Big 12 should push to expand the playoff, not its conference


At the Big 12's spring meetings held at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel on Wednesday, administrators reviewed data and discussed whether the league should expand, perhaps by six schools, in an effort to …

Wait, wait, wait. Let’s stop right there.

We’ll get to the relative wisdom of expansion, but first let’s note something that actually could explain why the most obvious solution to the Big 12’s concern about being shut out of the College Football Playoff isn’t being discussed.

The Big 12 conference is holding its spring meetings at the Arizona Biltmore Hotel. Repeat: The Arizona Biltmore, opened in 1929 and long known as “The Jewel of the Desert” … for good reason.

For generations it’s been a playground for the rich and the obscenely rich, everyone from titans of industry to Hollywood stars (Sinatra sang at the lobby piano, Springsteen vacations there and Marilyn Monroe’s favorite pool, of the eight on property, was “The Catalina”). Every president until Barack Obama has stayed there, including the Reagans, who went for their honeymoon. There’s a 20,000-square foot luxury spa, two epic golf courses (plus a “championship” 18-hole putting course) and a famed afternoon “high tea” in the sunroom.

Is it really smart for the Big 12 to expand? (Getty)
Is it really smart for the Big 12 to expand? (Getty)

This is where the Big 12 is holding its athletic directors meeting? Even though the league doesn’t have a campus within 800 miles, let alone in the state of Arizona?

You can certainly spell amateurism without a-u-s-t-e-r-i-t-y, but that doesn’t mean you should.

While it’s long established athletic administrators fancy themselves as NFL and NBA owners, and while it’s also true those leagues don’t hold meetings at the Holidome in Stillwater, it’s also worth noting that Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban are self-made billionaires, not athletic directors.

This is especially tone deaf when college sports don’t pay taxes, often drive up the cost of college by charging regular students athletic fees and claim there isn’t a spare dime to either share with football and basketball players or provide full scholarships for entire softball or soccer or volleyball teams.

Then again, this sort of explains everything because they aren’t at the Biltmore by accident. It serves as the site of the Fiesta Summit, a favored junket of athletic administrators who make up the National Collegiate Athletic Industrial Complex.

It’s underwritten by the Fiesta Bowl, which recently changed the event's name from the “Fiesta Frolic” because it sounded too much like a boondoggle. The Fiesta Bowl can afford the event because it’s been given the sweetheart deal to serve as a middleman in college sports' outsourcing of its most valuable product … the football playoff.

Please attempt to follow this circle.

1. The Fiesta Bowl, like all major bowl games, is deathly opposed to the expansion of the playoff from four teams to eight because it would likely lead to games being played on campus, not in “bowls.” This could cause future athletic leaders to realize that they don’t need “bowls” and can make more money keeping everything in house – like the NFL does.

2. Savvy lobbyists that they are, the Fiesta Bowl offers a lush party/ingratiation opportunity for college sports leaders, who gleefully arrive for a few days at the Biltmore.

3. A portion of these college sports leaders, in this case the Big 12 athletic directors and coaches, meet during this bowl-sponsored event to discuss fears of being left out of the College Football Playoff. The most prominent remedy to this discussion is to radically revamp the very fabric of their institution – the conference – by expanding to Florida or New England or Idaho or who knows where.

4. Not focused on: pushing for the playoff to be expanded to six or eight teams and have automatic bids established for the five major conferences, the Big 12 included. This wouldn’t merely increase the probability of getting a league team in the playoff by 5 or 10 percent, it would 100 percent assure it.

5. Problem solved? Worth digging down on? No, no, no. Please return to No. 1, but not before reporting to the Ocatilla Club for cocktails courtesy of unapologetic cronyism.

Clink. Clink.

Look, the four-team playoff has been a huge success. There is no pressing need to expand it. It’s increased the excitement of the postseason. It’s increased the excitement of the conference season. It’s increased the excitement of the non-conference season as teams have been forced to cut back on body-bag games in lieu of actual competition.

Bob Stoops' Sooners were the first Big 12 team to make the College Football Playoff last season. (AP)
Bob Stoops' Sooners were the first Big 12 team to make the College Football Playoff last season. (AP)

The only hiccup so far has been staging last year's games on New Year’s Eve, which caused TV ratings to plummet as a portion of fans were stuck working, particularly during the mid-afternoon kickoff of the Orange Bowl, which lost 45 percent of its audience. Why was the TV lineup set up that way? Because that’s how the bowl industry demanded it – tradition! – and some Oklahoma fan stuck at a factory job in Enid isn’t at the Biltmore to lobby for his point of view.

Still, the College Football Playoff doesn’t need to expand. The Big 12 sure doesn’t need to expand either, though. To me, it’d be wiser to let both the playoff and the 10-team league play out a little longer and gather more perspective.

The Big 12 doesn’t appear to share this patience, although in the end, here’s a guess it remains at status quo. In the meantime, commissioner Bob Bowlsby is demanding a decision soon while rightfully noting that his conference is far behind the SEC and Big Ten in generating revenue. Yet there is no reasonable expansion candidate that would change the revenue dynamic, and the current state of the media industry makes launching a conference cable TV network challenging. It isn’t 2013 anymore.

As such, much of the focus Wednesday was on how expanding will help get the Big 12 champion into the playoff. Why not just take the mystery out and start pushing other leagues – which share similar concerns – about expanding the playoff?

It seems worth at least discussing. It’s certainly easier than adding two to six schools to the conference. And while it’s tough to ask one league football team to play one extra game in an expanded playoff, it’s far less taxing on student-athletes than sending every player on every campus off to Orlando or Provo each year.

There can’t be one fan in the Big 12 wishing his or her team could play Cincinnati more but Texas less. So why not explore the simpler solution, at least if you value the history, tradition and excitement of your own conference more than the history and tradition and excitement of a bowl game.

The Big 12 lives with an undercurrent of fear that down the line Texas and Oklahoma are going to get lured off to the Big Ten or SEC. Politically, those schools probably can’t go anywhere without bringing Texas Tech and Oklahoma State along respectively, so the threat may not actually be that great.

Why not add value to the Big 12, though – if not monetarily (which expansion likely can’t produce), then in competitive interests. If the Big 12 champ is assured a playoff spot, then perhaps Texas and Oklahoma wouldn't look to leave a 10-team league, where they have historic advantages, to enter what would be a 16-to-18-team SEC knife fight.

Expanding the league is a massive and uncertain effort. It upsets everything. It is a huge drain on resources, energy and the student-athletes.

A six- or eight-team playoff with an automatic bid is fairly painless while assuring the Big 12’s place among the Power 5. It could actually result in multiple league teams getting in. So put that on the agenda, even there at the old Fiesta Frolic.

It’s called thinking outside the Biltmore.