LAS COLINAS, Texas — So what’s David Boren’s endgame?
On the surface, Boren’s only priority seems to be to enhance the Big 12 Conference. The University of Oklahoma president and chairman of the Big 12 board of directors reiterated that over and over during a 30-minute press briefing on Thursday at the league’s annual spring meetings.
But asked point-blank what is OU’s stance on conference expansion, Boren said he doesn’t really have one.
“I’m not one to be bound by some theological dogma when it comes to this question,” Boren said. “ … I say, ‘We’re waiting.’ ”
And yet, less than six months ago, Boren told me exactly the opposite.
“I’d like to see us add two more teams,” Boren said in a 30-minute telephone conversation on Jan. 14. “And we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about that, which teams fit, which teams are additive to our conference — and I mean schools that have very strong athletic programs as well as very strong academic programs, that fit our profile. And there are several schools potentially around the country that would be additive. You don’t want to just add schools for the sake of adding schools. So they need to be — put it this way: they need to be the right schools.”
So, what changed?
Well, Boren says, technology, for one.
“Technology is moving much, much faster than I think any of us could have anticipated — the market share of those (consumers), particularly the Millennials that are using their hand-held devices and others on which to view what is happening in the great competitions that we’re bringing, that’s changed dramatically. That’s changed literally in a 12-month period.”
Consumers of televised sporting events have cut the cord from cable companies so much that a once-untouchable giant like Disney/ABC/ESPN is enduring massive personnel layoffs.
To put it simply, technology is advancing so rapidly that the Big 12 can’t know how many members it wants (10? 12? 14? 16?) until it knows how much money its TV partners are willing to pay out for broadcast inventory. And the league certainly can’t know what those flailing networks are willing to pay for a conference network at this time.
Volatility in a rapidly evolving marketplace means any attempts at answers may be just educated guesswork.
“The change is coming pretty quickly,” Boren said. “I think surprisingly quickly.”
That’s why league presidents and athletic directors are receiving a humongous data dump during three days of meetings at the Four Seasons Resort. Chicago data analysis firm Navigate Research and New York media rights consultant Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures are giving Big 12 leaders endless scenarios.
Boren and commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the idea is for each school to take those mounds of data back to campus and figure out the best way to move forward. Bowlsby said Wednesday he hopes to facilitate a decision — a consensus, mind you — before the end of summer.
Boren also wants it known that he thinks the Big 12 is more harmonious than ever and that he believes the league is operating from a position of power in comparison to other Power 5 conferences. That, he said, should bear out when the league’s 2014-15 revenues are revealed on Friday.
The SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC all have reported revenue in excess of $400 million on their latest tax filings. The Big 12’s most recent report, from 2013-14, was $268 million, and probably won’t grow a huge amount from that. But, Boren reminds us, the Big 12 has fewer pieces of its revenue pie.
“When you look at the individual revenue distributions,” he said, “the conference is not nearly as disadvantaged as it would look like on a gross basis,” he said.
Still, Boren acknowledged his concern with “revenue imbalances with other conferences” and wants to curb a growing chasm.
“We’re going to look at all the strategies,” he said, “to make our conference stronger.”
Cynics and Sooner fans who see greener pastures in other conferences may ascribe to the theory that Boren’s change of heart on expansion is a chess move to embolden OU’s departure from the Big 12. Does standing pat at 10, rather than increasing membership, actually serve to destabilize an already unstable Big 12?
Makes perfect sense for the tinfoil hat brigade. Or the chess master.
But are the conspiracy theorists wrong?
Boren says they are.
“I think Oklahoma just has a single point of view right now,” he said, “and that is, we obviously value our participation in the Big 12, and we think the Big 12 Conference is very strong today and we think the future is very strong at the Big 12. We’re just supportive of making this conference even stronger.”