In the first of our stories on the Big 12 Conference’s potential expansion and the possibility of the University of Central Florida or the University of South Florida joining the conference, we cautioned that only the presidents of the Big 12 universities have any idea of how the expansion process will play out – and they’re not talking.
Still, Russia doesn’t need to hack those presidents’ email accounts to know the first two weeks of college football changed the equation to some degree. It’s simply impossible to ignore the potential impact of Houston’s 33-23 opening weekend upset of Oklahoma. Houston is one of the schools hoping to join the Big 12, and the Sooners were the pre-season favorite to win the conference. The Cougars dominated more thoroughly than the score indicated, something that had to up UH’s odds of joining the Big 12.
Possibly, but there is no reason for UCF and USF– to feel down. Big 12 leaders will look at more than one football game. South Florida has won its first two games, and UCF snapped its losing streak in the season opener and, despite a loss last weekend to No. 4 Michigan, new coach Scott Frost appears to be turning the Knights around. And, while some (though not all) Big 12 candidates have a stronger football pedigree, UCF and USF have had notable successes on the gridiron as well. Just three years ago, UCF won the Fiesta Bowl and finished in the Top 10. In 2007, USF’s football team briefly climbed to No. 2 in the national polls.
So, exactly how do these Big 12 candidates stack up? Do the Knights and the Bulls have what it takes to join a so called “Power 5” conference (the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12 and Southeastern) and reap the resulting financial rewards? If they do, it’s a big payday: The Big 12 pays about $25 million annually to its members compared to the roughly $3 million paid by the schools’ current conference, the American Athletic.
Since FORWARD Florida first took a look at the Big 12 expansion efforts, the number of schools applying swelled to 20 and then reportedly was winnowed back to 13 finalists: the two Florida schools, Air Force, BYU, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Connecticut, Houston, Memphis, Rice, SMU, Temple and Tulane.
As the search moves forward, what will the Big 12 be looking for if it indeed expands by two or four new members? Keeping in mind that only the presidents know for sure, common sense would indicate the key criteria are television viewers, expanding the conference’s recruiting base, the potential for political concerns, travel logistics and academics.
For this installment, we’re going to focus exclusively on television. As former UCF Athletic Director Todd Stansbury once noted, conferences today are organized primarily around how many television sets member schools can deliver. Gone are the days when regional or cultural similarities drove conference alignment.
Television, in fact, has become the lynchpin in the entire discussion. The Big 12’s current TV contracts with ESPN and Fox require the networks to increase their payments if new conference members are added, to ensure individual schools continue getting the same amount of money from the broadcast rights. The networks aren’t thrilled with this prospect, so the Big 12 has to find new members that will deliver new viewers.
“They’ve all done an excellent job at putting their best foot forward and showing their strengths,” University of Oklahoma President David Boren told ESPN recently. “The question at the end of the day is, can we say with certainty, that expansion would add strength to the conference? I think there’s a lot of discussion that will have to go on before we reach that decision.”
From a TV perspective, it’s hard to ignore BYU’s advantage. The school’s resume will take some hits when we look at the other criteria, but when it comes to TV the Cougars have a lot going for them. BYU has a well-known football program that has won a national championship (in 1984). It is to many Mormons what Notre Dame is to many Catholics and thus has a coast-to-coast following. Big 12 leaders would be foolish to ignore those factors.
For the other schools, including UCF and USF, the calculus gets trickier. Being from a large television market is not enough; demonstrating consistent viewership that enhances the Big 12’s brand is critical. To understand how complex the evaluation process will be for the remaining finalists, look no further than the other Cougars – the ones at the University of Houston.
Houston is located in the nation’s fourth-largest city and a Top 10 media market. That’s a plus. In their win over Oklahoma, UH drew a 12.8 overnight rating in Houston, the highest opening-weekend rating ESPN has ever had in the city. That’s another plus.
But, is it indicative of what the Cougars can deliver regularly as a Big 12 member? Texas has a massive alumni base in the city and in most instances outdraws UH. Houstonians already are big consumers of Big 12 football, so it’s not clear how much the Cougars’ addition would really help the TV numbers.
A lesson might be learned from the experience of the now-defunct Southwest Conference. When the SWC added Houston as its ninth and final member in 1976, it seemed logical by the old regional/cultural standards. But, when the conference dissolved before the 1996 season, Houston was not invited to join the Big 12 because the new conference already had four Texas schools. Back then, the Big 12’s leadership didn’t think the school would enhance the conference’s attractiveness to the networks. What has changed in the intervening 20 years is that Houston is emerging as a nationally powerful football program. The Cougars will need to demonstrate that big wins will deliver bigger ratings than it already enjoys in Houston for the Big 12.
UCF and USF have a similar challenge in that Florida and Florida State have huge followings in Central Florida, but there is a key difference. The Big 12 is not currently in Florida, and Tampa Bay and Greater Orlando are, respectively, the nation’s 13th and 19th largest television markets. Adding the two schools almost certainly would increase Big 12 viewership in those markets and likely throughout Florida. UCF and USF can expand the conference’s profiles in their markets even if they don’t outdraw the Gators and Seminoles.
Television is the Big 12’s leading consideration, no matter what other rhetoric might come from the conference presidents. But, it’s not the only factor. In our next installment, we’ll look at the remaining criteria and how it might bolster UCF and USF’s chances.