The Big 12 presidents have directed Commissioner Bob Bowlsby to evaluate schools that are interested in joining the conference, stopping just short of announcing it planned to expand.
After a meeting of the Big 12 university presidents and chancellors on Tuesday, Oklahoma President David Boren says the conference leaders voted unanimously to take another step toward adding to the 10-member conference.
“I think it’s a statement that we want to move forward,” Boren said. “Yes, it’s a positive step. Not a decision yet.”
The Big 12 has been the smallest of the Power Five leagues since 2012. The conference has already announced it would bring back its football championship game in 2017 and likely break into divisions.
Numerous schools have been pitching the Big 12 behind the scenes for months, including American Athletic Conference members Cincinnati Connecticut, Memphis, Houston and Central Florida, along with BYU, Colorado State and others.
“We’ve been contacted by a number of institutions, and I would imagine after this news breaks we’ll be contacted again,” Bowlsby said.
The last big wave of realignment in the early 2010s nearly killed the Big 12. Colorado left for the Pac-12, Nebraska went to the Big Ten and Texas A&M and Missouri jumped to the Southeastern Conference. The Big 12 held itself together by adding TCU and West Virginia in 2012. That left the Big 12 as the only Power Five conference without a football championship game.
The league hailed its round-robin schedule as the way to produce “One True Champion,” but the slogan looked silly when the Big 12 finished the 2014 season with co-champions. Both TCU and Baylor were left out of the first College Football Playoff. Not having that 13th game to showcase the conference’s best teams the day before the playoff field was revealed put the Big 12 at a disadvantage. After that season, the Big 12 began to re-assess whether it needed to add a championship game, expand or both.
Bowlsby and the conference leaders decided not to react to one year’s results and instead studied expansion along with the possibility of bringing back its championship game and trying to start a conference television network.
Oklahoma reached the College Football Playoff as the Big 12 champion last season, tempering some of the conference’s nervousness about being left behind. Firms hired to crunch the numbers for the Big 12 told conference leaders that expanding and bringing back its championship game would increase the chances of making it to the playoff and boosting revenue.
Boren has been the leading advocate for expansion. He said the conference was “psychologically disadvantaged” by having only 10 teams. On the other side, Texas wanted to stay at 10 — and keep its own Longhorn Network in place.
In June, the Big 12 announced it would bring back the title game, but said starting a TV network was unlikely. Expansion also seemed unlikely coming out of those meetings. Even Boren was backing off.
But Monday, it was reported that ESPN will announce soon the creation of an Atlantic Coast Conference Network to start in 2019 that could also lead to a long extension of the conference’s grant of media rights. The grant of rights virtually locks conference members together. Boren acknowledged that the ACC news influenced the Big 12.
“We cannot just sit on the sideline and not be proactive ourselves,” Boren said. “As other conferences have grown other advantages have come to them. Financial advantages. Competitive advantage. Opportunities to play for national championships. We’ll be looking for other advantages to see how it works.”
Big 12 leaders have acknowledged that none of the available schools is a natural fit. None is guaranteed to deliver both highly competitive teams — especially football teams — as well as large new markets to increase the value of future media deals.
“We are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow,” Bowlsby said. “That bring stability. That have a high top end.”