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The Big 12 Expansion Strategy: The Top Candidates & What’s at Stake

Last Updated: July 1, 2023
No conference has been more connected to expansion than the Big 12. What is the conference thinking at this pivotal time in its history?

Commissioner Brett Yormark has big plans for the Big 12 and it’s unlike anything any other college conference has attempted.

When Boardroom spoke with him last year, Yormark said he wanted to turn the Big 12 into a truly national (or maybe international) conference — one that is culturally relevant coast to coast outside of its generally southwesterly geographic footprint. The conference has already held key events in New York despite the closest school to the five boroughs being in Morgantown, West Virginia. the Big 12 also announced men’s and women’s basketball games between Kansas and league newcomer Houston to be played in Mexico, and is reportedly exploring the creation of a bowl game south of the border as well.

But nowhere has the Big 12 been more relevant over the past two months than in the expansion and realignment conversation.

Boardroom reported last month that Yormark visited the University of Connecticut to meet with its administration, and this week, reports surfaced that he visited Memphis, though Yormark denied this. Rumored Big 12 expansion candidates also include Gonzaga, Colorado, and maybe Arizona, according to the latest reports.

Yormark confirmed that the conference was exploring expansion last week after the Big 12’s annual spring meetings wrapped up, all despite the conference still working on transitioning four new members to the league in Houston, Cincinnati, BYU, and UCF. That will stretch current membership geographically from Florida to Utah.

But what happens if the Big 12 does add schools from Storrs and Spokane? Or Memphis and Tucson? Or some combination of Pac-12 and G5 schools?

This would create both challenges and opportunity — a risk that could either backfire spectacularly or make the Big 12 a media power unlike anything we’ve seen in college sports.

What is the Big 12 Thinking?

Yormark took the conference reins knowing there were some things he just couldn’t change. Texas and Oklahoma were already headed to the SEC, weakening the Big 12 in football and strengthening the SEC, already the best football conference in the country. USC and UCLA had also announced their moves to the Big Ten, adding more football brand power to the majority-midwestern league and helping them crash the gates of the biggest media markets in the country. With most desirable football programs already locked into their current leagues — in the ACC’s case, through a Grant of Rights agreement, even — Yormark knew he couldn’t just cherrypick football powers to make the Big 12 the premier conference in the most important college sport.

But while the Big 12 is not going to compete with the SEC and Big Ten in football supremacy, it is more than holding its own with the likes of TCU and Kansas State leading the way. Yormark seems to hope the conference can bridge the gap by being the most relevant conference in the most places and in the most sports, starting with men’s basketball.

It’s logical to be skeptical here. The conventional wisdom is that “football drives the bus” in conference realignment because it brings in so much money through bowl game payouts and gargantuan media rights deals. That’s true — but perhaps less so now than in the past.

The obvious draw of elite men’s (and hopefully soon, women’s) basketball is the money the NCAA distributes through its Basketball Performance Fund, but now, there’s more than that. We’re in an age of conference-specific TV networks and all-encompassing streaming deals, like the one the Big 12 has with ESPN. That means conferences need inventory that will drive viewers; college basketball provides exactly that, with each school playing around 60 total men’s and women’s basketball games a year.

The good news for the Big 12 is that it is already the strongest men’s basketball conference in the country, finishing as either the first- or second-rated conference per KenPom every year since 2014 — an astounding run. By adding traditional basketball brands rather than football-first schols that will do little more than water down the product, the Big 12 can not only add significantly to its payout in the Basketball Performance Fund, but create a wildly attractive product that will net significantly more money the next time the conference negotiates subsequent media rights packages.

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The Big 12 Expansion Gamble

Big 12 expansion would come at a risk. Many will talk about an unwieldy travel schedule for athletes to manage amid classes during the school week. That’s a problem, but there are ways to mitigate those concerns.

More importantly, history shows that over-expanding a conference could ultimately lead to its destruction.

The old Big East is the most obvious example. When Syracuse and Pitt fled to the ACC, the Big East countered by announcing that it would add nine schools, including four for all sports (Memphis, Houston, UCF, and SMU). That eventually caused the non-football schools in the conference to split, taking the Big East brand name with it. The leftovers then formed the American Athletic Conference. TCU and San Diego State backed out of the deal. Ultimately, TCU wound up in the Big 12.

It’s an instance of too many schools having competing interests and being unable to act in the best interest of the conference as a whole. This is an extreme example — Gonzaga is the only non-football school linked to the Big 12 in any meaningful way — but the risks would still be there. BYU and any west coast additions would voice very real travel concerns regarding the need to go east all the time. UConn would prioritize basketball, where its men’s and women’s programs are perennial contenders. The football-first schools would want to do the same on the gridiron.

And remember: school presidents, not athletic directors, vote on expansion. Academic prestige matters, and a bloated Big 12 could improve its profile therein.

All the while, the rest of the college sports world will wait on the ACC to see if its major public universities will find a way to split from its Grant of Rights. If that happens, the Big Ten and SEC will be waiting in the wings to further consolidate their football power as much more stable alternatives than the Big 12 by comparison. At that point, could the Big 12 pick up the ACC’s leftovers?

Maybe. But you’d just be adding more voices to the room, looking for more pieces of the pie.

Big 12 Expansion Candidates

The Pac-12

It seems that at the start, nothing is off the table for Yormark and the Big 12. If it does decide to expand yet again, its safest move could be to pick off some teams from the Pac-12 should its ongoing TV negotiations go south.

Colorado: A reunion with the Buffs seems obvious if there is real interest in Boulder. It will be a football ratings driver for as long as Deion Sanders is the head coach, and Colorado fits naturally within the conference’s historic geographic footprint. On the men’s basketball side, Tad Boyle routinely has the Buffaloes in the postseason. Meanwhile, women’s coach JR Payne just brought her team to the Sweet 16.

Arizona: If the Big 12 could pull it off, adding Arizona would be a major coup. Not only are the Wildcats one of the biggest basketball brands, they’d also bring a top-15 media market in Phoenix. Such a move would also strengthen the league’s claim to the entire mountain timezone. Head football coach Jedd Fisch additionally has the football program on the upswing after the Cats went 0-5 in the COVID-shortened 2020 season preceding his arrival.

The Basketball Schools

Gonzaga: Gonzaga might be the toughest sell to Big 12 presidents. Even with BYU in the conference, Spokane is a geographic outlier that would stretch the conference almost literally from coast to coast — all without bringing a football team with it. On the other hand, Gonzaga is by far the strongest basketball brand not currently in a major conference and comes with a $15 million annual valuation per CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd. If Yormark is serious about doubling down on men’s basketball, it would be tough to see the Bulldogs get scooped up by the Pac-12 or Big East. It’s not a matter of if Gonzaga leaves the WCC, but when.

UConn: UConn would be another controversial add, but the Huskies bring undeniable positives. It all starts with status as a five-time national champion men’s basketball program and by far the most valuable women’s sports program in the nation. Their addition would also give the Big 12 a foothold in the New York market, something a northeast guy like Yormark surely covets. The downside comes in the form of UConn’s lackluster football team; while Jim Mora seems to have things moving in the right direction and a Big 12 move would certainly raise the team’s floor, the program would have no institutional advantages that would indicate it could one day compete with the top of the league — further exacerbated by being in the northeast, a generally weak recruiting ground.

The Others

Memphis: The Tigers always seem to be left on the outside of realignment talks and this might be no different. That said, the Tigers would add an elite basketball brand from a pro sports market. The university likes to tout its relationship with local giant FedEx, and that has to be a plus as well. The Fortune 500 company might jump at the chance to sponsor, say, a new bowl game in Memphis with a Big 12 tie, or perhaps the Big 12 basketball tournaments at FedEx Forum in Memphis. On the other hand, the Tigers don’t tend to move the needle much in football, and while their basketball program has national cachet, it hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 in 15 years. Is this a program that still has elite potential?

San Diego State: The Aztecs’ draw is obvious — they play in a brand new football stadium that also hosts NWSL and a soon-to-be MLS tenant, and their men’s basketball team just advanced to the national championship game. They’re also in a top-20 media market and would make the Big 12 the third Power 5 conference to have a presence in California. SDSU, however, might be hoping for a Pac-12 invite instead, as they have been a long-rumored candidate.

This is all to say that Big 12 expansion comes with its share of risks; Yormark knows that. He also knows that he can’t sit idly by while the SEC and Big Ten become a new Power 2. That doesn’t mean expansion is necessary, but it’d be malpractice to not be having these conversations. Whatever the league ultimately decides to do, we can rest assured that it will create shockwaves throughout the entire college sports landscape.

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