By: John Weis
Thank You, To All Who Have Made it Possible
How the Big XII Has Risen from Last to Third in the P5 Pecking Order
In July 2016, then-Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby decided to “explore the possibility of expansion”. As many as 17 schools, including UCF and (cough, cough) USF presented their best sales pitches. In the end, however, Bowlsby announced in October of that same year that his conference would be adding no new schools.
Fans of UCF, USF and the other schools were infuriated that this pompous commissioner would tantalize them with the hope of joining a Power Five conference and enjoying all the spoils that come along with that distinction, only to later let them know none were deemed worthy.
Then a funny thing happened five years later that started an avalanche of power-shifting in the world of college football. And while there are likely more seismic changes still to come, one thing is for sure: UCF and its counterparts in the Big XII should be thanking those who have made their rise to Power Five status possible.
Thank You, Oklahoma and Texas, for Leaving the Big XII (Allowing UCF to Become P5)
On July 26, 2021, Oklahoma and Texas announced their plans to leave the Big XII to join the SEC. Suddenly, the Big XII looked weak and unstable. Media members wondered how the conference would recover from seeing their “flagship schools” depart for greener pastures (green, as in money) and opined on whether the remaining teams would be tempted to flee to other conferences. And there was another issue: the departure of OU and UT left them with only eight teams.
Suddenly, those same teams Bowlsby and the Big XII shunned in 2016 were of utmost importance to their very survival. And on June 10, 2022, the Knights (along with Houston, Cincinnati and BYU) finally got the call that had been years in the making: they would be members of a Power Five conference, the Big XII, as of July 1, 2023.
At the time the four new programs joined the conference, they were in “just-happy-to-be-here” mode. They didn’t care that the SEC and Big Ten were the top two dogs, the ACC was likely third, and the PAC-12 was arguably fourth on the Power Five ladder in terms of strength and solidarity. The perception was that the Big XII was last because they replaced their two most prestigious schools with four Group of Five institutions. Since that time, however, many dominoes have continued falling … and the Big XII has been arguably the biggest beneficiary. As a result, its future now seems very robust.
Thank You, Brett Yormark, for Being Proactive (Bumping the Big XII Up to #4)
First, Bowlsby announced he was stepping down as the Big XII’s commissioner in April 2022, and Brett Yormark, former CEO of Roc Nation, was hired to take his place beginning August 1. Prior to that, he’d spent 14 years working for the Brooklyn Nets as CEO of Brooklyn Sports Entertainment. So far, Yormark has been worth every penny the conference spent to procure his services.
Once in office, one of Yormark’s first orders of business was to enter into negotiations for a new media deal, even though the Big XII was theoretically not next in line for a new agreement. With the PAC-12 deal expiring in 2024, most assumed they’d be the next Power Five conference to agree to terms – but they were wrong. Yormark went to work and hammered out a $2.3 Billion agreement with ESPN and FOX, ensuring Big XII security and visibility for the foreseeable future.
Thank You, George Kliavkoff, for Your Lack of Action (Allowing Yormark to Make His Move)
And what a difference skipping ahead in line has made! While Yormark labored feverishly on behalf of his schools, PAC-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff sat idly by and watched Yormark orchestrate a deal that was larger than the Big XII’s past agreement, despite the departures of Oklahoma and Texas.
In response, Kliavkoff told everyone not to worry, boasting that the PAC-12 would easily get a deal on par with, if not greater than, the one Yormark negotiated. But so far, no deal – and the PAC-12 presidents are getting impatient.
It’s plain to see that Yormark is playing chess while Kliavkoff, is playing checkers; well, maybe Chutes and Ladders might be more appropriate.
Thank You, USC and UCLA, for Leaving the PAC-12 (Making the PAC-12 Vulnerable)
The PAC-12 was severely weakened when USC and UCLA announced their departure for the Big 10 in July 2022, which effectively took away any perceived edge the PAC-12 had over the Big XII and put a significant dent in the conference’s value.
In addition, their two best remaining teams, Washington and Oregon, have made no secret that they’re not happy with the conference’s current state of affairs and are very much open to a lifeline from another conference. Not so long ago the PAC-12 was eyeing Big XII schools for expansion purposes, but today that shoe is on the other foot and could drop any day now. That’s why the PAC-12 is now looking at teams like San Diego State, SMU, Colorado State and others, bracing themselves for the inevitable.
Thank You, ACC, for Your Jealousy and Greed (Bumping the Big XII Up to #3)
In 2019, the ACC inked a long-term media deal that runs through 2036. It seemed like a good idea at the time; after all, this ensured stability for years to come…right? And the early-exit fees would make it practically impossible for any team to leave early … right? Well, maybe not. Teams are beginning to understand why the excessive length of this deal could leave them financially handcuffed for years to come.
Recently, FSU, Clemson, North Carolina and Miami have voiced displeasure at the state of their current media deal, realizing that it becomes more antiquated every year. With each passing day, the ACC will continue to fall further behind juggernauts SEC and Big 10, and in a few more years they’ll even be significantly behind the Big XII. UCF will soon be making more money than FSU and Miami? You bet. That’s why those three dirty words “Unequal Revenue Share” are being tossed about by the ACC power brokers. But if you’re Wake Forest or Boston College, why would you want to allow that?
This disenchantment in the ranks, along with the knowledge that if eight teams decide they want to leave it would disintegrate the entire conference, makes the stability of Big XII look all that much more impressive. Imagine for a moment what might happen if the ACC would actually disband. It’s not a sure bet, but it could happen down the road. Once the stronger schools, like the ones mentioned above, are plucked by the SEC and Big 10, there would still be some very good schools left looking for a home. For example, the Big XII could conceivably pick up some combination of schools that could include Pitt, NC State, Virginia Tech or Louisville. UCF fans should hope for this to come to fruition, as it would not only make the conference more competitive, it would provide several more East Coast schools in its new conference, reducing the travel burden.
Note: If the ACC could somehow persuade Notre Dame to become a full-time member sometime soon, their problems would be over. ESPN would likely re-do the deal, thereby solving their financial issues. I just don’t see this happening.
Thank You, PAC-12, for Not Anticipating the Media Recession (Solidifying Them as #5)
Back to the PAC-12’s current dilemma. Now that he’s actually gone to market, Kliavkoff has been unable to back up his big talk and secure a deal, and his recent silence has been deafening. Every day there’s someone writing or podcasting less-than-flattering depictions of the PAC-12 and its commissioner. It seems to me that if a deal was close to being completed, he would say something in defense of his schools; instead, he just remains quiet and allows the detractors to continue spewing venom against his conference.
There are four issues in play keeping Kliavkoff from securing the deal he wants.
- Money: No surprise here; everything in college athletics is always about money. Kliavkoff has so far been unable to even come close to what the Big XII received in their deal and it appears the ESPN money well has run dry. Disney, ESPN’s parent company, is laying off 7,000 employees in the very near future; the bloodletting may already have started by the time this is published. Depending on which podcaster you listen to, ESPN is either out completely or wants only one game per week on their linear (non-streaming) channels. FOX is supposedly out, too, and no other major TV network has stepped up to make an offer.
- Visibility: Among those reported to be interested are Amazon and Apple, two of the streaming powerhouses. Some reports (who knows if they’re true) even say Apple is willing to pay the PAC-12 slightly more than the Big XII for their entire package. But here’s the kicker: It’s not a good idea at all for a conference to go 100% streaming – or anywhere close to that. Why? First, the fans of a particular school would be forced to purchase Apple or Amazon subscriptions just to watch their team play. Second, these games are completely “out of sight, out of mind” for anyone who’s not specifically looking for it (think: people who want to watch a football game during a time slot in which their favorite team isn’t playing). This will severely hurt media exposure…and the conference’s image…and ultimately, recruiting. Who’s going to want to play for a school where games are rarely, if ever, shown on linear TV?
- Revenue Share: If there is any hope for a deal at all, keep in mind that Washington and Oregon will likely want a bigger piece of the pie than their PAC-12 conference mates. I can’t imagine the other schools in the conference being amenable to this.
- Grant of Rights (GOR): In order for any deal to be agreed upon by university presidents, there will presumably have to be a GOR signed for the length of the agreement. Why would any of these teams lock themselves into a long-term bad deal if there could be better opportunities elsewhere? And why would Washington and Oregon sign a GOR if they already have one foot out the door?
What Happens Next?
If you knew the answer to this, you could go to Vegas and make some major bank. But it’s my guess that nothing happens until Kliavkoff is forced to give his university presidents his best and final deal – and with only about 15 months until the current agreement expires, it needs to come soon so schools can begin setting future schedules and budgets.
If the offer is good enough (though I’m not sure it will be), the schools may agree to a short-term deal, say, three years or so, with a reduced (or completely waived) GOR. If the deal is deemed insufficient, you could see as many as four PAC-12 teams apply to join us in the Big XII in the not-so-distant future.
And if Kliavkoff’s list of worries wasn’t long enough, consider this: When the Big 10 gets a new commissioner (Kevin Warren is leaving to become CEO of the Chicago Bears), the new Commish may persuade the current group of schools expand further West, adding travel partners for USC and UCLA. Should this occur, you would imagine that the PAC-12 teams getting the call would gladly accept, regardless of how good an offer Kliavkoff negotiates. Even if they have to enter the Big 10 at a highly reduced rate, they’d still be better off both monetarily and in brand exposure. At that point, all bets are off. The whole conference could dissolve, or it may end up being so watered down it would be barely recognizable.
The wild card in the mix is still the ACC. Should enough of their schools become disenchanted with their current media deal, there is the possibility that the SEC, Big 10 and Big XII reap the benefits and add quality schools to their ranks. But then again, who’s to say the ACC couldn’t decide to expand West and add some of the departing PAC-12 teams to their conference, should they opt to leave?
The world of college athletics will never be the same one we all grew up watching. Conference realignment and dawn of the NIL era, among other things, have made that abundantly clear. In my opinion, UCF is very fortunate to be part of the only conference whose entire school roster is rowing in the same direction.
No matter how frustrating it gets to see the SEC and Big 10 rise well above the Big XII and the rest of college football in terms of money and prestige, fans of UCF and its conference counterparts should remember this: With a weaker commissioner and a couple bad business decisions, the Big XII could easily be – and probably should be – where the PAC-12 is right now.
And being a solid number three out of five is far better than placing dead last and fighting for your life.