The Big 12 Conference is financially healthy, and no doubt is getting healthier.
But for how long?
According to data obtained and compiled by USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz, the Big 12 sits comfortably behind the Southeastern Conference and the Big Ten Conference in 2016-17 revenue distribution, and comfortably ahead of the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pac-12 Conference.
SEC schools lead all leagues with an average per-school revenue distribution ranging from $39.9 million to $42 million in the previous fiscal year, per tax documents filed with the U.S. Department of Education.
Big Ten schools received $37-$37.2 million.
The Big 12, meanwhile, disbursed payments of roughly $34.3 million per school (except for Baylor, which had future money withheld as a penalty for the school’s sexual assault scandal, though that money will be paid in the future contingent on Baylor meeting certain criteria).
The Pac-12 paid its members $30.9 million each, and the ACC distributed payments ranging from $25.3 million to $30.7 million.
None of that information is particularly revealing. Third among the Power 5 leagues is where the Big 12 has sat for several years now, and most of the figures had been announced previously. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last year that the league expected to pay out in excess of $34 million this year. (The ACC’s financial data is the latest addition to the group and rounds out the Power 5 comparisons.)
But there are trends that may not easily identifiable in the head-to-head look at the bottom line — trends that could be reason for alarm in the Big 12.
The league has shown steady financial growth since conference realignment took away four schools in 2010 and 2011, added two in 2011 and left the Big 12 with 10 members.
- in fiscal year 2008-09, OU sat atop the Big 12’s revenue stream at $12.2 million, just ahead of Texas ($11.8 million) and Kansas (11.5 million), while Iowa State ($8.9 million) and Kansas ($8.4 million) brought up the rear.
- In FY 2009-10, Colorado was at the bottom of the Big 12’s revenue chart at $8.3 million, while Kansas — yes, Kansas — was at the top at $12.1 million.
- In FY 2010-11, the year Colorado and Nebraska bolted for the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively, the Big 12 distributed an average of $14.5 million per school to 10 members.
- And in 2011-12, after the league implemented an equal revenue sharing policy and signed a $1.17 billion deal with Fox Sports, the disbursement grew to $22 million per school.
Now consider that, according to the latest data, those schools that stayed behind are making $34.3 million each.
The Big 12 has been good for everyone — though some better than others.
CNHI’s Sean Isabella wrote today about the Big 12’s latest financial data here, showing that some schools have experienced startling growth in football revenue and expenditures, while some schools that have remained more stagnant.
Since conference realignment, Texas’ revenue just from football has grown from $93 million in 2011 to $141 million last year (52 percent). Oklahoma’s jumped from $58 million to $96 million (66 percent). Texas Tech ($26 million to $44 million, or 69 percent), Baylor ($14 million to $43 million, or 207 percent), Kansas State ($17 million to $41 million, or 141 percent), Iowa State ($20 million to $41 million, or 105 percent) and Kansas ($18 million to $33 million, or 83 percent) all experienced similar growth. Oklahoma State ($33 million to $42 million, or 27 percent), however, saw markedly smaller growth.
The Big 12’s biggest winners, of course, are TCU and West Virginia. Before joining the Big 12, WVU in 2011 got a cool $9.4 million from the Big East Conference. TCU? The Horned Frogs, who get $34.3 million this year, got a whopping $213,212 from the Mountain West Conference (well behind league leader Utah, who received $406,908 in 2011 and now gets almost $31 million from the Pac-12 in 2018).
What should be concerning for Big 12 fans, however, isn’t today’s dollars, but tomorrow’s.
While the Big 12 revenue distribution doesn’t include third-tier media rights — Texas gets to keep another $15 million a year from ESPN for the Longhorn Network; Oklahoma’s revenue from a partnership with Fox Sports and local distributors brings in an estimated $9-11 million a year; each Big 12 school has cut its own deal and gets to keep 100 percent of that revenue — there doesn’t appear to be much room for future growth.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in 2014 predicted that by the end of the league’s current media rights deal in 2024-25, Big 12 schools would be earning $44 million each. That figure now seems a bit hopeful.
Television and other media partners have long expressed a desire to tap the brakes on escalating rights fees, and as the number of cord-cutters continues to rise and other media technologies continue to evolve toward unknowable formats, TV networks will be less apt to spend in the future.
Meanwhile, ESPN’s ACC Network, an entirely new revenue stream for that league’s members, is scheduled for launch in 2019. The Big Ten Network continues to pile up cash, and new media rights revenue in that league (largely from subscribers in the huge population centers of the Big Ten footprint) has been projected to surpass $50 million per school next year. And the SEC — college football’s Godzilla — isn’t shrinking anytime soon as the SEC Network continues to swell.
Soon, possibly next year, the Big 12 will slip to fourth among Power 5 league revenues. And if the Pac-12 ever gets its media rights act together and finds a sustainable model rather than its current quagmire, the Big 12 could challenge for last place.
The Big 12’s current rights deals expire in 2024-25, but other leagues, such as the Big Ten (2022-23), will be at the negotiating table long before that.
The big question, then, is a difficult one for Big 12 fans to hear: Does the Big Ten, in negotiations with its television partners, seek expansion? And if so, where will it turn?
The Big 12’s most profitable properties seem like a viable resource for a big conference that’s looking to get bigger.
The final piece to the puzzle is then simple: Which Big 12 school would turn down the prospect of growing its current bottom line from $34 million to more than $50 million?
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “The Franchise Drive” every weeknight from 6-8 on The Franchise in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Catch him throughout the day on other shows on The Franchise. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Hoover also covers the Big 12 for Sporting News and Lindy’s magazine and is a feature writer for Sooner Spectator magazine. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.