While at the Armed Forces Bowl press meeting last week, Salt Lake Tribune Reporter Jay Drew and Deseret News reporter Jeff Call managed to corner BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe for approximately 15 minutes to talk about the state of BYU athletics, and what the future just might bring.
He spoke briefly about scheduling and how things would certainly look better for BYU during November by the 2013 season.
In his brief yet poignant conversation Holmoe indicated that BYU and the Big 12 had no ill will, but stopped short of talking the expansion word, even to the level of his counterpart at Texas, DeLoss Dodds did with Kirk Bohls of the Austin American Statesmen.
Perhaps the most obvious hint Dodds dropped in his conversation with Bohls was the fact that ABC-ESPN had requested the Big 12 advance its negotiations for a new first-tier media rights deal.
While Dodds stated that he expects more Big 12 talks on the subject of league expansion, the renegotiated deal clearly has this possibility written all over it.
No Expansion Invites Further Risks to League Stability
ABC-ESPN as well as second-tier media rights partner FOX are obviously going to still be concerned about league stability.
With bigger, more competitive from top to bottom leagues throughout the country, the Big 12 clearly needs to invite two more schools beyond TCU and West Virginia, whom they invited last October to replace the departed Texas A&M and Missouri.
Unlike the past Big 12, this past year proved that if anyone other than Texas or perhaps Oklahoma wins the league without a Conference Championship event, the league no longer has the ability to propel an Oklahoma State or lesser brand into the BCS championship event.
Even the plus-one format that is being pushed for 2014 makes such a scenario even more realistic.
While Oklahoma President and former Governor and U.S. Senator David Boren has rejected overtures from Commissioner Mike Slive and his league directors in the past, with the additions of Texas A&M and Missouri, Florida President Bernie Machen has fulfilled a goal to raise the academic profile of the SEC.
Not just that the Aggies and the Tigers are former league partners to the Sooners in the Big 12, but because they are also affiliated with the Association of American Universities (AAU), which is something Boren and Oklahoma highly aspire to be.
It wasn’t the Pac-12, but the SEC that has gutted the Big 12 of its academic core AAU institutions. Something that TCU and West Virginia lack the profile to be able to replace.
West Virginia was so academically undesirable by the SEC and the ACC, that the Big 12 was the only viable alternative to the Mountaineers.
What Went Wrong Last September?
While no one is being specific about anything, and for weeks the rumors of a BYU rejection of a Big 12 invitation abounded, the truth is BYU didn’t advance beyond the preliminary talks leading to applications to join the league.
In this day and age league media partners will have a say on who joins a conference as the member institutions presidents-chancellors. From all likely scenarios, it appears FOX rejected the idea of BYU joining the league, and they were moved down the list as a result.
The biggest smoking gun with FOX is their huge second-tier media rights deal that was negotiated by former Commissioner Dan Beebe to hold Texas in the league 18 months ago, and to open the door for the third-tier media rights envisioned by the then proposed Longhorn Network.
FOX apparently, from all indications, resented the LDS Church rules governing BYU that prohibit participation in Sunday athletic competition, and how it could inhibit them from changing a championship event in the future during the duration of such a deal.
While BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson was granted exclusive authority to negotiate with other league presidents and chancellors by the board, some have been very reluctant over the years to allow BYU to join a powerful league alignment.
They had resented the fall out of BYU leaving their agreement with the WCC so soon after making such a deal. Utah’s departure to the Pac-12 the previous year made it politically possible for BYU to leave the MWC, but invited concerns about the potential abandonment of similar but much smaller faith based institutions.
In the end perhaps the biggest public relations mistake BYU made was to overly embrace the WCC. It ended up making them look as if they rejected the Big 12 until some details emerged later in October. Since then Tom Holmoe has done all he can to clear the air of any misinformation.
The Big East Still Lacks Enough Football Members
If BYU was truly interested in remaining in the WCC with its other sports long term, the Big East could have provided that vehicle for a more solid football future with the likelihood of having a real meaningful November schedule with a “western” division, that includes Boise State, Houston and Southern Methodist.
Instead in the failed scheme of conference expansion, BYU said no to the deal. The Big East was however successful in convincing San Diego State to make a football only move.
What had likely ended this deal before it really could have succeeded, despite the Internet and other media rumors? It was the BYU deal with media partner ESPN.
The Big East rejected a new media rights deal for football from ESPN and opened up the biding process. This obviously didn’t sit well with the powers that be in Bristol, Connecticut.
They are rumored to have encouraged both Pittsburgh and Syracuse to accept the overtures of the ACC that was looking for two more schools in a very quiet and under the radar way, not to mention having the Big 12 disruptions taking the media stories.
Possible Intel from ESPN?
With ABC-ESPN advancing the negotiations with the Big 12, it is entirely possible BYU officials were privy to information on this, which made it easier to walk away from the Big East proposal.
Could the Big 12 be closer to inviting perhaps Louisville (which was pushed at the 11th hour by U.S. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY) and BYU? With what is now being negotiated, it could come to this.
While no one can predict who might trigger the next move on the chessboard, some trends are becoming obvious. Despite what BYU has been able to work out on its own, and the highly lucrative third-tier media rights deal Texas has secured, it unlikely other schools will venture into league independence.
The SEC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 clearly have emerged as the strongest leagues, and are now with more power to call the shots with the BCS. They also have the best local network deals that provide the best access and exposure desired for their institutions.
But leagues like the Big 12 and ACC, which have third-tier rights freedom for their own individual networks, have created a potential atmosphere of league free agency in the future. The musical chairs that began to move two years ago can and will continue should an institution not be happy with media rights, access and exposure to best accommodate future growth.
Technology changes are also fueling this since the line between broadcast television and Internet streaming is growing thinner each year. BYU will be a player based on its brand strength, and following is a player in all this.
Although, Holmoe seams to be optimistic that with firm contracts in the future, and preliminary discussions with other schools, he can get a desired schedule that can put a product on the field to keep season ticket patrons and media partners happy, the conference expansion rumor mill will keep churning.
With all that’s happening based on the conversations he mentions he’s having with his AD counterparts around the country, the league alignment situation is far from stable. BYU fans should be prepared for one more round of league alignment speculation and happenings in the next few months based on what information is available.