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4 Scenarios for the Future of the Big 12 Conference

With Texas and Oklahoma headed to the SEC, the Big 12 is down to eight members. Here are four potential paths by which Big 12 realignment might proceed.

The college sports conference realignment wheels never truly stop turning, but they cranked into overdrive in July when Texas and Oklahoma announced their intentions to join the Southeastern Conference. While the SEC is set to become a true super-conference, the Big 12 is now teetering on the edge of what could become oblivion if strong, ambitious measures aren’t taken.

Texas and Oklahoma are more than just losses for the Big 12; they are far and away the biggest brands in the conference. When the Longhorns and Sooners depart, so will the bulk of the conference’s existing brand value and marketing reach.

As it stands, the Big 12 earned about $409 million in revenue during fiscal year 2020, notes USA Today, most of which was distributed to its 10 schools in payments between $37 million and $40 million each. That makes the conference more lucrative than the ACC ($30.9-$37 million each) and Pac-12 ($33.6 million), but less than the Big Ten ($54.3 million) and SEC ($45.5 million).

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby admitted last week that the conference would lose about half of its TV contract value simply by losing Texas and OU. So, if the conference wants to continue competing with the other big boys as a blue-chip television product, it needs to add value.

That’s easier said than done — any school that can instantly add enough value event to begin to make up for Texas and OU’s absence is already in a power conference and not necessarily looking to destabilize its own future by rolling the dice on a new version of the Big 12.

For that reason, it’s possible that the Big 12 won’t make it through this wave of realignment at all.

However, that is just one of the potential scenarios for the conference’s future. Let’s discuss four of them.

Scenario 1: The Big 12 Dissolves

To be clear, the remaining eight Big 12 schools do have something to offer, even if they have nowhere near the value of a conference that contains Texas or Oklahoma. But the other Power Five conferences have got to smell blood.

Out west, the Pac-12 needs to find a way to bolster its value ahead of the next round of media rights negotiations. The key here may be to expand its footprint into the central time zone and grab a school out of football-crazed Texas — Texas Tech, for example. Kansas has made it no secret that it’s open to bolting to another conference, with rumors suggesting the Jayhawks may opt for to the Big Ten. The same could be said about West Virginia and the ACC.

But none of those possibilities is all that compelling for the other power conferences given the extent to which football rules the world. Texas Tech doesn’t move the needle nationally. Kansas is an epic basketball power but would drag down the Big Ten’s football product massively. West Virginia probably won’t add much more value to an ACC television deal by itself.

If, however, the Big 12 does start losing additional members, at least a few schools would end up forced into the Group of Five — the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt.

And if and when that process begins, the Big 12 ends.

But the conference has other options if it wants to stay together.

Scenario 2: Big 12 Raids the Group of Five

For the Big 12’s purposes, “Group of Five” really just means the American and the Mountain West. Other schools like Louisiana or Coastal Carolina might angle for an invite, but unless the Big 12 wants to dilute its value and expand all the way to 16 teams, there’s little hope for them. As it stands, schools like UCF, Houston, and Boise State would make far more sense.

But if expansion is the Big 12’s fate, it will need to decide how many schools it actually wants — two would bring membership back to 10. Eight would constitute a 16-team super-conference, but runs the risk of emphasizing quantity over quality.

Further, the more members the conference brings in, the more mouths there are to feed, so don’t assume the Big 12 will go on some kind of shopping spree. If it chooses to expand, it will need to consider strategically what each potential brings to the table, with football needing to come first due to financial imperatives.

That won’t be easy.

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In previous rounds of realignment, TV markets were a massive consideration. Rutgers, for example, got into the Big Ten because it could deliver the Big Ten Network to the entire New York City area. The Big 12, unfortunately, doesn’t have its own TV network — and even if it did, increasing numbers of fans are cutting the cord. The emphasis is now on how many subscribers a new school could drive to a streaming platform like ESPN+, bolstering the value of the Big 12’s ESPN deal.

These days, it’s not the sheer size of the media market. You no longer have an entire metropolitan area’s worth of viewers forced to pay for an additional channel. It’s the size of the fanbase, wherever they may be.

Scenario 3: Pac-12 Scheduling Alliance

Notably, Bowlsby has already met with Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff. In that meeting, the two discussed a wide range of possibilities for inter-conference cooperation. The simplest option? A scheduling alliance.

The Big 12 would be able to make up for some of its lost TV value by adding regular non-conference football games against schools with expansive fanbases like USC and Oregon. This would also be beneficial for the Pac-12 — not only are games against Baylor and Kansas State more attractive than your typical non-conference cupcake, but they will provide resume-building opportunities for College Football Playoff consideration.

The problem here for the Big 12 is that this plan doesn’t actually add members. Sticking with eight teams means no conference championship game, a big moneymaker on the football side and a final opportunity for style points before the CFP Committee convenes to vote.

This roadmap would also put pressure on basketball programs to bolster their non-conference schedules. With just 14 conference games via home-and-home format, teams would need to find upwards of 10 or 15 additional opponents each year despite few opportunities to book attractive matchups for TV.

Yes, the scheduling alliance with the Pac-12 eases the pain of the current dilemma, but by how much? Basketball does not drive nearly the same numbers as football, though NCAA Tournament units are still a major revenue source, particularly in multi-bid leagues.

If the Big 12 needs to scrounge for every penny it could find, its basketball programs are in the best position to succeed in March. But that’s a strategy that comes with very, very little margin for error.

Scenario 4: Big 12/Pac-12 Merger

The fourth scenario is the most fun of the bunch, but it’s also the hardest to project.

If these two leagues were to merge straight away, a 20-team super-league would be born spanning all the way from Morgantown to Seattle. No other conference would truly stretch across the entire country (or have as many schools).

How the other power conferences respond would be anyone’s guess.

Let’s take a crack at building a “BigPac Conference.” All it takes is forming a division out of the old Pac-10 and joining relative newcomers Colorado and Utah with the Big 12-ers:

“BigPac West”“BigPac East”
ArizonaBaylor
Arizona StateColorado
CalIowa State
OregonKansas
Oregon StateKansas State
StanfordOklahoma State
UCLATCU
USCTexas Tech
WashingtonUtah
Washington StateWest Virginia

To be fair, this would all feel out of character for the current Pac-12, a league that values cultural and geographical identity as much as any other in the country. No current Big 12 school is an obviously great fit; they’re all far outside of the conference’s geographical footprint, none is considered an elite-tier research university.

There are significant political differences between primarily blue Pac-12 states versus the redder Big 12 states, too. That might not make a difference on the football field, but it could mean everything on the negotiating table. The MAAC announced a vaccine mandate for all its student athletes in 2021-22; it would make sense for a league like the Pac-12 to follow suit, but it is exceedingly unlikely to happen in places like Texas, Kansas, or Oklahoma.

But the ultimate key for the Pac-12 might just be keeping USC happy.

Stanford’s athletic program has no top-to-bottom equal, but USC is the league’s flagship football school, much like Texas and OU could each claim to be for the Big 12. If Southern Cal (and all its storied history) were to leave, the Pac-12’s value would plummet.

It’s possible that the Trojans could be appeased by adding the three remaining Texas schools: Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech. Even if no individual school in that trio moves the needle all by itself, the Pac-12 would still get a sizable presence in the Lone Star State, the most fertile ground for high school football talent outside of California.

(And not for nothing, Baylor is the defending national champion in men’s basketball, a distinction the Pac-12 hasn’t enjoyed since 1997.)

Oklahoma State could also present value. As Max Olson of The Athletic points out, the Cowboys have the 12th-best record in FBS football the past 10 years. This sort of targeted acquisition is more foreseeable than a 20-team mega-conference, which would feature a few schools that inevitably represent simply dead weight and a financial burden for teams in the non-revenue sports to travel to.

So, doe the Pac-12 only take the three Texas schools and Oklahoma State, leaving Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and West Virginia to fend for themselves? If that’s the case, you might see the remaining schools explore independence or membership in the AAC or Mountain West.

At this point, so much of this is conjecture and several questions remain. All we know is that Texas and Oklahoma are headed to the SEC, and the Big 12 and Pac-12 are now faced with both massive risks and massive opportunities.

More dominoes will fall, and where they land may be about as unpredictable as the bounce of a football.

But so far, reports of the Big 12’s death are greatly exaggerated.