Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Big 12 Expansion: Too Little, Too Late?

The Expansion Carousel is turning at an ever-increasing pace. The Big 12 is reportedly meeting with up to 17 schools and has a timeline that seems to be hovering sometime in the end of September for a potential decision on expansion candidates, but wrinkles have emerged that are worth talking about- because there are any number of reasons to believe that this round of expansion will probably be the last before the inevitable emergence of four, sixteen team super conferences. The question is, will there be a Big 12 Conference left when we get to that point?

But let's talk about the wrinkles...

First up, BYU: they were seen as the best candidate for membership in the Big 12, but then their honor code became an issue. Being a religious institution, they're not down with LGBT folks, which sports fans and football coaches might not care all that much about, but college presidents for sure do. I'm not saying that they're totally out of the picture- because of the available schools, they've got the strongest national brand and profile, which should satisfy the Big 12's network partners, but this complicates things. Potentially to a deal-breaking point. So put a question mark on BYU.

This leaves Houston and Cincy as obvious candidates if the Big 12 wants to get back to actually having twelve members. (If 14 is the number and BYU proves to be too much of a political liability for the college presidents, then Colorado State or Boise State probably moves to the forefront of the western options. I'd say some combination of ECU, UCF or USF could be possible for the east.) But playing the guessing game brings us to our second wrinkle:

Does any of this even matter? 

No, seriously. There's a serious argument to be made that the Big 12 is about five years behind the curve here. ESPN is bleeding money and subscribers. Fox Sports 1 isn't bleeding money, but it isn't exactly in bringing in the big bucks either. There are reasons to believe that the traditional cable model is breaking down. Somewhere, someone is going to figure out how to stream live sports the same way Netflix did for movies and Hulu did for television. I don't know if it'll look like Netflix or Hulu- I think that's too simplistic in many ways, but they'll figure out how to cut cable out of the picture.  And then what?* (There's a very good reason that the conference's TV partners are reportedly unhappy.)

If this expansion was driven by media markets and cable deals and we're in the twilight of cable as we know it, then what else do you  need to expand for other than to grab cash and money for when the next earthquake hits and the super conferences everyone is convinced will happen emerge. The other conferences already have the cash flow in place. The SEC, the Big 10, hell, even the ACC have stability and cash flow- stupid amounts of money almost. They're in a position to leverage that into whatever comes next. The Big 12, with no network and no good options doesn't have that. 

A lot of punditry is just people talking out of their asses. I get that, but when people present argument much like the one I made in the previous paragraph- it's convincing. One last round of expansion, grab as much cash as you can and when the grant of rights is up, everyone head for the door. 

Predicting the eventual demise of the Big 12 could be foolish. I could be wrong about all of this. It could be that some magical candidates emerge and everything stabilizes. Maybe cable figures out a solution to the cord cutting problem and we'll all by happy with our networks and everything will remain as it is now, more or less. But, let's say the Big 12 breaks up. Who goes where? The ACC, SEC, Big 10 and Pac-12 are all at 14 teams. So they'll be looking to add two more apiece. Rough thoughts/predictions:

Oklahoma goes one way, Texas goes another.

Texas won't follow A&M into the SEC.

You'd think that Iowa State should be nervous, but it's got an academic profile that could keep it a seat if and when the music stops.

Politics is an interesting factor in all of this. If the Kansas schools and the Oklahoma schools are a package deal, where do they go?

I feel like weirdly, TCU would fit in the SEC, but Baylor would fit in the Pac-12.

Where do Texas Tech and West Virginia land? Or do they?

All of this is predicated on the notion that this latest round of expansion won't be enough to hold the Big 12 together. It may work. The emphasis there is on the word 'may.' It could be that some expansion will convince the Big 12 that it's better to hang together instead of hanging separately. If the cable model collapses in on itself over the next five to ten years, they might come out looking lean, mean and smarter than the rest. Or, they could wait until their grant of rights expires and then head for the exits.  Either way asking if it's too little too late could be an important question to consider in this latest round of conference expansion.

*The Quiet Man mentioned that baseball is moving toward every team having their own network. So you'd pony up the cash to get all the games for your team... the Dodgers are dipping their toes in this pool.  I hate this notion. As much as I like the Twins, I'm not paying for a whole network of their games. I suppose something like this is inevitable, but I think it alienates casual fans. You've got to be all in with this model and that's a gamble. If it works, then great. If not then I don't know what that does to a sports bottom line. 

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