The Big XII is Under Attack: Can Beebe Battle Back?

Scott WilsonCorrespondent IFebruary 14, 2010

The fight for the 2009-10 BCS championship is over, the recruiting battle for national signing day success has been waged, and the annual espionage of coaching changes has come to a close. But has the war for college football dominance truly been won?

In an era of skyrocketing revenue hauls from television contracts, media rights, branded products, bowl games, ticket sales, and donations from football-crazy boosters, this past season shot into hyperdrive as the SEC signed two mega-deals for the TV rights to their games. $3.5 billion (yes that is with a "B") over a 15-year span will fill the athletic departments of the schools in the SEC as they gain national exposure on ESPN and CBS.

The SEC cashed in on their threat to move towards creating their very own TV network, as their northern rival, the Big Ten, had already pioneered as a successful model for an athletic conference. The 11 members of the Big Ten split a $1 billion contract on ESPN in addition to an estimated $2.8 billion deal from their now-established Big Ten Network.

"The Big Ten set up the situation for the SEC," Big XII commissioner Dan Beebe, who previously indicated his league will look into starting its own network, told Sports Business Journal . "I'm not sure if that kind of deal will continue to be available for the rest of us with that kind of money." (1)
The ACC and Pac-10 conferences are now eyeing their own upcoming contract negotiations with a jealous eye towards the two major conferences in the NCAA. However, the golden goose might not be able to lay anymore eggs as the recession has bit deep into advertisers' budgets and guaranteed payouts might not be so easy to come by.
Some rumors indicate that the two conferences on opposite coasts might partner together to form a sports network of their own or form an alliance in order to leverage a bigger overall TV package than they could get alone. The success of ACC basketball and Pac-10 football on the national stage over recent years could prove to deliver what both conferences lack by themselves.
Lost in the shuffle of all these mega-million conference TV contracts is the Big XII conference. In 2007, then-commissioner Kevin Weiberg threw his hands up in the air trying to get the members to address forming a Big XII TV network and revenue sharing and quit, moving on to help Jim Delaney and the Big Ten establish their TV network.  Now he is the deputy commissioner of the Pac-10 conference at this crucial time.
The Big XII has one secondary TV package with Fox Sports Net coming up for expiration at the end of the 2012 spring semester, but they are locked into their prime contract with ESPN until 2016. The current Big XII contract pays less than $7 million on average per member each year. Compare that to the Big Ten ($19.45) and SEC ($17.08), and the next five years will see a tremendous gap in resources between the Big XII and the two premiere conferences in NCAA sports.
The effect of such revenue disparity cannot be underestimated. A vast majority of NCAA FBS university athletic departments (outside of the SEC and Big Ten) are undergoing major financial crisis. Some programs are eliminating entire sports teams, others are reducing staffing, cutting back on facility upgrades, and nearly all are trying to tap into new revenue streams.
How can the Big XII members sit idly by as the Big Ten, SEC, and possibly the ACC and Pac-10 all cash in while they are stuck for the next five years with what has become an outdated television package?
Former Big 12 Commish, Kevin Weiberg, upon announcing his resignation of the post, made this comment about a Big XII Network:
"There are some attractive features to it, but our members at the end of the day did not feel like it was right for them," Weiberg said. "I think the possibility of a channel down the road is something they will have to come back to." (2)
Dan Beebe has broached the subject of a possible Big XII Network once again, but getting all of the schools to participate in the development of the network and the patience to follow the Big Ten's lead could be especially challenging for the Big XII.
"That's something that has been a primary focus for us is whether we create a network," Beebe said. "That would go a long way to solidifying our situation." (3)
Can the Big XII form up an alliance with the Pac-10 to broker a better deal?
Commissioner Dan Beebe told Sports Business Journal that a joint conference channel "is something that is deserving of full exploration, if you can put together a network where everybody can get along." (4)
The Pac-10/Big XII combination could have some juice with former Big XII commissioner, Kevin Weiberg, now serving as deputy commish of the Pac-10. The Pac-10's TV deals expire after the 2012 spring semester, as does the Big XII secondary deal.
The members of the Big XII conference are varied in their economic strengths. The "Big Four" of Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Nebraska are generally immune to some of the bigger economic woes due to a loyal fanbase that continues to fill their stadiums and faithful boosters that pour money into the athletic departments.
Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma State would be considered in the "safe" bunch as they have varying degrees of booster support and football or basketball cash-cows.  Meanwhile, the rest of the conference is basically in "lottery ticket" mode waiting for the right coach, the right season, or the big donor to come in and push them into the "have's" and out of the "have-nots" in the arms race that is college sports.
In recent months, a new "lottery ticket" has been all the rage: jumping ship from the Big XII Conference in favor of a possible expansion by the Big Ten or Pac Ten conferences.
However, Commissioner Beebe expects his conference to be untouched when the Big Ten selects its potential candidates for expansion. (3)
How can he be so confident?
Nebraska Athletic Director, and Big XII heavyweight, Tom Osborne had this to say:
“We’ll have to see what the landscape is six months, a year, from now. If we start losing schools, it could change the whole dynamic of the Big XII Conference.”

“It’ll be interesting to see,” Osborne said. “It isn’t something I stay up at night worrying about. Everybody’s aware there may be some realignment. Nobody knows quite what’s going to happen. I’m sure Dan Beebe and others in the Big XII are looking at this, too.” (5)

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon had his own say:

"I'm not going to say anything bad about the Big XII, but when you compare Oklahoma State to Northwestern, when you compare Texas Tech to Wisconsin, I mean, you begin looking at educational possibilities that are worth looking at," Nixon said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"If a significant conference with a long history of academic and athletic excellence talks about you joining them, you shouldn't just say, `We're from the old Big 8 and I remember when ...

"If they want to talk, we should talk, and we should listen," Nixon added. (6)

Many educated and informed reports have listed the Pac-10 might target Colorado in an expansion move (7).  And recent reports have come out of the CU athletic department that they would seriously weight such a move.

And, of course, the big fish of the Big XII, the University of Texas, has a lot of buzz in courting the Big Ten's attention:

“There have been preliminary exchanges between the Big Ten and Texas,” the source told the Journal-World on Wednesday. “People will deny that, but it’s accurate.” (8)

So, given that troubling environment for the continuity of the Big XII conference, wouldn't a prudent commissioner want to ensure their fanbase that they are taking steps to consolidate their members?

The Mountain West Conference has a "Plan B" if it directly or indirectly loses membership to Pac-10 expansion. (9)

"Absolutely, we would be prepared tomorrow for any number of scenarios," MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said Wednesday by phone. "We've always been proactive; we are doing the necessary research and looking at all options. When we added TCU in 2005, we did it for one reason, to strengthen the league." (9)

Compare that to Commissioner Beebe:

"As with other conferences, the Big XII is studying the intercollegiate landscape and options to consider in preparing for the future. All of these deliberations will be carried out confidentially." (9)

Not exactly a confidence-inspiring statement of action.

So, what SHOULD Dan Beebe and the Big XII do in order to ensure not just survival, but guarantee positioning the conference as a top three athletic conference?

1). Fire the expansion "pre-emptive strike":

Why sit back and wait for the schools in the conference to be courted by the academically and financially superior Big Ten and Pac-10? Take the bull by the horns and expand the television market of the conference and improve the athletic profile at the same time.

The Big XII already has the "Big 14 Conference" name trademarked as part of their assets.  Make it a reality. The Big XII doesn't have the academic and religious scruples that the Pac-10 does, so sieze the highest profile "non-BCS" program available in Brigham Young.

The Cougars would fit into the top six football programs in the Big XII based upon game attendance, national appeal, and even bring a national championship to the table. They are extremely competitive in all sports as well. Also bring in the Utah Utes as a well-rounded athletic program that will only increase the profile of both major revenue sports.

Adding the Utes and Cougars will give the Big XII an impressive footprint that leaves little room for Pac-10 expansion and two more teams in the growing Mountain time zone to cement Colorado as a long-term member.

2). Partner with the Pac-10 Conference on a "BigPac" TV Network:

Squeeze out the ACC and leave them to their own devices by pursuing a partnership with the Pac-10 to lock up all media markets in the western United States. Leveraging the mega markets of California, Texas, along with other large markets Phoenix, Seattle, Denver, St. Louis, and Kansas City could very well provide a Big Ten/SEC like payday for all members.

3). Implement an equal distribution of TV and bowl revenues:

The old addage that you are only as strong as your weakest member rings all too true for the Big XII. Lacking viable "alternative" members within the geographic footprint means that you must take care of your own. The "Big 4" members need to realize that the unequal distribution of TV money will only lead to instability in-conference. Each school still retains their own gate receipts and still can capitalize on their own boosters and merchandise royalties. The belief that sharing the TV money will create NFL-like parity is ridiculous. Texas will still still gross over $100 million and Iowa State will still struggle to top $40 million. But, without decent conference opponents, the elite teams will see their own status decline on the national stage.

4). Create an elite academic consortium:

While nobody will confuse the Big XII with the Ivy League, it still is academically superior over a great majority Division I-FBS conferences. The Big XII has just as many member institutions represented in the Association of American Universities (seven) as the Pac-10 and Ivy League (tied for second behind the Big Ten). 

Capitalizing on this academic clout to further bring the conference members together academically and culturally will go a long way towards forming solidarity. Currently, the Big XII Faculty Fellowship Program is a stepping stone towards a much more comprehensive model (like the Big Ten has with the Committee on Institutional Cooperation). 

This should be addressed as expansion targets state the desire to be better aligned academically with such a program.

5). React to any expansion losses quickly:

As was mentioned, there are slim pickings for the conference to choose a replacement if one of the existing members bolt for another conference. Assuming BYU and Utah have already been invited to join the league, that leaves only two viable options: Texas Christian University and the University of New Mexico. 

While TCU has been a great story in recent years, and an unqualified success on many fields of play (baseball is very attractive in addition to football), over-saturating the Texas market isn't the best strategy. TCU should be the No. 1 option, only in the instance of losing an existing Texas team. In any other scenario (Missouri leaving), then New Mexico needs to be the No. 1 candidate. 

While many will scoff at this notion, it is important to realize the long-term benefits of the demographics and the quality of education that is offered at UNM.

Albuquerque is a growing TV market andUNM is a state flagship school with a quality academic ranking. The basketball program is top-notch with "The Pit" being an absolute asset to any conference. With major expansions under way on their football stadium, the Lobos could be primed to capitalize on any Big XII expansion.

The third, and probably last remaining candidate, would be Colorado State University.  While the demographics and athletics aren't as strong as either of the above two universities, the Rams have many positive factors that could further solidify the ever-growing Front Range TV market.

6). Promote the Cotton Bowl as the next BCS bowl:

While the Fiesta Bowl has certainly been beneficial to the Big XII in some years, there are also a good many years that the game is a tough draw due to the opponent not traveling well.

Now that Cowboys Stadium has become the home of the venerable Cotton Bowl game, the potential to make the game a premiere college football bowl game is upon us. By taking advantage of having the conference's top bowl game tie-in lie within the conference footprint is tremendous. The Fiesta Bowl would obviously suffer, but it has always blazed its own path and would probably court the now revamped Mountain West Conference or a "homeless" Big East Conference.

7). Make Kansas City the permanent home of the football conference championship game:

It's called "give and take" Texas. You get the BCS bowl game in Dallas, give the North the championship game. Kansas City is the most centralized city in the footprint of the league that has an NFL stadium. The pregame activities are numerous and developing better ties with the northern teams will only help in retaining the members of the league.

8). Develop better participation in other non-revenue sports:

A key to creating content for any independent TV network is featuring the non-revenue sports. Priorities in this regard would be helping Colorado and Iowa State to field a baseball team; building ties with more wrestling programs (Texas and Texas A&M?) to the ever-growing MMA community; form the first NCAA conference in rodeo (currently under the NIRA) to take advantage of the growth in popularity in that sport and the Big XII footprint over "rodeo country" (Iowa State, Nebraska, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and Texas A&M currently field teams).

In conclusion, the current status of NCAA conferences seems stable on the surface, and I am sure Dan Beebe and staff are not going to discuss their strategies publicly.  However, it needs to be understood that in this modern age of "instant gratification" and constant participation by fans (via message boards and websites), that a stronger message of stability needs to be sent. The Big XII might have been a shotgun marriage back in the 1990's, but bold and ambitious action is needed to prevent a bitter divorce.




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