The Big 12 has faced a conundrum since the moment Texas and ESPN formed the Longhorn Network.
The belief among power conferences is that a conference-wide network is the best way to make long-term money. It's clear that forming a Big 12 Network with LHN in existence would be like vacuuming your living room with an elephant under the rug. You can do it, but it might not be worth the effort.
Conference and member higher-ups have espoused the ideas of conference networks and conference expansion. It seems to be a three-step approach:
- Talk about it a lot
- Texas agrees to turn LHN into B12N
Texas would have little motivation to cooperate, even if UT were allowed to take in more money from a B12N deal than anybody else. If the school were interested in the Big 12's health, it wouldn't have formed LHN in the first place. The mere announcement helped push Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC.
Longtime Austin American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls said this last week:
I still see no willingness on Texas’ part to fold the Longhorn Network into a Big 12 network, even if the league gives the Longhorns an extra $15 million share to cover its LHN income, because, the Texas source said, "we would get the same money, but lose our branding and having our own channel? Not very compelling. If we get rid of LHN, it will be to change conferences, in my opinion."
If there were an incredible addition available, maybe that would be enough to convince Texas. But if that incredible option existed, the Big 12 would have jumped a long time ago. (Actually, that might not be true. There were some bold potential options not long ago, but no daring action.)
Schools like Cincinnati, BYU and UConn are fine choices that would open up new areas of the country. Regional schools like Houston and Memphis have been trying to carry themselves like power-conference programs. Any of these options would be fine.
But if you're looking to sway Texas, you have to think big. And since you blew whatever chance you might have had at a Notre Dame or Florida State, there's only one bold option left: take everybody.
Never mind adding two programs. The Big 12 should add 14 of them.
Let's say the Big 12 adds Air Force, Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis, Navy, North Dakota State, Northern Illinois, Rice, Tulane, UCF and USF.
That gives you outposts in the North, the West, the Midwest, the East and Florida. It gives you service academies and smart-kid schools. It establishes a truly national conference worthy of a national media presence.
(Impossible scheduling? Too many mouths to feed with TV money? Read on.)
Any number of other programs could fit. SMU, Tulsa, Marshall, WKU, Colorado State, Utah State, Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, San Diego State, etc. I chose these.
But that's not all.
The Big 12 should create the first two-tiered power conference.
I love the idea of college football promotion and relegation, and it could be applied to one conference. Let's illustrate how it would work.
(Would the NCAA allow this? Few can ever predict what the NCAA will do, so let's just have some fun anyway. Even if the relegation part didn't work out, a gigantic Big 12 could still set up as well for the post-cable era of college football as anybody besides the Big Ten or SEC.)
Houston and Navy earn initial promotion into the Big 12's 12-team top tier, based on their 2015 seasons. The other 12 go to the Little 12 (we could call it Big 12 Tier II or whatever sounds better than "Little 12," of course). This immediately adds two Sagarin top-40 teams to the conference lineup.
Then, you promote and relegate one or two pairs each year. Say, the last-place Big 12 team goes down and is replaced by the Little 12 champion. Or the bottom two teams go down, and the top two (division champions, perhaps) go up.
As for scheduling, you could have North and South divisions for the top level.
- North: Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Navy, Oklahoma State, West Virginia
- South: Baylor, Houston, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech
That's brutally unbalanced toward the South at the moment, and Oklahoma could end up in the North instead, but that creates an awkward situation, since both of OU's primary rivals would reside in the other division.
Set up a similar second tier and then wait a few years as the Big 12 North catches up a bit.
- North: Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, NIU, North Dakota State
- South: Air Force, Memphis, Rice, Tulane, UCF, USF
So what does this do for you?
1. Top-to-bottom competitiveness
Kansas and Iowa State would likely be relegated soon in favor of, say, Boise State or USF. After them, two teams ranked in the 60s or 70s could be replaced by two in the top 40.
Within a few years, most of your top-12 teams rank within the country's top 50 at worst. Top-to-bottom, this would be a brutal, exciting, competitive Big 12 as teams fight for top-level membership.
In 2022 or so, maybe you have this, with Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Texas Tech battling to make it back up:
- North: Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Navy, Oklahoma State, West Virginia
- South: Baylor, Houston, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas, UCF
It would also make the Little 12 the best mid-major conference. The Little 12 could have a champion like North Dakota State or Memphis or a bounce-back team like a West Virginia.
And competitiveness creates must-watch television.
2. Tons of geography
None of us has any idea how cable television will work in a few years. But if you want to make sure you're on television or mobile phones or whatever from coast to coast, plant flags from coast to coast.
Creating local pods instead of divisions could also help cut down on travel costs.
3. Revenue distribution that might -- might -- make sense
Even if Texas were to ditch LHN for a Big 12 Network, the idea of separating revenue 24 ways is a deal breaker.
But you could work out arrangements for Tier II schools to make far less. Or, in Big 12 fashion, you could assure from the start that the original 10 programs always make a baseline amount. Technically an NIU or Tulane doesn't need a large portion of the pie to still be eating more pie.
4. All the programming viewers can handle
Two 12-team conferences, each with nine-game conference schedules (eight vs. your tier, plus one against the other tier) means 108 conference football games in a given year, 110 with two title games. And promotion/relegation battles mean even the worst games matter, unlike every other conference.
Plus you've got every other sport. If live sports programming is the holy grail for a network, the Big 12 Network would have it endlessly.
5. And fortune favors the bold (for a while, at least)
Go back to that "The Big 12 should add Florida State and whatnot" piece I wrote in 2012. Look at the opening:
On July 1, 2009, Larry Scott took over as the commissioner of the Pac-10. In one year, he completely redefined his conference. He turned the rumble of realignment into an avalanche, inviting half of the Big 12 -- Colorado, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
That he came up short (reeling in just Colorado and Utah) didn't really matter. He became one of the most well-respected higher-ups in college sports just for trying. Since turning the Pac-10 into the Pac-12, he created a network, visited China for media deals, and the like. He is a powerhouse.
Sentiment has since turned against Scott. The ambitious Pac-12 Network, complete with school-specific channels and less-than-national distribution, has resulted in less revenue than anticipated.
The point is that boldness resulted in about three years of positive headlines, and despite turmoil, the Pac-12 is still considered much stabler than the Big 12.
Don't you want that to be you for once, Big 12? Don't you want to be the one lauded for foresight? Don't you want people reacting to your aggressive maneuvering instead of predicting your demise?
This could fail miserably, but you might already be destined to fail by doing nothing. You might as well dictate the terms of your spectacular demise.
Okay, fine, the Big 12 isn't going to do this. But the AAC could.
The American looks like it'll emerge as the mid-major with the most resources and cachet. It already has a broad footprint and could choose to strike now. It could demolish all four of its rival conferences for good and maybe even make itself the two best mid-majors.
Imagine a two-tiered AAC that added Air Force and Colorado State from the MWC; Marshall, WKU, Louisiana Tech and Southern Miss from Conference USA; Toledo, WMU and NIU from the MAC; and Appalachian State, Arkansas State and Georgia Southern from the Sun Belt.
The top four conferences are sturdy. The Big 12 faces constant uncertainty. The Group of 5 is trying to figure out a role for itself. It's time to get creative.
Or just add UConn and Colorado State and see if that solves your problems, Big 12.