Blair Kerkhoff

Two reasons why Big 12 expansion is back in play

Dividing the Big 12’s teams into divisions for a football championship game would be easier if commissioner Bob Bowlsby finds two or more schools to add to the conference.
Dividing the Big 12’s teams into divisions for a football championship game would be easier if commissioner Bob Bowlsby finds two or more schools to add to the conference. AP

For years, the Big 12 Conference played prevent defense when it came to its existence, as in preventing its demise. But twice in the past six weeks, the league has gone on the attack.

At the conclusion of last month’s spring meetings, the conference’s board of directors voted to restore a conference championship game. At the same gathering, the group suggested the time wasn’t right and may never be to pursue a conference television network.

But those two announcements led to the Big 12’s next big play, Tuesday’s revelation to “actively evaluate” the interest in schools that want to join the Big 12, said board chairman and Oklahoma president David Boren. Expansion is back in play.

Green flag racing is back after the caution had been out, and hope of power five inclusion and revenue checks returned to Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, Brigham Young and others.

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And the Big 12 could grow by next year. The football championship game will return for the 2017 season. That would give a new member one year in its current conference — this academic year — before bolting.

My thought was the Big 12 would see how a 10-team league would negotiate a football season that ended in a championship game. But it became apparent this week that coaches and league officials were unsure how to set up two five-team divisions.

“Obviously I don’t know how to set it up,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.

Nobody does, with 10 teams that would continue a complete round-robin. Not repeating a matchup in a short span — had a playoff been in effect last season and Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were in separate divisions, they’d have played two straight weekends — is about as definitive as anybody got.

But divisions of six or seven teams, now that’s easy. Everybody else operates that way, and so did the Big 12 for its first 15 years before it found itself on the front line of conference realignment.

The other motivation for Big 12 expansion came during media days, when word circulated that the Atlantic Coast Conference and ESPN had reached an agreement for a TV network through 2036. That would leave the Big 12 as the lone power-five conference without a network.

“It indicates that we are moving in a fast-changing world,” Boren said.

Even different than six weeks ago.

A Big 12 network is complicated by Texas’ ESPN deal, and pooling the other nine schools’ third-tier media rights isn’t valuable enough to create a channel. But those schools plus two or four more, some with national followings (BYU) or in good sized media markets (Houston, Central Florida) could be enough to reopen discussions, and digital platforms will become a major talking point.

The expansion frenzy has returned. Remember the hectic weeks and months after the Big Ten announced in December 2009 that it was exploring expansion? Membership musical chairs started soon after and the Big 12 made sure this week that the game won’t stop soon.

Who will wind up jumping to the power five? Cincinnati seems most often mentioned. BYU and Boise State have the best football profiles. Houston is the largest market. Memphis has corporate backing. An official from a Big 12 school told me Colorado State, with a new football stadium in the works, is the best candidate. Another said Air Force should get more consideration.

I’ll return to something I suggested years ago: Could the Big 12 invite schools as affiliate members for football only? It happens in other sports. Alabama and Tennessee fly the Big 12 flag in rowing. Air Force and Wyoming are among other outsiders that competed in the 2016 Big 12 wrestling championship.

A football-only membership would give newcomers access to the highest-level football, allow the Big 12 to share revenue at a reduced rate, have schools maintain some geographic sanity for non-revenue sports and kept Big 12 basketball scheduling at a preferable 18-game double-round robin.

In that scenario, football is satisfied, and BYU’s volleyball team would not have to fly to Morgantown, W.Va., for a conference match.

Whatever the Big 12 decides, the chances of growth seem greater now than they ever have, and expansion madness has returned, as if it really ever ended.

Blair Kerkhoff: 816-234-4730, @BlairKerkhoff

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