spent $300 million to improve athletic facilities since 2005 and signed a $50 million apparel contract with Under Armour this year.
Cincinnati football has made bowl games in nine of the last 10 seasons, and the men's basketball team has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of the last five years. UC has six national championships and 77 conference championships in 10 sports.
UC has "fully funded" scholarships for Olympic sports athletes.
As a university, UC has "grown 33 percent in the last 10 years." UC is described as "a research heavyweight," with $3.3 billion in research funding over the past 10 years.
The Bearcats play in a city of more than 2 million people who "show up on game day." The city is the "No. 7 TV market for regular season college basketball" and "ranks in the top 25" for college football.
According to ESPN, the state of Ohio is ranked sixth in the nation for total football and basketball recruiting.
Cincinnati benefited from a unique television footprint that the conference had not penetrated yet, and even noted alum Urban Meyer threw his hat in the ring.
Urban Meyer on University of Cincinnati: "I'm a graduate and a fan. I think they should be in the Big 12." #OhioState— Todd Jones (@Todd_Jones) August 14, 2016
Cincy would also solve some crucial problems for the Big 12.
Add together numbers that represent what the conference says it’s looking for, and Cincy stands alone among the top four choices as the candidate without a weird geography issue, whether it’s too close (Houston) or too far (BYU, UConn). Its geography would solve one problem anyway, since it’s near the lonely West Virginia and would add one of the country’s best recruiting grounds to the Big 12. UC’s been very high on Oklahoma’s list for a long time, too.
But Cincinnati isn’t going to waltz into the conference all by itself.
Adding just one team would complicate scheduling; the conference currently has its 10 members play nine-game, round-robin schedules in football.
Also, television rules this sport. TV was opposed to expansion in this case.
Television partners often say “jump,” and everyone in college football simply asks, “how high?” This time, ESPN and Fox said, “don’t jump.” The suits weren’t so keen on the conference expanding and forcing them to whip out the checkbook for teams with lower profiles.
The conference already has announced plans to start a football championship game next year, which could mean another $25 million to $30 million in revenue. Absent a conference channel, the only other way for the Big 12 to significantly grow revenue in the near term is to add schools and activate that pro rata clause in its media contracts.
That kind of cash grab, sources say, is rubbing ESPN and Fox the wrong way because any new schools would not carry the profile of most power five schools, which is what the networks are paying for.
We took Big 12 expansion as a given, because that’s what we do in these situations ...
... but administrators and lawyers are masters of technicalities. They opened the door to expansion just enough to take a look at the options, and then decided to close it. For now.
I do have one question for the conference though: Why was there never a formal response to SB Nation’s proposal for the ultimate Big 12 expansion?