The Best Move for the Big 12 in the Latest Round of Realignment
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
Image from USA Today
The Southeastern Conference (SEC) fired the opening salvo in what should be another transformative shift in college sports, at least in football and basketball. In the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma, the SEC scored a touchdown in bringing in two huge brands, fertile recruiting territories and traditions of success. They were the two biggest chips not already aligned into the four biggest conferences – the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC. It also solidified the state of Texas and its major TV markets as “SEC Country,” where football is king and basketball and baseball come in a distant second and third. The move, while glorious for the SEC, also destabilized the rest of college football as another round of conference realignment is inevitable.
The Big 12 Conference is the biggest loser here as the conference tethers on the precipice of collapse. The Big 12 was already down to 10 schools when Colorado and Texas A&M bolted. Now, the remaining eight schools lack a clear identity, cache, and major media market power to make them a major selling point for anyone. Is the remaining Big 12 really more powerful than the Mountain West or American Athletic Conference from a business perspective to merit a “Power 5” designation?
So, what are their options?
With only eight schools left in the conference, the Big 12 would likely need to add a minimum of four new schools to stay relevant. It will likely make overtures to top brands in the neighboring Mountain West Conference and American Athletic Conference. Reportedly, the Pac-12 and Big 12 are also discussing a “partnership” – although it is not likely to be a merger.
A Pac-12/Big 12 merger does not make much sense for the Pac-12, although the Big 12 would leap at the opportunity. None of the remaining Big 12 programs are cultural fits with the Pac-12. The Pac-12’s most recent converts – Utah and Colorado – are still not well integrated into the West Coast culture of the other ten schools. So, how well would these Heartland and Texas-based schools fit into the wine culture of the Pac-12? Secondly, the Pac-12 needs eyeballs to raise its overall clout. None of the remaining Big 12 programs bring significant markets to make it a no brainer for the Pac-12. Even Kansas, with its basketball success and the Kansas City market, will bring more logistical challenges that outweigh the benefits. Baylor and TCU, which also have recent success, don’t move the needle with their smaller fan bases, albeit it in the coveted Dallas-Fort Worth market. Will fans in Los Angeles or Seattle be excited that Iowa State is coming to play?
Raiding the Mountain West Conference, likewise, is not the panacea for the Big 12. It does not have enough brands with sufficient strength in football, market size, or national brand recognition to move the needle for the Big 12. Boise State, which may be the strongest brand in the Mountain West, is not a valuable enough piece able to save the Big 12 alone or to keep it in the Power 5 discussion. UNLV has just been terrible in recent years despite being in probably the best market in the conference. Wyoming, Colorado State, and Utah State just don’t have enough value to make them attractive to the Big 12 outside of regional fits.
For the Big 12, the Big Ten is the biggest threat right now. If the Big Ten sees value in any of the Big 12’s spare parts, it will further obliterate the Big 12. Though, is anyone left in the Big 12 attractive enough to the Big Ten that it would make overtures? If you look at the Big Ten’s growth strategy, it has always revolved around the Big Ten Network. Maryland and Rutgers were huge prizes because they brought in over 20 million people into Big Ten territory and, more importantly, cable subscriber fees. With a push to streaming now, it is easier to convert current subscribers than to find new ones. Many lamented that the Big Ten made a mistake in letting in a weak Rutgers athletic program, but even a mediocre Rutgers football team still gets solid football ratings in the key New York and Philadelphia markets.
The remaining Big 12 schools just do not have the same market power that even a Rutgers had. Kansas arguably can help extend the Big Ten to the Kansas City market for basketball, but is that a big enough prize for the conference to take on a another traditionally weak football afterthought? Kansas does not really offer any other strong sports programs outside of men’s basketball, and for a conference that just sent nine teams to the NCAA tournament, does it really need another basketball franchise? Remember, adding more schools only splits the financial pie more for existing schools, so unless expansion makes the pie measurably bigger, is expansion really necessary?
Kansas State would offer the Big Ten a better football tradition, but they don’t present a stronger enough academic profile to fit the Big Ten’s goals for recruiting schools that have the prestigious Association of American Universities (AAU) academic standing. Iowa State and Kansas are both AAU schools and are in states contiguous to the Big Ten footprint. Iowa State would provide regional rivalries with Iowa and Nebraska, but its closest media markets are already solidly in the Big Ten footprint, so it does not grow the pie. Would the Big Ten be willing to make an overture to a University of Colorado to pair with Kansas to win the Kansas City and Denver markets? With the Pac-12 floundering, the Buffaloes may seize such an opportunity to roam over to the Big Ten. For the Big Ten to make relevant market gains, their best bet may be to look East into New England, which is really an untapped market for college football. Would a school such as University of Connecticut help? If so, wouldn’t it have happened already?
The most logical choice for the Big 12 would be to seek out a merger with the AAC instead. As the most vulnerable of the Power 5 conferences, the Big 12 would attract instance attention from the AAC leadership with its access to the College Football Playoff. A straight Big 12-AAC merger would provide 19 schools to create a “super-regional” football conference and also bring complementary pieces. Baylor, Houston and Texas Tech are probably the best football schools in the state outside of the Longhorns and Aggies. TCU and SMU would create an intriguing rivalry in the Dallas-Fort Worth area to make further inroads in the state of Texas (an important one for TV ratings). West Virginia can rekindle an old rivalry with a Cincinnati team that has been a perennial Top 25 team and flirted with an at large CFP bid last year. UCF is a prize by itself, but with South Florida as a natural rival too, it provides a revamped Big 12 Conference with access to the fertile Florida recruiting grounds in addition to Texas and the Rust Belt recruiting. In business parlance, an AAC-Big 12 merger could be seen as a “merger of equals.”
The Big 12 can certainly make a run at just those schools, but there would be value to a straight on merger. Even, small school Tulsa would provide Oklahoma State with an instate rival. Add in Wichita State for basketball and even Kansas can get excited. Temple, Memphis, and Tulane also provide the new combined conference additional markets that can prove attractive. (Navy is also a football-only member of the AAC and brings a loyal base.)
Of course, even the combined entity might look to shave off some of the weaker programs to get down to 16 schools. It could force some schools such as East Carolina, Tulane and possibly Temple out. Alternatively, it could look to add a few more schools to provide a platform for a 20-24 team conference. With a more strategic footprint, the Big 12 – or whatever it would then be called – would still pale in comparison to the Big Ten and SEC, but it could be a realistic competitor to the ACC or Pac-13 for that #3 spot. It would also provide a platform to innovate with more strategic scheduling options.
One way or another, the Big 12 is at a crossroads. Its remaining schools are all looking for greener pastures right now, but the options are just not there overall. So, a Big 12-AAC merger may just be the strategy that makes the most sense for both to fortify their competitive side and balance sheets.
Andrew Bondarowicz, Esq. is the principal of Bondarowicz & Associates, LLC and has been involved in business and legal affairs within the sports industry for over 15 years. He has also taught Sports Law at Rutgers Law School since 2012 and the M.S. in Global Sports Business Program since its inception.