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Is Big 12 Expansion Falling Apart?

Big 12 expansion is starting to look less and less likely.

Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

(Additional byline credit: Chris Ross)

If you made the mistake of sampling the Big 12 social media scene this past week, you have probably read a lot of chatter about Big 12 expansion and/or its’ imminent implosion. The rumors are interesting, the discussion at times heated and scintillating, but at the root the gossip is just that…gossip.

The conference is not responsible for Oklahoma’s 1-2 start. Nor is it the reason Texas left the defense at home in the loss at Cal. The blame, other than  unrealistic expectations by fans, belongs to Bob Stoops and Charlie Strong.

A vocal minority of the Sooner and Longhorn fan bases argue that the weak Big 12 has harmed recruiting, and they can’t wait to join the SEC, Pac-12, etc. An argument that’s undercut by OU’s banner crop of recruits in 2016 and their 2017 class, which is currently ranked 6th by ESPN. And Texas? You need not go further than the fact that UT had the nation’s 3rd best recruiting class for 2016 according to Scout.com.

Another popular argument against the Big 12 is the playoffs. Admittedly, the odds the Big 12 champion earning a spot this season looks slim. However, that has little to do with the structure of the conference, and more to do with the product on the field.

What I am certain of is the lack of the 13th data point will be a non-factor in the Big 12’s playoff fate. When the Big 12 missed the playoffs in 2014 Bill Hancock, executive director of the CFP Playoff, went to great lengths to explain how the 13th data point was used almost as a tiebreaker between two candidates with similar bodies of work.

So let’s quash some of these rumors.

Rumor Quashing

The Big 12 Will Vote To Disband – Despite what you may read on social media the Big 12 is not considering disbanding. It would take 75% of Big 12 members to vote in favor in dissolving the conference. That translates to eight votes given the current conference makeup.

If six schools Leave The Big 12 The Conference Grant Of Rights And TV Deal Are Void – False. The grant of rights binds the current Big 12 schools together until July 1, 2025. Until that date the television rights belong to the conference. That means that any school, or group of schools, departing without a super-majority vote (eight votes) to dissolve the conference before 2025 would be in breach of the grant of rights.

However if the Big 12 falls below 10 members ESPN and Fox could evoke a clause voiding the TV contract. This does not undermine the Big 12 or the grant of rights. It strengthens the GoR in that the damage done to the conference by a departing member(s) would cause such harm to the conference that the only possible cure would be for a court to compel specific performance. One could hypothesize that UT could manage to limp by in revenue of LHN alone for a few years, but knowing how they like their money, even the Longhorns would be crazy to operate on food stamps for three or four years ahead of 2025.

Expansion To 14 Saves The Big 12 – Absolutely false. Adding four to the conference would essentially be a money grab. The Big 12’s TV partners are adamant that expansion may be technically possible due to the pro rata clause, but that evoking that clause as a means to bolster revenues for the current 10 members by adding four “lessor value” schools would seriously harm the relationship between the Big 12 and their network partners.

So Where Does Big 12 Expansion Stand?

On October 17th, 2016 the Big 12’s executive board will hear commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s recommendations on expansion. What they do with that recommendation is still very much in doubt. The data Bowlsby provides in support of his recommendations will be reviewed, discussed and measured. Hopefully at some point an actual vote is called.

However, right now, there is not a consensus.

If the Big 12 is to expand then BYU and Houston are the only two schools with significant outside forces pushing for their inclusion. Each has issues too. BYU is a favorite of ESPN and Fox to the point where, according to sources close to the situation but wish to remain anonymous because they are not authorized to speak on the matter, both networks have told the Big 12 that expansion without the Cougars is not acceptable.

So BYU is a lock right? Not so much anymore. Three weeks ago BYU was the favorite, but three weeks is a long time, and BYU’s hopes of Big 12 membership now hang by a thread.

The Cougar’s problem is more about Baylor than BYU. The Big 12 has been embarrassed by what happened in Waco, and the harassment of Title IX victims. BYU has had similar issues related to victims of sexual assault being investigated and/or punished for violations of the school’s honor code, and the Big 12 wants no part of that.

For their part, BYU has told the conference that the honor code will be changed in two ways. One, to give amnesty from honor code violations to anyone reporting a possible Title IX violation, and two, BYU has promised to revise the honor code to not discriminate against LGBT rights. However, promises just are not enough. The Big 12 wants to see the changes publicly announced before making a decision to invite the Cougars.

If not BYU, then who?

Big 12 expansion is not likely without BYU, but it may not be possible without Houston.

That’s because Cincinnati has a block of four solid “no” votes without any foreseeable means of switching any of those votes to a “yes”. Sources indicate that  West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Texas are not keen on adding the Bearcats, and TCU will vote along with Texas out of obligation for the Longhorns support in 2011.

That leaves Houston as the only other school capable of acquiring the needed votes, but those outside the state of Texas aren’t in favor of the school. K-State offensive coordinator and Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy have publicly spoken against adding Houston due to recruiting concerns.

Those recruiting concerns may be overruled by political pressure from the state of Texas.

“This is about Texas schools,” Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick told KRIV-TV.  “I don’t really give a hoot and a holler about UConn or some school in Florida or anywhere else. Texas schools oughta vote for other Texas schools.”

Lawmakers in the state are pressuring the Longhorns to pull Houston under their wing, and some see it as a way to smooth tensions between the two schools as Texas is looking to open a 300-acre satellite campus in Houston.

However, it is still unclear whether or not Texas will support Houston to the Big 12. It is thought that they would have to give the rest of the conference something in return, possibly an extension to the Grant of Rights.

It also has to be concerning to the rest of the conference that the Texas state legislature has so much control of the Big 12, and might not like giving them more.

Let’s clear something up, despite 11 schools being interviewed by the conference, no other schools – other than BYU, Cincinnati and Houston – are being seriously considered. So, if the Big 12 passes on BYU and cannot get enough votes to add Cincinnati or Houston, then expansion is dead.

Something one of the most outspoken proponents of Big 12 expansion, Oklahoma president and Big 12 board chair David Boren, might quietly be in favor of.

Just over a year ago, president Boren set the sports media world on fire by speaking out in favor of expansion when up until then, the conference and Bob Bowlsby had been against it. He went as far to call the conference “psychologically disadvantaged” without expansion. However, it seems that he isn’t as sold on expansion as he used to be, and hinted that maybe it isn’t the conference’s best choice after all.

“We’re going to look at every way in which we can make the conference stronger and better,” Boren said last week. “But I’m not sure the automatic answer to that is expansion.”

So why would one of the biggest supporters of expansion, now be against it?

Sources have told us that they believe Boren would rather forgo expansion altogether, than harm the Big 12’s relationship with the networks. ESPN insistence that BYU be part of Big 12 expansion creates issues that Boren believes seriously undermines the conference’s future viability. His reluctance to expand without the blessing of ESPN and Fox is compounded by the internal positions that have thwarted consensus building efforts.

Big 12 expansion seems to be on life support and nothing could make ESPN and Fox happier. They would almost be better off by offering the conference a new deal and more money to ditch the pro-rata clause and not expand.

Conference expansion isn’t dead yet, but every day the debate drags on, it looks more and more bleak. Especially if a vote doesn’t happen in October. A possibility Boren also hinted at last week and Iowa State president Steven Leath indicated last month.

“I’m not certain there will be a decision at the October board meeting on expansion at this time,” Boren said.

Could the Big 12 really decide not to expand after a very public process that has not always provided the best of publicity for the conference? If history is any indication, that would be the most Big 12 thing to do. Somewhere Dan Beebe would be screaming, “That’s my trick!”

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