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.
“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.