The Questions Facing the Big XII if They Want to Stop Being Fifth Wheel
Under President Renu Khator’s guidance, the University of Houston is taking an active approach to seeking membership in a Power Five conference.
About a month or so ago, within a matter of days, the news cycle handed college sports fans another stark reminder of the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in collegiate sports’ power structure. On April 19, the Big Ten Conference announced a deal with FOX in which the network would pay the conference a massive $250 million over the next six years for just one-half of the conference’s media rights, which means there is still another couple hundred million dollars’ worth of meat on the Big Ten television bone for the other half.
Meanwhile, a few days later, it was reported that Conference USA, a ragtag group of schools that has spent the past four years serving as a de facto feeder conference for the somewhat less ragtag and fellow “Group of Five” (college sports-speak for “less privileged than the ‘Power Five’”) member American Athletic Conference, would have a portion of its media rights renewed with CBS at a relatively microscopic $1 million per year, a precipitous tumble from the already paltry $7 million annual amount in its previous deal.
It is with that symbolic backdrop, the continued meteoric rise of Power Five conference revenue and the dangerous evaporation in Group of Five revenue, that the Big XII conference’s school presidents and athletics directors meet in Irving, Texas, next week to discuss the future of the league, and while the Big XII is in no danger of seeing its revenue bubble burst like Conference USA’s, the league has spent the past five years realigning and bickering its way into a construct that has made keeping up with the money train of the four other Power Five conferences a current impossibility.
If the Power Five conferences — a group that consists of the SEC, the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the ACC and the Big XII — were five Mafia families, the Big XII would easily be the most dysfunctional family of the five, with its metaphorical capos trying to navigate divergent agendas and widely disparate television income streams, the most powerful (Texas and Oklahoma) with their weapons (the threat of leaving and unraveling the conference) always pointed at the underlings (every Big XII school not named Texas or Oklahoma).
In the short history of conference realignment, no conference has been as close to both expansion and elimination as the Big XII has been. Five years from now, there is as good a chance the Big XII will have 16 member schools as there is that the Big XII will disappear entirely. So, appropriately, these Big XII meetings next week will seek to take steps to quell the conference’s shaky dynamic while mapping out a plan to achieve the kind of gargantuan revenue streams enjoyed by the Big Ten and the SEC.
The schools with a rooting interest in what happens in those meeting rooms next week aren’t limited to the Big XII’s ten member schools. At least another half-dozen schools, including the University of Houston, will be watching intently to see if there is movement on expansion of the Big XII to 12 or more schools, which has been a discussion topic for a couple of years now.
So what will drive true change, or at least plans for it, in these meetings? Simply put, it will be the answers to three simple questions:
How heavily do Big XII school leaders subscribe to analytics?
Given that the overriding mission of the Big XII (or any Power Five conference, for that matter) is to grow revenue, it’s not surprising that the focal point of the meetings next week will be on the Big XII’s chances of sending a school to the lucrative four-team College Football Playoff each year and the possibility of forming a conference television network, à la the Big Ten Network or the SEC Network.
To help assess both endeavors, the conference has hired analytical consulting firms to crunch the numbers. Regarding the College Football Playoff, the conference employed Chicago-based Navigate Research to assess what the optimal size and structure of the conference should be in order for it to maximize its odds of getting a team into the playoff. After running 40,000 simulations, Navigate told the Big XII powers that be that if they expanded to a 12-team league with an eight-game conference schedule, their odds of sending a team to the College Football Playoff would increase by 10 to 15 percent. How Navigate can determine this with only a two-season sample space for the playoff so far is questionable at best, but for schools like the University of Houston, their hopes of joining the Big XII are pinned to Big XII conference leaders’ believing these numbers are valid.
Additionally, the league hired Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures to help it determine an optimal media rights structure moving forward, one that would help the Big XII close the nearly $10 million-per-school gap between the Big XII and the SEC. Unfortunately, the 800-pound gorilla standing in the way of any movement along that front resides in Austin, which is probably a good jumping-off point for our next question…
Is Texas open to any discussion regarding the restructuring or folding of the Longhorn Network?
Back in 2010, when Texas was threatening to move to the Pac-10 and trigger the disintegration of the conference, it was the other Big XII schools’ agreement to allow the Longhorns to have their own television network, and the massive $15 million annual payout that came with it, that kept the conference intact. Six years later, ironically yet predictably, it’s the existence of the Longhorn Network that has the entire conference (except Texas) up in arms.
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The SEC and the Big Ten have highly successful conference television networks. (The Pac-12 also has its own network, which has had its challenges distribution-wise.) The SEC distributes $31 million in TV money to each of its schools, and the Big Ten likely will approach $40 million per school in annual TV money in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, the Big XII is left seeking a solution — namely, its own conference network — that it hopes would achieve something similar. However, as long as there’s a Longhorn network exclusive to Texas, there will be no Big XII Network. Simply put, you can’t have a Big XII network without the most popular school in the conference contributing content.
Make no mistake, while the Longhorn Network has put millions into Texas’s coffers, as a business entity for its owner, ESPN, it’s been a huge money pit and a massive failure. The only winner is the university when it cashes ESPN’s checks. Conversely, ESPN also runs the SEC Network for that conference, and it’s been a huge success, because it’s a collaborative effort of 14 schools, not a fiefdom unto one school.
One discovery item that must come out of these meetings is a feasibility determination on creating a Big XII network, likely through ESPN and likely folding the Longhorn Network into the conference network, and somehow allowing the Longhorns to maintain their $15 million revenue stream. A new conference television network would then most certainly trigger conference expansion discussions, which brings us to…
If expansion is a possibility, what are the criteria for selecting new members?
According to ESPN.com, the University of Houston is among four schools whose recent lobbying for membership in the Big XII is documented. (There are likely at least three or four more schools, in addition to the four in the report, that are lobbying more privately.) According to that report, the Cougars hosted West Virginia president and Big XII composition committee member Gordon Gee on campus for a visit last November to tour the facilities. Other schools documented in the ESPN report include Memphis, Colorado State and Central Florida. It is believed that BYU, Connecticut, Cincinnati and Boise State are among schools also seeking Big XII membership.
If you’re looking for a selection methodology for expansion, the best thing to do is follow the money. (This is actually a great rule to live by in following anything related to collegiate athletics.) Every other conference expansion in the past five years — the SEC’s adding Texas A&M and Missouri, the Pac-12’s adding Utah and Colorado, the Big Ten’s adding Rutgers and Maryland — has been about extending a conference’s footprint into new states in order to increase its television audience. In short, when it comes to expansion, any additional schools likely must be in a state where the additional cable subscribers and eyeballs augment the overall revenue pie.
In Big XII expansion, this is great news for Cincinnati (Ohio market), Memphis (Tennessee market), UConn (Northeast markets, like Boston and New York) and BYU (Utah, decent national following through religious affiliation), all potentially new markets for the Big XII. This is not great news for the University of Houston, which unfortunately resides in a geographical patch that TV networks likely feel they already have a handle on when it comes to the Big XII, with large alumni bases for Texas, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and the Oklahoma schools.
For his part, Cougar head coach Tom Herman is remaining focused on the on-field task at hand, deeming Big XII membership “above [his] pay grade,” but most Cougar fans and alums see membership in a Power Five conference as vital to keeping Herman long term. To that end, if the Cougars’ brass wants to target its lobbying efforts, it might look west to the Pac-12 and an effort to sell that conference on Houston as its gateway to the Texas television market.
So for four days next week, the college football world will wait to see what the leaders of the Big XII can make of the landscape, to see if they can somehow map out a better future for the fifth wheel of the Power Five. Adding to the degree of difficulty in the moment is a shrinking cable television industry that’s becoming more discerning in how it doles out rights fees, not to mention the continued on-field struggles of Texas and the off-field spate of sexual assaults committed by a group of now-former Baylor football players. In some respects, the Big XII marquee schools are themselves just as wobbly as the conference right now.
Expansion, inertia, infighting, solutions — all of these are possibilities next week with a conference that sits perpetually on a college football fault line, where the next shift in realignment could swallow the conference altogether. That’s life in the Big XII, college football’s dysfunctional family.
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