What's Happening To The Big 12?

  • Thursday, June 10, 2010 11:40 AM
  • Written By: Jonathan Crowl


By the time you’re reading this, everything I have to tell you about what’s happening may be outdated. This machine is moving faster than anyone realized, or wanted. It’s not just the blazing instantsy of the Internet and television, folks: The moving parts spread from New Brunswick to the Rose Bowl are moving constantly and quickly, trying to prepare for the Armageddon that seems imminent.

Nebraska to the Big Ten. Six other Big 12 teams to the Pac-10. Television networks. Money money money. You know all the lingo, but you might not know exactly what has happened in the blur of just a few days. It’s not worth my time to sit here and write about what’s going to happen, because what’s going to happen could become what’s already happened before I finish this sentence. But I can tell you how this new era of college football – when it happens – happened:

Nebraska didn’t kill the Big 12. Right now, the spotlight is on Tom Osborne, that football coach turned politician turned athletic director turned Gordon Gekko stand-in. Nebraska and T.O. are getting all the attention and are likely going to be the first team to defect from the Big 12 Conference, but this wasn’t their idea. Nebraska is nothing more than the convenient scapegoat for all the parties objecting to the Big 12’s imminent break-up. The Huskers are only reacting to a situation that has become too likely, too threatening to their future as a major university, both academically and athletically.

Remember, it was Missouri that first got huffy over its place in the Big 12, with school administrators and even the state’s governor declaring interest in the Big Ten. According to unnamed sources, Nebraska isn’t even the first Big 12 school to receive an official invite from another conference – it’s still waiting to get asked to the dance while Colorado mulls over its future with an invite from the Pacific 10 Conference in hand. And depending on what the Big Ten’s motives are, five more Pac-10 invites could be headed to the Big 12 South schools, with Baylor being the unfortunate (but logical) odd man out. However, none of the schools mentioned – in fact, no school anywhere – is responsible for killing the Big 12. In fact, it wasn’t even a homicide.

The Big 12 killed the Big 12. Yes, that’s right – suicide. But why, you may ask, face quivering and rain-drenched. In a word, stupidity. In two words, poor leadership. First, the obvious: College football is all about money. It’s not about tailgating, school colors, Red Rivers, rivalries, NOTHING but money. And in the Big 12, that didn’t amount to much – only $7 million to $12 million in revenue share for the member schools. Revenue share, as its name suggests, is the money earned by the conference mainly through television contracts and distributed to all schools evenly.

Despite the excellent on-field product in the Big 12, the conference failed to generate that into big dollars for the member schools. Its television contracts were puny and outdated compared to what the SEC and Big Ten were doing. The Big Ten even put together its own television network to enjoy a larger piece of the television pie. The result? Big Ten schools split $22 million last year. That’s a tough figure for most schools to pass up, particularly if you’re coming from the Big 12. The Pac 10 isn’t doing any better, averaging $8 million to $10 million in revenue share each year, but the addition of anywhere from two to six new schools could prompt the Pac-10 to put together its own television network, which would increase revenue significantly – as would the creation of a conference championship game.

If the Big 12 could have done this, things might have turned out all right, but a Big 12 Network was never a realistic possibility. More likely, though still in its dream stages, was Texas’ interest in creating its own Texas Sports Network, creating enormous earnings for one school while cutting out the other 11 schools. If you’re the most valuable school in terms of bringing money into the conference, that’s a great idea. If you’re everyone else, you hate that idea. And you hate more that there’s no alternative, a la a Big 12 Network. And you look over the fence and see everyone else driving nice new cars, and you realize the direction your neighborhood’s headed.

So Nebraska and all these other schools want to get more money? Yes. Wouldn’t you? But it’s not just the money. In the case of Nebraska, it’s the opportunity to align itself with respected

academic universities – schools with higher academic profiles than those in the Big 12. That improves the complexion of the school, which can lead to an increase in research funds and grants – also called money. And before you ask why money matters, let me pull out a tissue and prepare to console you when I wake you out of your utopian daydream: These schools are businesses, the kind that juggle hundreds of millions of dollars – sometimes billion – in an effort to stay afloat, academically relevant and financially secure. They’re not about to act out of emotion, and any time it seems like they do, it’s only because there is financial incentive to do so.

Why is Nebraska at the center of all this? People in Nebraska are wondering the same thing. After all, Osborne’s stance has never swayed away from taking the wait-and-see approach. In essence, every school and conference involved is watching Nebraska because they’re the wanted piece: The Big Ten wants the Huskers, and even the Pac-10 wouldn’t mind taking a run at them if some of its top options fell through.

Nebraska is a well-run money machine. The athletic department doesn’t use any tuition funds or money from the academic side to stay afloat – in fact, they end up giving money to the academic side of things. The school has a huge fan base that will generate income for whatever conference it belongs to. It’s important to remember that in a revenue-share system, it’s pointless to bring in a school that doesn’t make enough money to account for itself and then some – if Nebraska were going to come into the Big Ten and draw money away from the other schools, no one would support it. But with the Big Ten Network and the massive national fan base, Nebraska will flourish -- much more so than a school like Missouri – and all the schools will reap the benefits.

Unfortunately for the Big 12, Nebraska is also a significant pillar in that conference. Losing Nebraska also means losing prestige and dollars. The Big 12 North becomes a wasteland of schools that don’t have much to offer the conference economically. And rather than risk money lost in a post-Nebraska Big 12, any school that gets the chance is likely going to jump over to a more stable conference.

Why now? Why not wait and try to fix the Big 12, and see if it works? It’s a noble idea, and it has some legs. But no school trusts the others enough to do that. If one school goes, it will start a domino effect that will destroy the Big 12. Furthermore, the offers from other conferences are coming in now, not a few years down the road when efforts to fix the Big 12 fail. The opportunity to find a new home may not be available later. If you’re Nebraska, you also have to consider that if you say no now, another school may accept the invitation originally offered to you. If the ship starts to come apart, the Huskers may not have a soft spot to land. And I would bet you anything that all the schools begging, pleading and chastising Nebraska to stay in the Big 12 – if they were in the Huskers’ position, they would leave the Big 12. It’s the only safe thing to do.

What happens to the other schools? If Nebraska moves to the Big Ten and six other schools join the Pac-10, the prospects for the schools left out will be grim. Missouri may end up getting a Big Ten bid, but it is not being given serious consideration at the moment. Kansas has a great profile for the Big Ten, with a powerhouse basketball team and a great reputation, but its football program is behind the times business-wise, and the school has committed to sticking with in-state rival Kansas State. Iowa State is in a dire situation and may have to lobby for a spot in the Mid-America Conference or possibly the Mountain West, where Kansas State and Kansas are most likely to land. Baylor is geographically closest to the Conference USA, but its Texas locale may be of interest to the Mountain West.

And then, there’s the chance that the leftover Big 12 teams could patch together a new conference, plucking teams from the smaller conferences interested in better television coverage and an automatic bid. It’s not impossible, but it won’t resemble the old Big 12 in any way.

Doesn't this seem to be very hastily done? Aren't there any risks involved? There are risks with anything. Unfortunately, this train seems to be moving so fast, not many people seem to understand the risks, or even know they exist. One potential scenario is that the Internal Revenue Service, which has played nice with college football conferences, giving them federal tax deductions due to their collegiate sport status. But this blatant moneygrab could push lawmakers to reconsider that break and cost the schools millions of dollars each year. You can bet that politicians in the states where schools are shut out of the BCS landscape - Kansas and Iowa are both likely - lawmakers will pull out the stops trying to save the universities, whether it's killing the tax deduction or pursuing antitrust law violations on the parts of the BCS conferences.

When can I expect the realignment to happen? You just spent the last 10 minutes reading. For all you know, it’s already happened.

Do you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night laughing hysterically about any of this? Yes.

What, then? That’s easy! Missouri and its tough guy impersonation. Le Tigres thought they were all tough talking about how they wanted out of the Big 12, thinking that widespread boot-quaking would ensue. Instead, their northern nemesis – the one that continually shot down the opportunity to state its interest in leaving the Big 12 – gets the invitation that Missouri so desperately coveted. The Tigers may come out alright if the Big Ten decides to invite them, but I imagine it’s tough to sleep at night if you’re a Tigers fan. The lesson to be learned: When you talk out of your butt, sometimes you bite yourself in the ass.

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