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Big 12 Expansion: It Will Happen, But When?

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The Big 12 is relying on a data firm to tell them what most of us already know: expansion is profitable. So where does the Big 12 go from here and is it sustainable?

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

If the NFL excels at staying in the national consciousness with its prolonged NFL Draft analysis and constant reminders of Deflategate then college football works its way in to the recesses of the brain through conference realignment discussion every summer.

And if the spring is any indication, this summer is going to be a hot one for teams looking to move up to the big leagues of the Power 5 conferences. This week the Big 12 is meeting in Phoenix and the main topic is expansion, with Navigate Research, a data firm, presenting options for expansion all the way up to 16 teams.

The Big 10's recent deal with Fox for half of their Tier I media rights has jump started discussions on what will happen in six years when that deal expires, which is ahead of when the Pac 12 and Big 12's media rights deals expire and lines up perfectly with the NFL's expiring deals with Fox, CBS, and NBC.

As we've seen in the past, movement by the Big 10 can fundamentally change the college football landscape and the new media deal looks like it will have massive ramifications for college football when it expires in 2022. With that in mind we look at the landscape and how it will affect the Big 12.

Will the Bubble Burst?

It's well known that cable networks and companies are depending on live broadcasts more than ever and it's the only way to keep subscriptions up and advertising dollars flowing. That led to the the whole explosion of media rights for pro sports, the Olympics, and now college sports. The question now becomes whether or not this business model is sustainable.

With more people are cutting the cord daily, streaming has taken over as a popular way to catch everything from Property Brothers re-runs to the live sporting events we're talking about. Given this change in viewing habits one has to wonder what the landscape will look like in 10 years when most of these media rights come up for grabs.

Did Delany do the right thing and take a short term deal so the Big 10 can get even more money in six years, or are the SEC and ACC the intelligent conferences with long term, guaranteed deals into the 2030s?

One thing we know for sure is that the Pac 12 and Big 12 have placed themselves between a rock and a hard place and must hope that live sporting events carry the cache in 10 years that they do now.

How Big is the Big 12?

Perhaps the most surprising thing coming out of Phoenix was the discussion that schedules had been mocked up that involve 16 conference teams. No Power 5 team has taken on more than two schools at one time when expanding, so the Big 12 has three options. Expand methodically over the next half decade, try to grab everyone at once, or shorten their goals and expand back to 12 or up to 14 teams.

Making matters more complicated is whether or not these new teams will add revenue to the pot or dilute an already dwindling share when compared to other conferences who signed deals after the Big 12. Rumors have always circulated that the Big 12 has a clause in their contracts that allows them to add teams and automatically add money to the deal, but that seems too good to be true.

Put another way, would Iowa State sacrifice part of their approximate $25M/year take from the current contract in order to bring in new members and have a chance to be more competitive?

How Does the Big 12 Get Back to 12?

There are some consistent names thrown around when Big 12 expansion comes up. BYU, Cincinnati, Memphis, Colorado State, UConn, South Florida, and Central Florida.

Knowing what we know now, it looks like a colossal error by the Big 12 in not inviting Louisville to the fold five years ago when it became apparent that the Big 12 was going to be the conference that was raided and not the one doing the raiding. What's left over, for the lack of a better word, are scraps.

BYU brings a national brand and following to any conference they join, and is likely going to be the top target of both the Big 12 and Pac 12. As one local reporter theorizes, the new Big 10 deal might be good for BYU's independence if ESPN loses all of their Big 10 media inventory. Can the Big 12 offer good enough money to BYU convince BYU to join the conference, and if they can, will they do it before the Pac 12?

If BYU comes then the easy answer is to add Cincinnati to get back to 12 teams. The Bearcats want to be in the conference and have been talked about long enough that everyone seems to be on board with their addition. Plus they provide a geographic partner for West Virginia.

What About Life Past 12?

The jump from 12 teams to either 14 or 16 gets dicey. I'm of the personal belief that major college football is headed down the path of  four super conferences with 16 teams each. It's a nice, round number to play with, allows for the expansion of the College Football Playoff, and in theory each conference becomes its own mini-NFL and does away with out of conference games altogether.

It goes without saying that the Pac 12 is much better set up to survive this scenario than the Big 12. They're relatively isolated on the West Coast and they've already shown the ability to raid a conference by taking Colorado from the Big 12 and damn near taking Texas and Oklahoma with them.

This, once again, puts the Big 12 in between a rock and a hard place as far as expansion goes. No storied school can come to the conference as all of them have locked up their media with a grant of rights to their current conference. This leaves Bob Bowslby and company to pick through the scraps I mentioned above, and do so with one question in mind: do those schools add new and expanding markets for the Big 12?

Memphis perhaps gets you in to the South, but only matters if they have long term success in both football and basketball. Colorado State allows for an expansion out west and provides a partner with BYU (and hellish travel for West Virginia). Yet, the most interesting case might be the two directional Florida schools.

Both South Florida and Central Florida are among the fastest growing schools in the country. They regularly have enrollment larger than Iowa State's, but these large numbers are driven by the fact that both are commuter schools. So the question becomes, can these commuter schools engage their alumni enough to make eye balls matter? I feel comfortable saying that right now they absolutely cannot, but can they in 10 years? 20? If so, they become that glitzy little start up that's bought up by the larger firm due to their long term potential.

What Happens This Year?

There's too much smoke from power players like Oklahoma's David Boren, Baylor's Ken Starr, and West Virginia's Gordon Gee to not think that the Big 12 is going to make waves this summer. Also, those three names weren't picked from a hat. They're the most hawkish on expansion and just happen to make up the three member committee charged with evaluating the Big 12's expansion options.

While I don't know where the expansion story is going to go in the next months, let alone years, I do know that this story is not going away anytime soon and no matter what happens there will be ramifications for Iowa State both good and bad.