Big 12 Expansion: What will happen vs. What should happen

ESPN’s Brent McMurphy recently reported that the Big 12 Conference will view video presentations from 18(!) schools interested in joining. Here they are, listed in alphabetical order.

Air Force, Arkansas State, Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Colorado State, UConn, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Northern Illinois, New Mexico, San Diego State, SMU, Temple, Tulane, UCF, USF

Based on this list, there’s a number of directions the Big 12 could choose to go. All of these schools seem to offer something, whether it be geographic proximity, major media market, academic prestige, football/athletic success. Without knowing what the Big 12 is prioritizing, it is difficult to predict which direction they’ll go, but we can certainly make some assumptions based on how other conferences have prioritized these selling points. A quick ranking probably looks like this:

  1. New major media market.
  2. Football/Athletics success.
  3. Geographic proximity.
  4. Academic prestige.

I specify ‘new’ major media market because I think it’s particularly important in assessing these candidates. Take Houston, for example, which seems like the most obvious candidate. Houston is a major media market but is already included in the Big 12’s footprint as four Texas schools are already in the conference, including the only one that really matters, the Texas Longhorns. They alone bring the entire state. Houston would be a good add from a football perspective, but would not bring any new value to a possible Big 12 Network.

Another quick note on Houston. My guess is if they go to 14 schools, Houston makes the cut out of convenience. But if they stop at 12, it’s not as much of a sure thing as people keep assuming. As we just established, they don’t add any more TV sets to a Big 12 Network, and why would the Texas schools want to promote Houston’s standing on the national scene at a time when they’ve already shown they can compete without the advantage of Power 5 membership?

So…

What will happen?

I think they’ll go to 14, and add Cincinnati, Memphis, BYU, and Houston. This adds some schools to the east to bridge the gap with West Virginia, and delivers two large states for a Big 12 Network in Ohio and Tennessee. It also adds a school with a national following in BYU and one that is trending aggressively upward in Houston. This represents a safe, low risk path forward.

What should happen?

They should be aggressive and create the first super conference of 16 schools by adding BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, USF, UCF, and Memphis. This represents the best combination of high end athletics and media market expansion the Big 12 can get from the group of candidates. It would turn what has become a conference lagging behind its Power 5 peers into a revolutionary one. If this works, it could save the conference. If it doesn’t, then they remain on the same track they were already heading.

The fact is that the next time any of the other Power 5 conferences look to expand, they will look to the Big 12. The Pac 12 could revive efforts to become the Pac 16 and come for Texas, Texas Tech, OK State and Oklahoma. The SEC could come for one of the Oklahoma schools if it wishes to continue expanding to the west. Imagine how quickly West Virginia would accept an invitation to the ACC if it decided to expand or needed a replacement.

This is what the Big 12 is up against. Going all the way to 16 would improve its odds of surviving another round of losses, and it may help it return to equal standing with the other Power 5 conferences from an economic perspective and reduce the likelihood that members would want to leave. This is why the bold move is the right one here.