Big 12 blew it by eschewing playoff

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Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe all but killed his own conference on April 30, 2008.

That’s when he decided to team up with the Big Ten and Pac-10 to reject a four-team playoff being pushed by the SEC and ACC. If the Big 12 (and/or the Big East) had supported it, the so-called “Plus One” model likely would’ve happened.

Even that modest playoff would have meant hundreds of millions of additional revenue for college athletics. It would have then allowed for easy expansion for an even more lucrative 16-team postseason. That would have solved all the monetary concerns that have left the Big 12 on the verge of collapse at the hands of its one-time allies, the Big Ten and Pac-10.

Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe listens to questions from reporters following his conference's meetings on Friday in Kansas City, Mo.
(AP Photo)

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany admitted to Congress a 16-team playoff could gross four times what the current Bowl Championship Series does – in other words about $900 million annually.

He opposed it anyway. Beebe and the others never seemed to ask why. They’re finding out now.

Conference expansion is about to forever alter college athletics: destroying traditions, hammering taxpayers and increasing competition. It will leave once-major programs out of the loop, consolidate power and extend the gap between haves and have nots – even within leagues such as the Big Ten.

No one is in a more desperate spot than the Big 12, which this week could see as many as eight league members receive invites to leave.

It’s all because of money. And when it comes to money in college athletics it all comes back to one thing – the leaking oil disaster that is the BCS.

There are two major revenue streams left in college sports – football television contracts and a football postseason. (The men’s basketball tournament is essentially maxed out.)

Larry Scott

It’s clear now that Delany used opposition to a football playoff not to preserve some bit of “tradition.” His expansion plans clearly indicate he cares nothing about that. It certainly wasn’t done for the sake of aiding Big Ten football, since a playoff with on-campus home games likely would’ve helped his teams.

The goal was to starve out the Big 12, Big East and even the ACC of the hundreds of millions a playoff would’ve given them and thus turn the future of college sports into a battle of television sets.

Delany couldn’t assure that the Big Ten would’ve done well in a football playoff. Maybe the league would’ve succeeded, maybe not. With 26 percent of the nation’s population, tradition rich clubs and its own cable network though, the Big Ten will always dominate if everything boils down to TV revenue.

It was a genius, cut-throat play. He set the terms of the game so he’d win. The Pac-10, led by aggressive new commissioner Larry Scott, is taking advantage also. I’m not blaming Delany here. I may not believe a 16-team Big Ten (or Pac-10) is in the best interest of the league’s current members (or the NCAA as a whole), but it’s not that big of a deal to me. Whatever happens, happens. Besides, it’s not Delany’s fault he’s smarter than the other guys.

Am I being too hard on Beebe? Not even close. He’s been played like a fiddle. In April, while Delany was assuring the other commissioners his league wouldn’t contact schools about expansion without informing them first, Beebe offered this bit of naïvete.

“I expect that Jim, who I have known for many, many years and trust implicitly, [will] do what he said he’s going to do,” Beebe said. “If and when the time comes that they’re going to do anything – and if that includes any of the institutions in the Big 12 – he’ll let me know first.”

Gordon Gee

This week the Columbus Dispatch printed emails between Delany and Ohio State president Gordon Gee that detailed Gee reaching out to the University of Texas to broach interest about the Big Ten.

So much for Mr. “Trust Implicitly.”

Why Beebe and Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese ever felt safe with Delany is a mystery. The guy is an assassin. He’s always been public about his desire to do whatever he feels is best for the Big Ten (or at least his “legacy”).

Rather than helping him block the Plus One, they should’ve been explaining to their presidents that a full playoff was imperative to survival.

And let’s forget the ridiculous notion that the presidents are vehemently opposed to a playoff. The presidents will do whatever their commissioner says. It’s always been that case and the expansion chaos proves it. Ohio State’s Gee has been an anti-playoff guy in part because of “missed class time,” even if none would be missed under a playoff that takes place during semester break.

Yet now he’s in favor of adding Texas to the Big Ten, meaning he’ll ship all of his athletes all the way to Austin which would cause … missed class time for hundreds of students.

It’s all a pile of garbage. Here’s guessing the schools that could be left behind – which could include Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Iowa State, Colorado, Louisville, West Virginia, South Florida and so on – will soon be furious they weren’t told the truth about what they were really opposing. The Plus One wasn’t a postseason plan, it was a lifeline.

Those presidents deserve their own blame, of course. They should’ve learned the truth about the BCS and recognized the need to find revenue outside of just television deals. They should’ve been building their own alliance for a richer and more equitable postseason.

In 2008, the smaller leagues and Notre Dame would’ve almost assuredly gone along. The ACC and SEC were clearly open to discussion. If a 16-team playoff wasn’t possible, at the very least the Plus One was. It’d be a different ballgame right now if just that was in place.

Instead the leagues blindly followed along with a revenue model that has left them susceptible to destruction.

This isn’t the time to deal with all the issues surrounding the BCS or explain how a 16-team playoff works (on the field or in the checkbook). I’ve covered it extensively in the past and helped write a book on the subject – “Death to the BCS,” due out in October. Sorry for the shameless plug, but when I say it takes an entire book to show all the scams and lies that really power the system, I mean it.

Just know this, the BCS offers not a single, real world, tangible benefit to college athletics. Its only defense is that it’s better than the old system, which isn’t saying much.

Financially is where it performs most poorly. The current bowl system/BCS generated $220 million in gross revenue in 2008-09 and just $140 million in profit due to the high cost of keeping most bowl games afloat. If this sounds good, it isn’t.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany talks with the media during a May news conference.
(AP Photo)

Delany estimates a playoff could gross $880 million. The more conservative, yet exhaustively researched estimate we used in the book comes in at around $780 million. In each case profits would exceed $700 million, meaning the BCS is costing college athletics over half a billion in annual profit.

Delany was one of the people instrumental in hiring public relations flaks Ari Fleischer and Bill Hancock to spread factually bankrupt propaganda about the system in an effort to create the illusion of a debate – hey, maybe the BCS works! Please. It doesn’t. The current chaos is just the latest proof. The real purpose of the PR campaign was merely to buy time for the Big Ten Network to get fully operational.

The BCS has killed everyone financially. It’s killed them to the point only a dozen or so schools break even each year on athletics. Most athletic departments need student fees or taxpayer funded general university budgets to cover expenses (nearly $900 million combined in 2008-09 according to USA Today).

That includes even Big Ten schools such as Illinois ($4.5 million), Wisconsin ($3.4 million) and Minnesota ($3.4 million). Even a powerhouse such as Ohio State needed to raise ticket prices this year to balance future books.

All while that pile of playoff money sat there, untapped.

Protecting the BCS wasn’t about greed. It wasn’t about determining a real champion. It was about power. Now the Pac-10 and Big Ten have it.

The 16-team playoff was the only route to save the Big 12, Big East and likely the ACC as it now is constructed. Under our detailed plan (essentially the NCAA’s model for lower divisions), every time a team plays a game it would receive a share of revenue, in this case $25 million.

Consider the 2008-09 season where Big 12 members Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech all would’ve been selected. If the seeds held, those clubs would’ve combined to play nine playoff games meaning the league would’ve walked with $225 million in revenue. The conference then could’ve written each league school an $18.75 million check just from the playoff. That year the Big Ten would’ve earned just three shares for $75 million, a per team share of $6.8 million.

If that’s happening, do you think Missouri and Nebraska still want out? You think the Big Ten’s TV revenue advantage still matters?

This all goes back to the cost of inaction, the penalty for not dealing with the sport’s most pressing problem.

There should be no reason for these leagues to expand (other than the Big Ten adding one team).

Sixteen-team leagues won’t make life better for anyone. They’ll likely prove to be logistical and philosophical wars. The commissioners have sold the public on the idea that more money is always a good thing – using the fail-proof, if unproven, “it’s good for recruiting” line. Here’s the thing, if all your rivals build a new weight room, then recruits aren’t impressed with a new weight room.

It won’t be better for fans or players or even, in many regards, coaches, who will face greater demands for success. More money only means something to the small group of people (athletic directors, commissioners, coaches) who will see their already huge salaries grow, will be able to charter more private planes and will continue to justify remodeling their already opulent “facilities.”

If you’re a powerhouse in your league, why would you want to change anything? It isn’t getting better for Texas and Oklahoma than the current Big 12, where the two programs have reached five of the last seven BCS title games.

If you’re in the middle of the pack, why would you add more competition in recruiting and a watered-down schedule? If you’re Minnesota or Northwestern and trying to sell tickets, do you want more Rutgers home games and less Ohio State? Or to deal with Nebraska recruiting the Twin Cities or Chicagoland?

It’s almost assuredly too late for the Big 12 and the Big East to make the bold moves that could save them.


They could try though. If Beebe and current Big East commissioner John Marinatto want to display real leadership, they can tell their current members to sit tight and allow them to build a consensus for a real football postseason that will solve all their revenue problems. They need to stand up and declare Armageddon is here and it’s time to get serious. The other leagues and Notre Dame would be all for it. The SEC and ACC would be smart to approve simply as a defense against Big Ten and Pac-10 aggression. Or in the ACC’s case, the inevitable SEC pillaging of its teams.

Go ahead and dare the Big Ten and Pac-10 to not come along. See how long Gordon Gee lasts as Ohio State president when he tells Buckeye fans they will no longer be competing for the national title. In the meantime, send your recruiters to Cleveland and Detroit.

A 16-team playoff could be up and running by 2014 – which would immediately change all the revenue models.

Then Beebe could show that teams such as Nebraska and Texas could make more money while enjoying a clearer road to that thrilling postseason by staying home. He would be able to offer a future that’s brighter than the one offered by the Big Ten or Pac-10.

At the end of the day this has always been about the BCS and billions in revenue it has cost cash-starved college athletics.

Jim Delany just didn’t tell his peers. And they weren’t smart enough to figure it out themselves.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jun 6, 2010