An In-Depth Look at Big 12 Expansion

INTRODUCTION

 

The world of major college athletics has devolved into a harsh landscape where the importance of regional rivalries, rich histories, and geography are all irrelevant in a setting dominated by cold, hard cash. Conference realignment has given schools more wealth than ever, while also systematically destroying some of sports’ best facets. Now, it appears that there is only one crucial cog left to turn before stability comes back to the NCAA. The Big 12, faced with possible extinction, has come to the correct conclusion that their only chance to remain a member of the “Power Five” is to expand its membership. With more schools, the conference will have a larger presence nationwide and overall become more stable.

 

Shortly after the official announcement that the conference would explore expansion candidates, commissioner Bob Bowlsby released a list of six criteria that are going to be most important in the evaluation of candidates. These are: 1. Strength of athletic department, 2. Fan base, 3. Media market, 4. Reputation, 5. Integrity, and 6. Academic standing. In terms of athletic department, it should be expected that football is the most important sport, with basketball being a distant second. A noteworthy omission on this list of factors is geography. As recent expansion has showed, location is no longer relevant to the realignment picture in today’s age.

 

A multitude of schools have come forward and expressed their desire to join the Big 12. However, in reality, seven schools have a realistic chance of seizing an invite to the Power Five. Many of these are among the usual suspects when expansion rumors fly around, while others require some more creative thinking to seem properly feasible. These seven schools will be evaluated along the six factors mentioned specifically by Commissioner Bowlsby, in order to present the true best candidates for Big 12 expansion.

 

 

THE CANDIDATES

 

Brigham Young University: BYU is perhaps the school currently outside the Power Five that is most deserving of a spot. Their athletic department boasts a football program that has won national titles, and recently defeated both Oklahoma and Texas. Their basketball program is consistently in the postseason picture. The Cougars have an athletic department revenue of $59 million, more than nearly every “G5” school. BYU’s existence as a religious institution gives them a unique advantage in the fan base department, as the Mormon religion boasts copious members not just nationwide, but worldwide. This leads to a football attendance that approaches 60,000 per game, larger than over half of the current Big 12 members. Despite this advantage in fan base, BYU’s actual media market is somewhat small. Salt Lake City’s market ranks 34th in the country. However, this is still larger than many of the current markets occupied by Big 12 schools. It is difficult to assess what exactly Bowlsby means by “reputation,” but whatever this means, BYU has it. The school’s combination of athletic prowess and strong academics produces an amazing image. Integrity is also difficult to define, although BYU again seems to match up what Bowlsby is looking for. As previously touched on, BYU is a strong academic institution, ranking 66th in the current US News & World Report listings. However, their endowment is small compared to other candidates, pulling in $140 million (The Big 12 schools average over a billion in endowment). Despite this, overall, BYU appears to be a strong candidate. But, the wildcard may be that BYU refuses to play games on Sundays, due to their religious beliefs. This may not be a problem for football, but for other sports, this could create major scheduling problems, problems that if not compromised, could keep BYU from joining the conference.

 

Boise State University: Football, football, football. Over the past 15 years, there is little doubt that Boise State has been the premiere football program not currently in a power conference. This enough validates their athletic department in the gridiron-crazy Big 12. Their memorable win against Oklahoma in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl was one of the best college football moments in the 2000s. Boise State’s home attendance is the largest by a fair amount in the Mountain West conference, but due to other factors, the Broncos have a rather weak traditional fan base. Still, if fans show up to see the team play a weaker schedule, they will most definitely fill the stadium against a slate of Big 12 opponents. Their football success has made them a rather trendy team to follow for casual fans. A real black eye with Boise State is their media market, which ranks all the way back at 112th in the country, far below most power conference schools. Idaho is a sparsely populated state, meaning that there would only be minimal footprint gains in adding the Broncos to the Big 12. Boise State’s reputation is all football. None of their other sports programs are stellar, and their academics lag behind other potential targets. They have an endearing image as a non-Power Five school that is capable of fighting admirably against the larger institutions. Boise State has a strong enough sense of integrity, although average fans may only see the poor academic numbers, and therefore draw false conclusions about the Broncos. There have been no major scandals in the history of Boise State athletics. As just mentioned, Boise State has abysmal academic statistics when compared to the national scene. It does not appear on the US News national rankings, and has an acceptance rate of nearly 80 percent. If the Big 12 is serious about adding schools with academic prestige, then Boise State may be in trouble. But, it is important to remember that football is still king, and that this could potentially overshadow the academic shortcomings possessed by the Broncos. Should a football-only addition be seriously considered, Boise State will jump towards the top of the list.

 

University of Central Florida: In the eyes of many, UCF is a sleeping giant in the college sports world. Their football team is rather enigmatic; they went 0-12 a year ago, but also boasts a BCS bowl win over the Baylor Bears. UCF also accumulated an AD revenue of $52 million, above average for a G5 school. UCF’s fan base has numbers that benefit from a blossoming alumni network. Over the past several years, UCF has been at or near the top of schools with the highest number of undergraduate students. This has led to attendance figures that are very respectable, about 36,000 a game, despite playing in the mediocre AAC and having a poor team last season. The Orlando media market is among the top 20 in the country, boasting 1.5 million residents. This creates a large opportunity to attract viewers and fans for the Big 12, while expanding the conference’s footprint from the Midwest to the Southeast. However, it is important to note that UCF is, at best, third in their own market behind Florida State and the Florida Gators. UCF’s athletic reputation is not as stout as other candidates. Not twenty years ago, the Knights competed in the tiny Atlantic Sun conference. The school’s ascension to a high major conference in itself is under appreciated. However, the academic growth of the school over recent years helps contribute to its image as an up-and-coming university. Once again, it must be stressed that the criteria of integrity is difficult to assess. In fact, this factor was added by Bowlsby likely only in response to the striking scandal surrounding Baylor. However, a simple google search reveals that UCF had to deal with major violations five years ago, which resulted in the resignation of the school’s athletic director at that time. Since that incident, which involved possible recruiting payments, the school’s integrity image has begun to recover. Academically, UCF ranks 168th on the US News rankings. Their endowment is also only $152.8 million, but the sheer size of their student body could result in this number increasing greatly over the next decade. The state has also invested millions of dollars in developing the school’s research departments, meaning the potential exists for UCF to become a highly respected institution. An x-factor for UCF is its location; a school in Florida opens up the fertile recruiting grounds for the Big 12 schools. It would become the second Power conference, after the SEC, to assert their recruiting prowess on the two largest high school football goldmines, Texas and Florida. UCF is a high-risk, high-reward candidate for the Big 12 to consider.

 

University of Cincinnati: Cincy has consistently good teams in the two most important sports, football and men’s basketball. Their athletic department is lacking in flair, but seems to always put out a quality product. The Bearcats had an athletic revenue of $43 million in 2015-16, somewhat small compared to other candidates. The Cincinnati fan base is a strong one, regularly selling out 40,000 capacity Nippert Stadium. However, it has to share many of its fans with not only the Ohio State University, but Louisville. A weaker area for Cincinnati is its media market, which ranks 36th in the country, and is dominated by Ohio State. Still, there are enough loyal followers that would tune in for Bearcat sports that a proposed network would not flop in the city. As previously mentioned, Cincinnati has a reputation for being a difficult opponent to play in all sports, because of their gritty nature. This is especially true in basketball. The Bearcats have long histories in many D-I sports, giving them a reputation as a school that should already be in a Power Five conference. The integrity of Cincinnati has never been a subject of media discussion, again making it very desirable to the Big 12 in the wake of the Baylor scandal. On the academic side of the coin, Cincy is an average institution, in terms of rankings. However, their endowment exceeds $1.2 billion dollars, larger than many schools currently in the Big 12. This is by far the largest endowment fund held by any of the potential targets. Overall, Cincy’s solid athletic and academic reputation, combined with recent football success (bowls in each of the past five years) make them an attractive target, despite being a below average media market. The deciding factor, ironically, may be geography. Cincinnati is a natural travel partner for current Big 12 school West Virginia, and can also give the Big 12 a crack at the fertile recruiting lands of Ohio.

 

University of Connecticut: UConn made the most revenue of any G5 school, at over $72 million dollars, this past year. However, UConn’s football has been notoriously horrific over the past five years, posting terrible records such as 3-9 and 2-10. While the team did manage to make a bowl game this past season, there is still a lot of work to do. Despite the poor football, UConn presents arguably the most well-rounded athletic department of the schools under consideration. There is nothing to say about the basketball programs that has not already been said, while men’s soccer and field hockey regularly rank among the nation’s elite. The Huskies’ fan base is a strong one; in basketball. In terms of football, the Huskies have put up bad attendance figures the last several years, averaging under 30,000 a season ago. The key for UConn may be its media market. While its home market of Hartford-New Haven, CT is 30th, the Huskies can also pull huge amounts of eyeballs from both New York and Boston. Within a two-hour radius, UConn has the potential to reach 11.4 million TV sets. Counting markets within a two-hour radius of other competitors, the potential reach for Cincy, UCF, BYU, and Houston is 10.8 million combined.  UConn seems to have two separate reputations: in football, they are seen as a minnow; in basketball, they are viewed as a blue blood program. The actual truth is somewhere in the middle: a strong school that combines great academics with a well-rounded (outside of football) athletic department. UConn’s integrity took a recent hit with the men’s basketball program suffering a postseason ban in 2012-2013, but the image has been slowly restored under Kevin Ollie. Academics are another key for UConn. The school ranks as a top 60 university in the nation, and is a top 20 public school. The endowment is far below Big 12 schools at only $436 million, but a closer look shows that the endowment has nearly doubled since 2011, when current President Susan Herbst took over. By the numbers, UConn is a G5 school in name only. If the Big 12 is able to ignore the geographic issues and take a flyer that UConn could one day play average football, then they are a no-brainer to add.

 

University of Houston: Houston’s athletic prowess is backed by a recent surge in football. The Cougars have played above average football for over a decade, but last year went 13-1 and defeated Florida State in the Peach Bowl. The basketball program has fallen on hard times, but appears to be on the uptick under Kelvin Sampson and has a rich history. Other sports, such as baseball and men’s golf, have also had huge amounts of postseason success (16 national championships in golf). Despite the football success, Houston averaged under 30,000 a game in home football attendance last year, and is notorious for its anemic crowds at men’s basketball games. The fan base for Houston is hurt by the domination it faces in its own backyard from Texas, Texas A & M, and even LSU. Continued success can definitely bring more Houston natives into its fan base, however. The Houston media market is massive; its 2.4 million residents make it the number ten market in the country. However, as mentioned, it is, at best, the number four television draw in its own area, and is already within the Big 12 footprint due to the Texan nature of the conference. The extensive athletic history of Houston gives it a strong reputation, despite its below average academic rankings. The Cougars also seem to have never encountered a major NCAA violation, meaning that its integrity, at least in an athletic sense, is intact. A real issue with Houston could be its academics, if Bowlsby and the Big 12 are serious about making it a major factor. Houston has a solid endowment at $684.5 million, but is barely ranked in the top 200 of US News’s list. In addition, only 15% of Houston students live on campus, creating a mantra that it is only an overgrown commuter school. While this notion is definitely false, it further contributes to the shaky academic reputation possessed by the Cougars. Houston’s wild card is politics. The University of Texas, clearly one of the alpha presences in the Big 12, has lobbied hard for Houston to join the conference. Political figures, including the governor of Texas, have also pushed for the Big 12 to extend an invite to the Cougars. Even without the political influences, Houston stands a good chance of being chosen due to its strong athletics.

 

University of Memphis: Lastly, the Memphis Tigers, yet another AAC program, have campaigned hard to get into the Big 12. Memphis has a storied basketball history, in addition to moderate success in men’s soccer and golf. The perception of its football program may exceed reality, however. The Tigers have been great the last two seasons, but before that had not played in a bowl game for six years. Still, it is in the heart of the fertile Southeast recruiting grounds, and may be ready for a string of extended excellence. The Memphis fan base has historically been a rabid one, and football success has only accentuated this. Over 35,000 fans came to the average home game at the historic Liberty Bowl, and the school’s basketball program has managed to maintain its large following despite a rough spell the last couple years. In terms of media, Memphis owns the number 50 market in the country, which offers little to the Big 12 in terms of increased exposure. However, the expansion into the Memphis area could open up more recruiting territory for Big 12 schools. Memphis has long had a reputation as a basketball power, although the school’s overall reputation is arguably not as strong as it should be, even with the recent football success. Contributing factors to this include the recent basketball struggles and Derrick Rose scandal, in addition to below average academics. The integrity of Memphis is also not as strong as it should be on the national picture, due to the continued link to Rose and other basketball scandals that have happened during the school’s history. In many ways, it is up to the football program to continue the success in place of the struggling basketball program, so that the integrity of Memphis can become trusted the way it should be. Memphis, like Houston, has a large percentage of commuter students, and does not even register in the US News rankings. To an even greater degree than Houston, the Big 12 would have to overlook massive academic shortcomings to extend them an invite. Memphis could be counting exclusively on FedEx, which is headquartered in the city, and has proposed extensive investment in the university, along with lucrative advertising contracts with the Big 12, should the school be invited. In the world of college athletics where money rules everything, the FedEx dollars could be too much for the Big 12 to pass up.

 

POSSIBLE SCENARIOS

 

Each school has many pros and many cons, and should all get a good look from the Big 12. Another major question is if the Big 12 expands with two teams, or four. While two has been proposed, four seems to be the more likely scenario. It would extend the Big 12 footprint presumably outside the Southwest and Plaines, and create more media markets to increase leverage in any potential network negotiations. To reach a reasonable level of stability and best position itself to compete on a good playing field for at least the next decade, the Big 12 will likely expand with four teams. Still, all of the most likely possibilities will be explored. These possibilities include football-only additions, something the Big 12 has said they will give legitimate consideration.

 

Possible Scenario One: BYU and Cincinnati. This makes a lot of sense for the Big 12. They grab two of the best football teams up for grabs, and can extend their footprint into the Mountain and Great Lakes regions. Both schools also bring competent basketball, and in the case of BYU, above average academics. If the Big 12 was more likely to expand by only two schools, this would be the most likely scenario.

 

Possible Scenario Two: Cincinnati and Houston. Should the religious politics of BYU prevent them from being added, the actual politics surrounding Houston’s potential addition make them the next most likely candidate if the Big 12 expands by only two. While it adds little in the form of new recruiting territory and footprint, it adds another former Southwest Conference school and two football teams with recent success.

 

Possible Scenario Three: BYU (Football Only) and Boise State (Football Only). This would be the most short-sighted move for the conference to make, as it adds just two new schools, and only for football at that. The extension into the Mountain time zone would be interesting, and BYU faces no conflicts with scheduling of other sports. Still, it is unlikely, in the event of a two school add, that the schools are not added as full members.

 

Possible Scenario Four: BYU (Football Only), Boise State (Football Only), Cincinnati, and Houston. If the expansion is to four, Cincy and Houston are near locks to be chosen, either due to pedigree (Cincy), or politics (Houston). This scenario adds both of those schools, while adding football only members to increase competition on the gridiron, and BYU can avoid its conflicts.

 

Possible Scenario Five: BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, and Memphis. This would be an impulsive move, as it simply adds the four football programs that have been the best over the past couple of seasons. It also would make the most geographic sense, by staying somewhat local and adding a travel partner for WVU. BYU can easily be replaced with Boise State or UCF in this scenario, should they not be able to come to a scheduling agreement with the Big 12.

 

Possible Scenario Six: Cincinnati, Connecticut, Houston, and Memphis. The American Athletic Conference would truly become a mid-major should this become reality. UConn’s presence here opens up the potential for a Big 12 presence in the densely populated Northeast, while adding three respected athletic programs that all have football teams capable of competing right away (something unlikely from the Huskies).

 

Possible Scenario Seven: BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston. The Florida connection is established here, while also adding BYU, Cincinnati, and Houston for the aforementioned reasons. This opens up the Big 12 for football success, while also opening up some new markets for a potential network. This expansion could include Memphis instead of BYU, but in that case would prove that academics were not a legitimate factor.

 

 

ACTUAL PREDICTION

 

BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, and Houston

 

This is likely a list of the newest members of the Big 12. If Houston becomes a member, the adding of four schools is all but confirmed because the other schools, particularly Oklahoma, will want to avoid the conference becoming too “Texas-centric.” The Longhorns would have major political clout in the conference, and there would only be one new addition to the conference footprint in the case of adding only Houston and one other school. The politics of Houston likely assure them a spot, and by the transitive property, assure a four team addition. BYU and Cincinnati add the competent athletic programs the conference desires, while opening up regions that previously only bordered the footprint of the Big 12 conference. The addition of UConn would give the Big 12 incredible clout in any future network negotiations, while also adding a program that will ironically compete successfully in every major sport except football. The Huskies were one of only three Division I colleges to send their team to the postseason in football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, and baseball. The program is underrated by many on the national landscape as a well-rounded athletic force, and also instantly improves the academic profile of the Big 12. If the Big 12 is serious about leaving geography out of the equation and adding the best schools available, UConn’s addition should not be in question. These four schools give the Big 12 new markets, new places for its footprint, and, most importantly, athletic programs that compete effectively.

 

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CONCLUSION

 

Big 12 expansion is the last chance for non-Power Five schools to earn a seat at the big boy’s table in the foreseeable future. The schools not selected will have the odds stacked against them in the fight to remain athletically relevant. The overall x-factor is geography. Many writers that cover Big 12 schools fail to see the bigger picture, and instead only wish to see regional programs added. If they get their way, then the additions to the Big 12 will have little impact on the conference’s quest to remain stable. Thankfully, the ones making decisions see that there is more to these choices than geography and football. For the Big 12 to have any shot at maintaining its status as a Power Five member beyond the immediate future, they must pick the correct schools to add. Based off Bowlsby’s own metrics, four schools have decidedly separated themselves, and they are the four listed above. This saga should not drag on for too long. Expect for the decisions to be made by September, if not much earlier. At that moment, the college sports world will see who has a chance to continue their climb to success, and who risks becoming dead in the water.

 

 

Nick Schwartz

UConn ’17

 

Chart Found At: www.aacfever.com/the-american/big-12-expansion-nearing-reality-aac-to-feel-impact.html

 

Nick Schwartz

Senior History major at UConn, and planning to attend graduate school in the future. One of the best moments of my life was winning a national title my freshman year. Husky basketball is a lifestyle! Avid New York sports fan, as well: Yankees, Giants, Knicks, Rangers! Also root for Manchester City and NYCFC.

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