LAS COLINAS, Texas — What a big day for the Big 12.
During Day 3 of the league’s spring business meetings at the Four Seasons Resort, conference CEOs on Friday approved the return of a football championship game, all but killed any idea of a conference network and announced record revenue distribution.
“I think it was kind of a watershed meeting,” said University of Oklahoma president and chairman of the Big 12 board of directors David Boren. “What we saw happen, I think the members put aside their previous inclinations. I’ve certainly had mine, and I’ve not been shy about expressing them.”
“We don’t know if there is an expansion process.”
— Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby
So what about the expansion process?
“We don’t know if there is an expansion process,” said commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
“I would say at this time, we still feel we need more information,” Boren said. “We’ve sent them back to get additional details that we can consider. But we are certainly continuing to consider possible expansion and what that might do in terms of how it might impact the conference, both positively and negatively.”
The championship game returns to the Big 12 in 2017. That year’s game will be televised by Fox and likely will be staged at a neutral site.
Incredibly, that’s all we know at this point. Still, league presidents and chancellors approved the addition of the title game unanimously, Boren said.
“The data,” Boren said, “was absolutely compelling.”
So the Big 12 title game is back on Championship Saturday. Having been bumped out of the College Football Playoff standings by a Baylor-TCU tie in 2014 and watching champion Oklahoma slide from No. 3 to No. 4 (and quarterback Baker Mayfield slip to fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting) in 2015, it’s a smart move.
The Big 12 stands to make some $30 million from the addition of a football championship game. Boren said it also enhances the Big 12’s ability to land a team in the College Football Playoff as “a 13th data point.”
But vagaries of the title game are many.
“Our fans want to see our team play against great teams. They don’t want to see them play mediocre teams.”
— OU president David Boren
No one knows if the 2017 title game will be played under the auspices of a 10-team conference with a round-robin schedule, a 10-team league with two five-team divisions and a round robin schedule, a 10-team league with two divisions and an eight-game schedule, or additional permutations that could involve expanding to 12 or 14 or even 16 teams.
“We’re still evaluating that,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t think there’s anything we did during this meeting that would slow our evaluative process (for expansion) at all. I think we continue to be on the timeframe that we’ve both noted before.”
“I’d like to be clear,” Boren interjected, “one does not interfere with the other. … And continuing to look at the expansion possibilities and concept is in no way slowing down the implementation of the championship game. That’s going forward. Nor will that implementation slow down our continued consideration of the expansion issue.”
Boren did offer a strong hint that expansion may be dead or dying because “our fans want to see our team play against great teams. They don’t want to see them play mediocre teams.
“The data for expansion is going to require some further thought. There’s no doubt that expansion gives some marginal gain. But how much marginal gain? We have to refine that a little further financially. It does give some marginal gain. But you have weight that against reputational impacts.”
Big 12 fans know a November game against Cincinnati or Connecticut or Central Florida probably doesn’t move the needle, especially after a few years into the rotation. Seats still have to be sold, and bringing in Group of 5 schools may not be the best way to sell them.
“We have to determine what that’s going to do to the longtime reputation of the brands at each of the schools,” Boren said, “and what quality of opponents we’re having.”
Boren and Bowlsby also said there will be no Big 12 television network in the traditional sense because of the volatility of the industry. As sports viewership evolves with various streaming platforms and handheld devices, the league may explore additional opportunities.
“Do I still need to pound the table and say, ‘We’ve got to have a traditional network, and they’ve got to fold up their competing network and so do we?’ No, it would be foolish to do that.”
— David Boren
“When the consultants tell you and the marketplace tells you, ‘Look, everything’s changed’ — if you were the CEO of ESPN or Fox or one of the traditional networks right now, with all this change and disruptive technology, would you be want to put millions of dollars into a partnership with a new traditional network? I think you’d say, Not now. We need to understand the impact of this technology first. That takes it off the table, the marketplace. So do I still need to pound the table and say, ‘We’ve got to have a traditional network, and they’ve got to fold up their competing network and so do we?’ No, it would be foolish to do that.”
The death of a potential Big 12 network may signal a big win for Texas and its Longhorn Network, yes. UT gets to keep its $15 million a year from ESPN. But it also has become clear that in the rush to push the LHN into the marketplace, Texas and ESPN basically ruined the chances of other Big 12 members getting to share in a lucrative league-wide network.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a seismic win for anybody,” Boren said. “I’d just say the marketplace has changed. It’s a moot issue now. The marketplace simply isn’t interested in a tradition network. I can be for it or against it, but the important thing is there a market for it? Is there a willing partner right now for a network for anybody?”
Boren had previously said the LHN must be eliminated or even folded in as a sort of scaffolding for the implementation of a Big 12 network. Bowlsby called the LHN a “boulder in the road.”
“There’s no reason for us to have a quarrel with anybody over whether their network is going to continue or not,” Boren said, “when there is no possibility for a marketplace for creating a traditional Big 12 Network.”
The Big 12 also announced a record revenue distribution of $304 million for fiscal year 2014-15. That’s $30.4 million per school, with West Virginia and TCU joining the others as full members. That figure ranks just behind the SEC (roughly $32.7 million per school in the most recent tax filings) and the Big Ten ($32.4 million), Bowlsby said, but ahead of the Pac-12 ($25.1 million) and the ACC ($24-$27 million).
Boren said on Thursday that the league wasn’t as “financially disadvantaged as some might think.”
He’s right. The Big 12’s revenue distribution model does not include Tier 3 media rights such as the Longhorn Network ($15 million a year) or Sooner Sports TV (a profit of $5 million a year, Boren said) because Big 12 members are allowed to create, generate and keep all their own third-tier money. The SEC and Big Ten figures do include revenue from those league’s networks.
“I think we were all taken aback,” Boren said, “that we had a 20 percent improvement this year.”
So was Friday a message to the nation that the Big 12 Conference is here to stay?
“Oh absolutely,” Boren said. “We’re sending that message.”