Sam Mellinger

The promise and frustration of Big 12 expansion, seen as inevitable by many and needless by some

Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby
Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby AP file photo

Progress can be marked by comparison, and so it is that five years after navigating conference realignment meant something like calling for paramedics, the Big 12 is now packed into the family station wagon, playing the license plate game, with no real schedule to keep.

Texas is driving, Oklahoma is barking out directions. Kansas and K-State and others are keeping to themselves, mostly, hoping they all arrive safely.

Conversations with a half-dozen or so folks around the process over the last week indicate slow, deliberate progress, but it’s also clear that there are as many opinions as there are people involved.

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And those opinions are changing all the time.

“I’m more confident something will happen now than I used to be,” said one person involved. “But if anyone tells you they know when or what that will be, they’re lying.”

“There are moments,” said another source, “where I think, ‘Yeah, this is what we need to do.’ And then I’ll see another piece of data and change my mind.”

This all comes up as the league’s presidents and chancellors — the CEOs — meet next week. The meeting is generally seen as the most important yet, the moment when the league’s power brokers could make a decision about whether to ramp up or back off further expansion talks.

Among the Big 12’s many internal conflicts is the juxtaposition of two thoughts: those who see more money and security in expansion, and those who don’t see incremental value in what is generally an underwhelming group of expansion candidates.

The league’s TV deals include what is called “pro rata increase” for expansion, which means each school’s annual payout would stay the same. But it’s far more likely that the deals would be renegotiated, with increased payouts in exchange for longer contracts, more content, and in all likelihood a conference championship football game.

There is an air of inevitability to eventual expansion — “consultants don’t get paid to not do deals,” one league administrator says — but a considered call for restraint remains with some around the league.

The motivation is money, but more specifically a desire to stay ahead of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Pac-12. Big 12 leaders are resigned to being behind the Southeastern Conference and Big Ten — those leagues have inherent advantages the Big 12 just can’t overcome — but would like to at least stay within binocular sight of those growing payouts.

The simplest way to do that is to add more content, but this is an endlessly complicated process.

Oklahoma was not the only school to push for Louisville to join the Big 12 along with West Virginia four years ago. That was a significant miss, one that many inside the league now regret. Part of the hesitation to expand is that no realistic option exists now that would be as valuable as Louisville would’ve been back then.

SEC schools are bound by obscene amounts of cash, and the other Power 5 leagues are held tightly together by contract language that is apparently ironclad. That means the Big 12, like any other power league, would be dipping into leagues like the Big East, American Athletic, or Mountain West.

Which means more obstacles. Because one person in the Big 12 might be intrigued by Connecticut, seeing a new part of the country opened up for recruiting and exposure, while another may see increased travel headaches and costs, as well as a football stadium that’s too small.

One person may like BYU, and its national appeal, while another may dismiss it outright because of the demands and logistical issues that accompany.

One person may like Memphis, and its promises to invest in infrastructure, but others have already skipped the school entirely based on academic profile.

One person may like Houston, and its geography and metro area, but others may wonder what the league has to gain by adding a fifth school in Texas.

Asked if it felt like the league was deciding between a bunch of “B-minus” options, one source laughed, and said, “that’s a good way to put it.”

The whole thing is awkward, in other words, being forced to shop for a sensible midsize when you can’t see yourself in anything other than a luxury car with muscle under the hood.

A few interesting thoughts being kicked around some parts of the league could be an alternate to the presumptive invitation to a pair of new members.

The first is to invite just one school. This is outside the box, because an odd number of schools would mean scheduling headaches, but it does present an option better than overreaching for one school simply to ease logistics.

The other option is to stay at 10. As mentioned earlier, expansion is carrying a growing air of inevitability, but two people in separate conversations expressed a preference to staying at 10 if the data and research aren’t overwhelming.

After all, the Big 12 is — finally — in a strong negotiating position. It has two flagship, national power athletic programs and a league that fills out much of the Heartland’s considerable passion for college sports. Its grant of rights agreement guarantees stability well into the next decade, and the 10-school format allows for round-robin competition in football and home-and-home in basketball.

There are indications that the league would have a slightly better chance at making the College Football Playoff with 12 teams, but it’s also true that any Big 12 team that goes undefeated will get in, and with a different set of circumstances, the league actually could’ve had two teams in the first playoff.

In that way, the expansion decision will have more to do with the league wanting to get back to 12 teams than the specifics of whichever two teams might come aboard.

This is a long and complicated process, then, and we’ll have more clarity after the upcoming board meeting.

But at the moment, the journey feels like a family trip taken out of obligation more than ambition. Better than the last round of realignment, but not to the standards to which the Big 12 would like to strive.