Is the Big 12 starting the process to make itself whole?
According to reports from The Athletic and ESPN, the Big 12 is eyeing BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF if it expands following the departure of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. Adding those four teams would bring the Big 12 to 12 teams for the first time since 2010 before Colorado and Nebraska left for the Big Ten.
It’s hard to imagine the Big 12’s expansion process moving as quickly as the SEC’s if it does expand. After all, we’re still not sure when OU and UT are going to leave the conference. They are contractually tied to the Big 12 until 2025, but that date is negotiable if both schools agree to buy out the rest of their grant of rights agreements with the conference.
Wednesday afternoon, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said the conference was looking to “strengthen” itself. It was a statement that not-so-subtly hinted that the conference would be open to adding teams.
“Following two days of consultation with the athletics directors of the continuing members of the Big 12 Conference, the eight athletic directors remain committed to furthering the big 12 as one of the nation’s premier athletic conferences and look forward to working with our presidents and chancellors to strengthen the league,” Bowlsby said. “Future exploration by the group will continue to center on options that best position the long-term strength of the conference.”
Adding teams would keep the Big 12 viable
Expansion is about the only path forward for the Big 12 if it wants to remain a conference. An eight-team conference would be half the size of the newly-expanded SEC and remain vulnerable to future expansion by other power conferences. No other Power Five conference has fewer than 12 schools.
Expanding also positions the Big 12 nicely to negotiate an exit with Oklahoma and Texas. The marriage seems certain to end before 2025 and the Big 12 strengthens its ability to ask OU and UT for more money before they leave by showing it’s a viable conference.
The four schools reportedly eyed by the conference are also no-brainer additions. BYU has a solid television audience and a TV contract with ESPN. Cincinnati and UCF have positioned themselves as perennial contenders in the American Athletic Conference and bring new TV markets and recruiting territories. There’s some past animosity with Houston and the remaining Texas members of the Big 12, but the Cougars are a fantastic geographical fit and it’s a partnership that can benefit both the conference and the school.
Taking three schools from the American would also be a big hit to that conference. The American has tried to position itself as the sixth power conference in college athletics, a branding exercise that hasn’t really caught on.
Adding the four teams would make the Big 12 the biggest conference by geographical area, stretching west to east from Utah to West Virginia and from north to south from Iowa State to UCF. Travel will be increased for all sports. But you can bet that the athletic departments would gladly trade that extra travel for the television revenue that will come with the conference getting back to 12 teams.