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Brett Yormark: Selling the Big 12 Story

The Big 12 named Brett Yormark conference commissioner in August amid a changing landscape in college sports. Boardroom spoke with him about how he hopes to lead the league into a new era.

Brett Yormark has barely been Big 12 Conference commissioner for three months, but he already has the league trying something different.

Yormark flew up to New York last week with Baylor men’s basketball coach Scott Drew and West Virginia men’s basketball coach Bob Huggins for an all-out media blitz that included interviews with local and national outlets and a photo op with New York City mayor Eric Adams.

It’s a little strange, given that New York is squarely outside of the league’s geographical footprint — West Virginia is the closest school to the five boroughs, and Morgantown is almost 400 miles away.

But Yormark hopes this is the first step toward his broader vision for the conference. With billion-dollar TV deals, conferences that span multiple timezones, and just about every college sport easily accessible from anywhere in the country, he has his sights set on making the Big 12 a truly national conference. It doesn’t matter if there aren’t any teams in a given city — if the conference is competitive, current, and engaging enough, then people will be interested. Everywhere.

It’s not going to be an easy process. Texas and Oklahoma, the two biggest brands in the conference, are set to leave for the SEC in 2025. And no matter how good the new additions — UCF, Houston, Cincinnati, and BYU — end up being, losing those two, particularly on the football field, weakens the Big 12.

That said, those four schools have all seen recent success in football and in men’s and women’s basketball. They’ll bring competition and deepen an already deep league. Yormark and Co. can only hope that translates into more eyeballs and, down the road, continue financial gains through media rights and NCAA football and basketball payouts.

Boardroom spoke with Yormark while he was in NYC to get a better idea of his vision as he helps navigate the league through the transition.

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RUSSELL STEINBERG: You’re up here in New York — that’s outside of the conference footprint. What brings you up here? 

BRETT YORMARK: I realize that as a conference, we need do storytelling a little bit more than we’ve done. And given my vision of becoming more national, more culturally relevant, connecting to youth culture, expanding our brand and our message, I felt that this would be a first mini-step as a prelude to media day next week. To do it here in New York. Bring out some of our coaches and just get in front of the media and tell ’em a little bit about who we are and where we’re going, and talk a little bit about the football season, the basketball season, as we start to engage with our fans and create our stories.

So I could see us doing more of this. I mean, who knows? Maybe down the road, we’ll take our formal media days to different markets that make sense for us. But this has been the first great step for us. The media’s been truly responsive, so it feels good. And the fact that when I said this is something I wanna do, I had all the coaches in the conference raise their hands. So we’re all kind of in this together. There’s great alignment. Everyone shares the same mission and vision, and they all believe that we need to do a better job storytelling. This is a first step at doing just that. 

RS: One thing that happened when you were at Barclays Center [as president and CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment Global] is you brought in a lot of major college basketball — the NCAA Tournament, A-10 Tournament, ACC Tournament. What did you learn about the role that college basketball plays in the college sports landscape? 

BY: Well, I’m a big basketball guy. And you’re right, when I thought about the programming mix in Brooklyn, well in advance of getting there, I said I wanna be destinational for college basketball, boxing, family shows, music, etc. And my whole mindset was the building would be bigger than just for [NBA] basketball. It was about volume and variety. And obviously, Brooklyn is a hotbed for basketball. I have always been a college basketball fan, but I guess I appreciate it more now having had that experience at Barclays.

And listen, basketball is — outside of football — No. 2. In our conference, we’re probably the No. 1 basketball conference in America, which I’m excited about. So, even though football gets a bulk of the attention, basketball is huge for us, especially in our footprint, if not nationally.

RS: You come to this conference with a different background than a lot of conference commissioners, but this is also a conference that’s in a state of transition. It’s kind of an interesting time in its history. What made you the right fit for this league right now? 

BY: I think the board wanted effectively to pivot, maybe go away from the traditional, be a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more thoughtful, proactive. I don’t wanna say they wanted a change agent, but someone that certainly embraced change. I’ve done that throughout my career. Went to NASCAR, obviously in Jersey with the Nets, and then in Brooklyn. So I think this role fits my skill sets.

Obviously, there’s a lot I have to learn. I’ve got a great team that I work with at the Big 12, but I think given where we want to go, I think I was the right candidate, for sure. 

RS: A big part of your job is communicating with university presidents and athletic directors. What has been the feedback you’ve heard from them and what are their concerns in college sports right now? 

BY: I think their concerns are no different than the concerns within the industry. Most of our conversation is about how we can grow this conference, become more viable in every respect. And I spend a lot of time having those discussions, and they’ve been all very positive. We’re looking at things from a bit of a blank canvas perspective. I think that’s a healthy way to look at it.

But listen, all conferences face similar industry issues. Our conference-related issues are probably a little different than others, but I’m very bullish on where we’re going and our future and where we can take this thing.

RS: This year in football, you have schools that aren’t the traditional powers — the Texases, Oklahomas, whatever — who are off to really good starts. Kansas is, TCU is. How important is it that those schools in football continue to play at a high level for you? 

BY: I think our narrative right now has been that when you think of the college football landscape, we’re one of the deepest — if not the deepest — conferences in America.

I think it’s playing out every weekend. I mean, our ratings are up. Our schools are playing to — most of them — 95%-plus capacity every weekend. Our margin of wins is the narrowest it’s been in years, which speaks to the competitive spirit that exists. Sixty percent of our conference is the Top 25. So lots of parity.

Even the style of play is very engaging and exciting. We’re leading all conferences right now in points scored and total yards, which I think speaks to the product we’re putting out each week. And schools like Kansas, to your point, which haven’t experienced as much success as they would’ve liked historically, have finally found their footing. And all the work they’ve done in years past is starting to pay off. 

So we’re thrilled with where we are. And then when you add the four new schools for next year — Cincinnati, Houston, BYU, and UCF — we position ourselves in a great way. *And then when you look at basketball season, the preseason rankings haven’t come out, but arguably six of our 10 schools will be in that ranking. Lots of parity, lot of excitement. We’ve been in the Final Four, we’ve won the Final Four the last two years. We’ve had representation in the last four Final Fours.

So this conference has certainly made a statement that we’re the No. 1 men’s basketball conference in America, so there’s a lot to work with. So as an incoming commissioner, I’ve been handed a lot and my job is to make the most of it. 

*Editor’s note: Since this interview has taken place, the men’s college basketball AP Top 25 rankings have been released. The Big 12 boasts five schools in the initial rankings — Baylor, Kansas, Texas, TCU, and Texas Tech. Future member Houston is also ranked.

RS: You’re getting four new schools next year, so your footprint is going to expand even more. What challenges come with that? 

BY: That’s a great question. I haven’t looked at it as challenges. I’ve looked at it as really opportunities, to your point. You know, we go from five states to eight. We go from 40 million people in our footprint to over 75 million. I look at that as opportunity. We go from two time zones to three, become a little bit more national.

So I’m excited about it. I’m sure there’ll be some challenges, but I think there’s real opportunity there. And I’m really excited for those four schools because not only are they a great cultural fit, but they bring a lot to the competitive spirit of our conference. 

RS: But when you do expand the three time zones, I’m sure scheduling has to be a concern, particularly in sports other than football, where you’re gonna have teams traveling mid-week and missing class. How does that all come into play?

BY: I haven’t heard many of the concerns yet, but I’m sure there are. And we’ll address them, but as of now, everyone’s really excited about the four member institutions. We’re starting to integrate them now. And again, I see a lot of positives.

RS: Certainly one of those positives would be a lot more eyeballs on you from a television perspective. You have a deal with FOX and ESPN at the moment. What’s your vision going forward for what Big 12 media rights look like? 

BY: I certainly like us, ESPN, and FOX a lot. I think they do an incredible job elevating and amplifying our brand. And as I think about the next couple of years and the years thereafter, we’re gonna want to be in that mindset of continuing to grow and amplify and storytell. And I think there are probably no two better partners than ESPN and FOX to do just that. They’ve been great partners. We’ve had a long history with both and I’m engaged with both. I know those guys pretty well, given my previous roles and different jobs. So I like what they’re doing for us.

This year’s been no different. Our ratings are up. They’ve done a great job promoting us, bringing GameDay to Lawrence for the first time ever was fantastic. And in fact, it was their highest-rated game day of the year. So it’s paying well for both of us, but I love their platforms and love how they’re marketing and promoting us. I think that’s critically important.

Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, and Houston will join the Big 12 in 2023. (Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

RS: In instances like bringing GameDay to Lawrence, is that what you mean by storytelling?

BY: That, to me, was a two-plus-hour infomercial for us. I mean, not only were they talking about Kansas and TCU specifically, but there was a lot of dialogue around the Big 12 and the competitive spirit and makeup of the conference. That was fantastic for us and I was very appreciative that they were there and glad that it ended up being the highest-rated GameDay this year so far.

RS: Your time, of course, is all consumed by your conference, but you see stuff happening around the country with the Pac-12 — UCLA and USC going to the Big Ten. When stuff like that happens, what does a conference commissioner do? Do you have to be reactive to the landscape around you? Or is it just more let’s worry about what we’re doing?

BY: I think just from where I sit, my day-to-day goal is to make sure that my member institutions are happy and are fulfilling their potential in our conference, and that I’m engaged in communicating, and I’m doing just that while at the same time I gotta be forward-thinking, too. I gotta think about the what-if scenarios. And I’m always doing that because I think that’s critically important. That’s my responsibility as the leader of the conference.

But before I can really do that, I gotta make sure that we’re a solidified group, and we are. We’re the most solidified we’ve ever been. Like-minded, we share the same vision, have the same goals across the conference. And I feel very fortunate to be in that environment right now. 

RS: I know you haven’t been on the job too long, but when you say you’re the most solidified you’ve ever been, did you feel that right away? I know that hasn’t always been the narrative around the conference. 

BY: I did. When I interviewed for the job and I met the board, including the new members for next year, I just felt there was a like-mindedness. Everyone was aligned, great cultural fit, and it was a group that I wanted to be a part of. Sometimes when you get a board that size, everyone’s kind of got their own agenda. That wasn’t the case here. Everyone was laser-focused, like-minded, shared the same vision and mission for the conference. So that was very appealing to me. 

RS: We talked about how deep this conference is in football, in men’s basketball. I know the preseason poll for women’s basketball came out the other day and four teams received No. 1 votes.

BY: Six of our teams were in the women’s tournament last year. We’re excited about women’s basketball. We’re gonna be participating in media day next week, so I’ll be meeting with all the coaches. But one of the things I realized when I was doing my campus tours is that we had 23 championship sports last year. We won eight national championships. We were runner-ups, I think, in another six. So the depth of this conference beyond men’s basketball and football is incredible.

And my responsibility is to make sure that we are amplifying and glamorizing all the sports across the conference. That gets back to storytelling. There’s a ton of human interest stories within our conference, and I think you’re gonna hear more and more about them. 

RS: That’s what I wanted to ask you. How do you amplify non-football, non-men’s basketball sports when they’re not on TV nearly as much?

BY: We gotta be proactive. We gotta build out our communication staff. We gotta heighten the awareness of some of the great performances and stories on campus. We have to work with our campuses in order to do that. I think when I reference storytelling, it’s not just the responsibility of the conference — and we have to do a better job — it’s also the responsibility of our member institutions to bring heightened awareness to some of those Olympic sports and those participants.

RS: I want to get back to something from a couple of minutes ago when you talk about how you’ve expanded the league across three time zones. You’ve mentioned the opportunities that come with it. How much of what you do in your job is to serve the interest of the conference in terms of money versus the student-athlete?

BY: I think they come hand-in-hand. The better we can do for our member institutions, the better the member institutions can do for their student-athletes. We’re all interconnected. Ultimately, that student-athlete experience is critically important. Providing them with all the right resources so they could be the best version of themselves is critically important. And we have that responsibility along with the schools. When I went to each campus, I met with the SAAC representatives and listened to their concerns and their issues. One of them was that they would like some of those Olympic sports to be amplified beyond college football and basketball. And I listened, and in fact, we’re responding accordingly. So I think they’re all interconnected. 

RS: When you look five years down the road, 10 years down the road, how is the Big 12 Conference going to be different than it is today — other than just the new members? 

BY: Geographically, I’d love to be as national as we can, from a footprint perspective. I want to be the most culturally relevant conference in America. I want to be on the consciousness of every student-athlete that has to make a decision. I want them to vote yes for our conference, for all the right reasons, for all the things we’re doing, what we stand for.

If you said to me a couple of years down the road that we’re as economically viable as any other conference in America, that we’re more culturally relevant, that we connect with youth culture, that we’re on the consciousness of every student-athlete when they’re making those critically important decisions that we stand for the right things, that our brand resonates. Not only are we national, but we’re global. We obviously have to secure our footing domestically, but I do think internationally and globally there’s a real opportunity there. If we could check the box on all those areas, I’d be very pleased.

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