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The Big 12 May Be Close To Naming Two New Members

If all goes smoothly, BYU will join the Big 12. Who comes with them, Houston or Cincinnati, is up to Texas to decide.

Getty Images - Cooper Neill

Shakespeare could not have written a better farce. The Big 12’s very public process of expansion has all the classic elements of a Shakespearean comedy: highly exaggerated, needlessly extravagant, and, at times, incomprehensible and improbable.

Yet, there might be a method to the madness. On the surface it looks ridiculous for the Big 12 to conduct interviews with as many as twenty candidates; who have little chance of being invited to join the conference.

Why go to all the trouble of interviewing candidates-at-large when the Big 12 hired Navigate Research and Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures (BHV) to evaluate candidates?

Why bother going through the motions with ESPN and Fox (strongly) advising the conference on expansion?

Why have a standing composition committee meticulously vet candidates, only to set all that aside and hold what amounts to an open cast call?

Bob Bowlsby says the Big 12 was only being polite, but I don’t buy that and neither should you. More likely, it was a bit of posturing. The reason they let so many hopeless candidates make a pitch was to send a message to ESPN and Fox.

The networks have pushed back against Big 12 expansion. They claim adding new members is just a means for the Big 12 to add revenue via the pro rata clause – a tactic they argue is contrary to the intended purpose of the clause. ESPN and Fox reminded the Big 12 that the clause was inserted to avoid potential disagreements over the value of future additions of peer institutions – aka other power five schools, not group of five members.

The Big 12 wanted their network partners to know that if expansion was merely a money grab they could add far more than just two or four new members, and they have also suggested that the clause effectively removed the financial incentive to expand when candidates of similar value were available.

The college football landscape is also different from what it was in 2011 and 2012. Currently, the conference champion’s playoff chances are being harmed. According to Navigate’s statistical modeling, the Big 12 champion’s playoff odds would increase 15-30% by having a championship game with two divisions and 12 members.

ESPN and Fox fully admit the landscape has changed and that the Big 12 is at a playoff disadvantage – even with a championship game as long as it has only ten members. They agree that the Big 12 needs to expand, it is just a matter of finding terms that both parties can agree to. Thankfully, they seem to have worked that out.

Industry experts tell me that the Big 12 and ESPN/Fox have reached an agreement where the conference would add two new members and receive the pro rata amount for each. However, in return, the networks would require an extension of the current TV contract and the grant of rights to 2030 or 2032.

That’s good news, but not for everyone.

Sources close to the situation, that wish not to be identified because they are not authorized to speak on the matter, tell us that the Big 12 has narrowed its expansion list to three schools: BYU, Cincinnati and Houston. UCONN and UCF are reportedly no longer under consideration.

Two of the finalists, BYU and Houston, have been endorsed by ESPN, Fox and Navigate. Normally an endorsement by those three would mean BYU’s addition was a foregone conclusion, but the Cougars haven’t made it easy on the Big 12.

Sources with the conference tell me that BYU has taken proactive steps to alleviate the Big 12’s concerns with the honor code and LGBT issues, and the conference’s only serious reservation at this point is the open Title IX investigation. Yet, according to data compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education, current Big 12 members Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State all have active Title IX investigations underway.

The University of Houston has different problems. The Big 12 members residing outside the state of Texas have expressed irritation at the interference by the Texas state government. Some believe the irritation is great enough to keep UH out no matter what. Meaning, the same factors that may have caused the University of Texas to support the Cougars’ candidacy now threaten their chances.

Texas has the clout to muster the three votes necessary to veto any candidate and kill any hope of Big 12 expansion. Something, nobody wants. So, the real issue with Houston’s candidacy seems to be what Texas will concede to win the votes for the Cougars.

In this case both the Big 12 and ESPN/Fox want the same thing: an extension of the grant of rights.

And Texas, if it wants UH in the Big 12, can’t refuse. The Longhorns might not have a choice with the amount of pressure Texas governor Greg Abbott and lt. governor Dan Patrick are applying, either.

What does that mean in terms of expansion? The Big 12 can’t afford to ignore ESPN and Fox, they can’t ignore the repercussions of thwarting the Longhorns if Texas truly wants Houston as a member, and they can’t ignore the safety and security of extending the grant of rights.

Does Texas really want the Cougars in the Big 12, though?

If the Horns are unwilling to make the concessions necessary to buy Houston the eight votes needed for membership, then it is thought the Big 12 will add Cincinnati instead. That is, if Texas doesn’t decide to kill expansion.

The Bearcats have played the political game better than anyone by flying under the radar and making as few waves as possible. UC is seen as the compromise candidate. They don’t excel in any single category of metrics but they don’t have any red flags either. Their football program hasn’t had marquee wins over prestigious programs like Houston’s win over Florida State or UCF’s BCS bowl victory, but they haven’t experienced many lows either.

What Cincinnati has done extraordinarily well is to lobby Big 12 leaders by covertly hiring “consultants” with personal connections to Big 12 leaders in order to sway the vote. Guess what? It’s worked. UC would easily get the votes for admission if not for the influence of the Texas political machine and ESPN and Fox.

That’s why sometime in late October, provided the college football and conference realignment landscape doesn’t once again change, the Big 12 will vote to add BYU and Houston as members for the 2017 season.

Don’t miss the significance of that point. The Big 12 would like new members to begin conference play in 2017. BYU, being an independent, has no problem. Houston has more than one billionaire booster willing to pay for the Cougar’s early exit from the AAC. Can the Bearcats say the same?

In the end, it looks like the Bearcats will lose out, because if the Big 12 is going to expand, how can it disregard the advice of it television partners and consultants? How can the most dysfunctional conference in college football not see the value in adding Houston if the grant of rights is extended as a result?

The Big 12 might have interviewed twenty candidates, and kicked the tires on a few more, but in the end their only real options are to keep their network partners happy and secure the future of the conference. That’s why, as it looks now, BYU and Houston will be celebrated as the newest members of the Big 12 conference.

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