The one move that could save the Big 12

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

It was a waste of time and energy and will be, for a moment, embarrassing, but in the end the Big 12 Conference’s decision to not expand its membership was a wise one.

Now the question is whether it’s smart enough to take an even more sage path and push for something that can help hold the league together – a guaranteed automatic bid to an expanded college football playoff.

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It’s dubious to think the league will. After all, a conference with strong leadership would’ve been able to realize that 15 months ago and tuned out Oklahoma president David Boren who claimed, apparently in need of a campus safe space, that having just 10 schools left the league “psychologically disadvantaged.”

Each of the parade of desperate candidate schools brought something to the table. None brought enough, however.

So the league chose not to expand, which if it values its long-term survival, or contains a measure of forward thinking, better not be considered the same as the league choosing to do “nothing.”

Oh, it better do something.

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A photo sometimes says it all, and this one did as the Big 12 Conference announced it would not expand. (AP)
A photo sometimes says it all, and this one did as the Big 12 Conference announced it would not expand. (AP)

The Big 12’s future existence as a power conference rests on its ability to convince the universities of Texas and Oklahoma that there is no greener grass somewhere else. Everyone is tied to the league until 2025, but waiting until the end and hoping the Longhorns and Sooners don’t have wandering eyes is suicidal.

Those are the two critical programs due to brand and fan base and drawing power and interest from television networks, which already will be an unknown by the middle of the next decade. Baylor and TCU and Oklahoma State and Kansas State might be able to beat them on the field, but this is business. Kansas and others have fine basketball programs, but football drives the boat.

That’s reality.

The Pac-12 and Big Ten would likely be interested in Texas. Maybe the SEC too, even with the Texas A&M roadblock. The Pac-12 offered Oklahoma in the past and the SEC is a natural fit. Whether Texas and Oklahoma can leave without politicians forcing them to take in-state schools Texas Tech and Oklahoma State along remains to be seen. The Big 12 doesn’t want to find out though, because if they can, that would just further decimate the place.

The Big 12 needs to find a way to make league membership as attractive as possible. There are certain things that can’t be changed. The conference will always – always – trail the Big Ten and SEC in revenue and struggle to keep up with the Pac-12 and ACC, too.

That’s a demographic issue – outside of Texas the league exists in comparatively low-populated states, and ones that aren’t growing at high rates. Wichita isn’t going to be become Chicago or Atlanta in the next seven (or 70) years.

If this is all about money, the Big 12 will never win. They are expected to get a concession from their television partners to not expand. That’s good, but won’t make up the gap. A coming Big 12 football title game is another source, but that just catches the league up with all the others. There is no appetite for a conference wide network, even the Longhorn Network is a struggle now, and cord-cutting could make all of those enterprises fall apart in the next decade.

This has to be about the on-field product. That’s what the Big 12 can control, and not simply by getting its programs better and better. It’s continuing to offer Texas and Oklahoma prime access to the Lone Star State recruits – which, even for Texas, diminishes if you’re playing games on the West Coast and not the Metroplex or Lubbock and Waco. The current round-robin format, and double round-robin in basketball, is a huge plus.

The current structure has served UT and OU well. Any place else is a crapshoot. Does Oklahoma really think the path to the kind of dominating seasons its fan base has become accustomed to is joining the meat grinder of the SEC West without having four league schools scattered across Texas, where many of its best players have come from for generations?

Good luck.

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The key here is making Big 12 membership even sweeter by offering something extra: the clearest possible path to the college football playoff. If demographics and television market trends can’t be altered or affected, then the playoff can. It is still a work in progress and it is the one part of the sport that is open to being altered.

Right now there are five power conferences and only four playoff spots. The first year the Big 12 got left out. Last year it was the Pac-12. Eventually everyone will miss, yes, probably even the SEC.

The simple solution is to push for playoff expansion to six or eight teams, with each of the five major conferences getting an automatic bid. The remaining one to three spots can be at-large bids.

If by 2025 the Big 12 can offer Texas and Oklahoma a fairly clear path to the playoff, it would be more difficult to leave. They can win a league where they have the most built-in advantages rather than trying to fight through another, bigger and often tougher conference outside their geographical area. That’s a strong, sensible card to play.

Leaving is a risk. Leaving is uncertain. Leaving might bring more TV money, but the fans want to play for championships, and since when were Texas and Oklahoma underfunded?

There are two counter arguments here. One is that by expanding the playoff, the regular season will be watered down, which was the scare tactic that the BCS proponents trotted out to argue against the current four-team playoff. Predictably, it was wrong. Instead, the sport is better, more games matter and television numbers, in direct contrast to the NFL, are on the rise.

Besides, that’s a conceptual, 30,000-miles-above-the-fray argument. The Big 12 is in hand-to-hand combat for its life. If you’re Iowa State, your long-term membership in major college athletics has to be the only focus.

The other is that the bowl industry will suffer because first-round games (and potentially the semifinals also) will need to be played on the campus of the higher seed. The sport would no longer outsource its biggest games to private businesses.

Yeah, well, other than bowl executives, who cares? Home games are actually a boon to players and fans – no one has ever sat at kickoff in Bryant Denny Stadium or the Horseshoe and said, “Boy, this would be so much better if it was being played in a dome in Arizona.”

Seeding would make the regular season matter more. By making each conference title game a play-in game (a pseudo first round), the value of those events would rise and there’d be little to no financial incentive to move past six or eight teams.

It’s win-win-win.

The bowl industry got their old cronies to cap the playoff at four. Many of those same people are still calling the shots in college football today. In the Big 12, old acquaintances should be forgotten.

Putting together a playoff expansion plan and lobbying other conferences for it should be a priority. They’ll find plenty of sympathetic ears. This isn’t a concept for improvement anymore; it’s an essential part of survival.

It makes leaving harder. And if, say, Texas goes anyway, then the remaining schools are protected in the future. The league’s power can’t be taken away.

So far, the Big 12 has done no lobbying for an expanded playoff. Instead it spent 15 months on a pointless expansion discussion. It’s long past time for the leadership to finally lead.

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