Think big: Here is one way to save the Big 12

·9-min read

To understand the defiant spirit of the remaining eight teams in the Big 12 conference, it’s instructive to consider that the mascots of nearly half of the remaining schools carry guns. This is not a group that’s wired to accept defeat.

But for the sake of the future of the Big 12, the league needs to stick its guns into their holsters. When the obvious became official on Thursday and the Pac-12 announced it wouldn’t be expanding, the eight remaining Big 12 schools now officially have the opportunity to link arms and build a new future.

And for the Big 12 to grow into a vibrant new league for the next generation, the league’s leaders need to resist all of the quick-trigger leadership instincts. This dynamic and fluid time requires patience, solidarity and an open-mindedness that’s the opposite of many of the schools’ George Steinbrenner urges.

With nowhere to go, the Big 12 schools need to get comfortable with forging together for its next iteration. The most tangible takeaway from the Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC alliance on Wednesday was that those leagues banded together to push the Big 12 further away from college football’s mainstream. The counter-punch needs to be more strategic than emotional.

With the SEC poaching the Big 12 and the alliance aligning against them, the Big 12 needs to have its moment of Zen clarity on its place in the ecosystem. Embracing that and then fostering the creativity, leadership and synchronization necessary to move forward will determine the league’s direction for the next generation.

That’s why the best move for the league is to focus less on short-term interests and embrace the notion of going big. Like, really big.

The best plan for the Big 12 going forward is to expand to 16 teams, plant its flag in fertile football/TV markets from coast-to-coast and have some patience — there’s that word again — to watch the league evolve back into a national power. This would make the Big 12 appetizing to multiple potential media partners, especially if it embraces weeknight games, unconventional kickoff times and anything else that can create value.

LAWRENCE, KS - OCTOBER 31: A view of the Big 12 logo before a football game between the Iowa State Cyclones and Kansas Jayhawks on October 31, 2020 at Memorial Stadium in Lawrence, KS.  (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The Big 12 has quite a few things to figure out. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Here’s one man’s plan for the league.

Add eight schools — BYU, Boise State, Colorado State, San Diego State, Houston, UCF, USF and Cincinnati. (Memphis and Tulane could also be considered.) The bonus here: There are some pretty stout basketball programs.

Break those 16 teams into four pods to keep some of the league’s familiarity. The teams in the pods would play each other every year.

  • West: Boise State, BYU, Colorado State and San Diego State

  • Midwest: Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State

  • Texas: Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and Houston (Tulane could go here if the egos of the Texas schools foolishly block Houston.)

  • East: Cincinnati, West Virginia, UCF and USF (Memphis could go here if two Florida schools aren't wanted.)

Going this big works out for the Big 12 in a few ways. First off, it kneecaps the AAC and Mountain West with such force that the Big 12 solidifies itself as the No. 5 league in the country. By a distance.

Pillaging the best programs from the two leagues below them — and adding a solid independent in BYU to pull in a streaming audience — creates a giant moat between the Big 12 and anyone else behind it. It also makes a loud statement to the College Football Playoff that the league has all the teams outside the Chosen 57 that would likely be considered for the CFP.

There are two things that matter most for the Big 12, whether they expand to 12, 14 or 16 teams — television money and access to the College Football Playoff. Everything else is window dressing.

The league sizes will be modeled out by the Big 12’s television consultants and studied. There’s no clear timing path here, as the Big 12 will prioritize milking every possible penny out of the current deal with Oklahoma and Texas, which could mean four more seasons of playing out the current contract. (It’s unlikely OU and Texas go in the next three years, as CBS would own their best games and no schools would make any more money. If ESPN buys out that CBS deal, things could change.)

The thorny part for the Big 12 is that it’s impossible to predict what the content market will look like four years from now. The supposed revenue geyser of non-traditional streaming services has yet to erupt. But the most important part will be the Big 12 letting partners know it’ll play ball.

The new Big 12 needs to become as attractive to television as possible. It needs to become America’s weeknight, late-night league. It needs to be a last-call hero and the go-to for bettors and football junkies. Luckily, most of the programs already play at a tempo friendly to hitting the over. They need to play any weeknight in any window, and build their programs that way. Embrace the unconventional, it’s a tried and true path to relevance.

The Big 12 potentially cut out a media partner when commissioner Bob Bowlsby put ESPN on blast in a letter that went public for allegedly conspiring to “harm” the league by helping lure Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. While ESPN denies this, the biggest fallout could be that this complicates the new Big 12 finding multiple bidders to split up its rights. It's hard to imagine ESPN being one of those bidders.

Could the presence of streaming services like Peacock or Paramount Plus factor in here more? Could a betting company with a big streaming reach test just how maverick the Big 12 wants to become? Could there be a split of rights between a more traditional linear network like Fox and another service? It’s way too early to tell, as two years from now this whole industry could look completely different. Think how different it looked two months ago.

Regardless, the Big 12 rights won’t be overly expensive. And that’s where the Big 12 gunslingers are going to have to resist their instinct and think long term, something Oklahoma and Texas never allowed them to do.

When the Big 12 hosted a beauty pageant for new members in 2016, it could have added Cincinnati and UCF. It even considered UConn, which shows how quickly the world can change. If Cincinnati and UCF had a few years to build with Big 12 revenue, which is nearly four times more than the current AAC revenue ($40 million annually compared to less than $10 million), those programs would be among the most valuable in the Big 12. If not the most valuable.

But OU and Texas didn’t want to split up the pie more, didn’t want to use their brands to grow others. So the Big 12 stayed at 10.

ARLINGTON, TX - JULY 14: Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to the press during the Big 12 Conference football media days on July 14, 2021 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX. (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Will Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby be a part of the league's future? (Photo by George Walker/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

By going big, the Big 12 may take more short-term pain as the already shrunk pie would be cut up even smaller with more mouths. It would be smart to take a shorter television deal, and then use postseason appearances and weeknight success to come to market later in the decade with an identity. Also, added programs would likely come for revenue numbers that are ahead of the current AAC/Mountain West, as those programs are eager to move up.

By going with a wide reach and big markets, and entrenching in football hotbeds, this isn’t a plan to strike oil tomorrow. It’s a plan to build a league with teams and success that can’t be ignored, that can have national success and crash a 12-team playoff. It’s football in California, Texas, Ohio and Florida, which are the sport’s best bets.

With College Football Playoff appearances the goal, the new Big 12 should be designed for flexibility to give its champion the best shot to reach the CFP. It should consider flex schedule options to give teams windows late in the season to play each other in big games to improve rankings. The league needs to be prepared for the SEC to play nine or 10 league games and the alliance to squeeze out its non-conference scheduling opportunities. That means the new Big 12 needs to be able to schedule each other within the 16 to provide the best showcases, making the possibility of a shotgun BYU-Coastal Carolina-type game from last season a reality every year.

Who will lead the Big 12 forward? There have been predictable internal grumblings from some of the league’s less patient schools about Bowlsby’s energy and engagement in the wake of the OU and Texas departures. Those gripes have a "ready, fire, aim" feel.

Bowlsby’s contract expires in 2025, and the smarter question the league’s leaders need to answer is whether he should plan the next formation of the league. Bowlsby likely won’t be around to preside over the new iteration after his deal is done. So as the league goes through a year or so of planning to start figuring out a TV strategy, it needs to address whether Bowlsby, 69, should be the face of putting this next generation together.

The Big 12 has brought in former West Virginia AD Oliver Luck as a consultant. His recent XFL commissioner experience brought him across the table from every fathomable streaming service, which will help down the road. He also lived the Big East breakup and can relate to a group of schools bonded together most by its desire to leave.

This moment for the Big 12 requires guns down, not up. With some patience and luck in timing the media market, the Big 12 can remain relevant, rollicking and a fixture in college football’s postseason.

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