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Big 12 Media Days: Conference is “open for business” so what’s next?

What is the best path for the Big 12 moving forward?

NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Incoming Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark stated the Big 12 is “open for business” in his opening press conference at Big 12 Media Days on Wednesday. But what does that realistically look like?

The best thing to do to set the table is lay out the facts about where the other conferences sit. By doing this, we have a better idea of what the Big 12 might or might not be able to do. The simple fact is any school not currently in the Big 10 or SEC would immediately accept an invitation to either of those conferences if offered the opportunity, with the possible exception of Notre Dame.

Many think Notre Dame holds the keys to future realignment. The Irish have a few options. The Golden Domers have always valued football independence as part of their school tradition and would like to keep it that way. However — from a very basic standpoint — money and access to future iterations of the college football playoff are the two factors that would convince Notre Dame to join a conference. They likely won’t rush a decision because the Irish will likely always have permanent invites to the Big 10 and SEC because of the stature of the university and how much money they could bring to either conference.

Notre Dame is one of the few schools left on the realignment board that can offer such value. While nobody knows what Notre Dame will decide to do, it is rumored the SEC wouldn’t necessarily respond if the Big 10 added the Irish. The SEC is reported to like the 16 teams it currently has in place, regardless of what the Big 10 does. Here’s what I think that actually means.

The SEC doesn’t see any value in adding teams currently in the Big 12 or Pac-12. I think the SEC would add Notre Dame or Clemson if given the opportunity, and it would probably want to stay at a round number. If it got just one of those schools, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia are rumored to be options. The SEC could then decide if it wants to increase to 18 schools or 20 schools.

So why would the conference say it is happy with the 16 it has? Because it is happy with the 16 it has unless Notre Dame or Clemson is up for grabs. Right now, Notre Dame doesn’t know what it wants to do and Clemson might not be a realistic add for any conference for another 10 years. That brings us to another assumption.

It is possible that any ACC school wanting to jump ship will not be able to do so for the next decade at a minimum. Why? The same reason Oklahoma and Texas aren’t already in the SEC: the loss of a crazy amount of money associated with Grant-of-Rights. Oklahoma and Texas would have to eat tens of millions of dollars in TV money if either leaves the Big 12 early to go to the SEC. Any school in the ACC would face the same dilemma, and the ACC Grant-of-Rights doesn’t expire until the end of the 2035-36 season.

Now, a lot can change in this whirlwind landscape of college athletics; none of us can predict what happens next. Maybe the top ACC schools find a way to get out of the conference without losing millions, who knows. But based on what we know, here’s a roadmap for the Big 12.

First, everything important is based on TV money. That’s why the Big 10 might not be interested in adding Oregon and/or Washington. Those schools might not bring enough eyeballs to the table to increase revenue for each school in the conference. Clemson and Notre Dame might be the only two schools left on the board that achieve that goal; maybe Florida State or Miami.

So here are the assumptions I’m going to operate with. First, that no ACC school will leave the conference in the next 10 years. That’s a big if because 10 years is a long time in this college football landscape, but right now there are no obvious or easy escape paths for those schools. Second, I’m assuming Notre Dame either remains independent or joins the Big 10 and that the SEC doesn’t respond to that move, so long as the ACC schools are not an option. The Big 10 would likely be the favorite for Notre Dame... I think.

Past that, the Big 10 might want to add another school to give it an even 18 schools, should they grab Notre Dame. I’m not sure what school that would be, maybe Oregon? Maybe a school like Stanford that doesn’t feel obligated to bring a partner school, a la Oregon-Washington and gives USC and UCLA a west coast partner? I’m not sure.

Either way, we might be set with four major conferences heading into the 2030s. This is because the ACC presumably has to live on because of its Grant-of-Rights situation (so top schools can’t be poached) and because the Big 12 and Pac-12 don’t have any desirable schools left for the Big 10 and SEC, but have too many good schools to be relegated to G5 status.

So, enough background. The best option for the Big 12 is the same one(s) being floated on social media most often. Raid the Pac-12 for Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. That brings the Big 12 to 16 teams to match the Big 10 and SEC. It doesn’t bring even close to the same cache and payout of those conferences, but probably establishes itself as a solid third-best conference for the rest of the ‘20s decade.

The Big 12 could also explore adding Oregon and Washington, but that presents multiple interesting questions. How would the Big 12 handle being the only conference to exist in all four US time zones? Does the conference want to have 18 teams, making it the biggest conference in college athletics? Do Oregon and/or Washington even want to join the Big 12? What happens if the Big 10 steals Notre Dame and then grabs Oregon, does the Big 12 pivot to Washington and Stanford or Cal? Would any combination of two of those teams bring enough money to the table for it to make sense for the conference?

Another question to ask each member Big 12 school is if they’re willing to add more schools — even if it decreases the payout in TV money to each school — for the sake of a “strength in numbers” approach? These are all things commissioner Yormark is going to have to sort out before signing the conferences’ next TV deal, starting in 2025.

The exciting thing about this new landscape of college athletics compared to the last round of major realignment is the emergence of streaming options. No longer are conferences bidding only with major networks. Apple TV — which is streaming only — broke into the major North American sports market by adding MLB’s Friday Night Baseball exclusive. Apple could be a bidder for the Big 12’s media rights, though it would likely need to split those rights with a TV network.

One option could be CBS, which is no longer in the college sports space beginning in 2025 after ESPN secured full exclusive rights to broadcast the SEC, which is currently split between CBS and ESPN. CBS owns streaming service Paramount+, so that network could bid for the exclusive rights to the Big 12 to break back into the college sports space and provide the Big 12 with a TV and streaming home under one proverbial roof.

At this point, anything the Big 12 can do to stave off a “Power 2” conference situation is a smart move. College football has thrown tradition, regionality and the best interest of its fans out the window in favor of trying to secure the biggest paydays possible. That is simply the new reality of college sports. Some industry experts have floated the idea that the Big 10 and SEC may try to host an exclusive playoffs one day, an NFL model where the champions of each conference play for the national championship, perhaps.

That may not come to fruition until the ACC collapses and until the Big 10 and SEC determine how big each conference should be under that “Power 2” NFL-type model. For example, is each conference at 16 teams good enough? Does 32 schools out of the 130+ Division I-A schools having a shot at a national title make sense? Maybe each conference would want to expand to 20 or 24 teams apiece. That is what those on the outside looking in could be up against in the next decade or so.

Of course, everything in this article is conjecture and I’m far from an expert on any of it. However, this article is, in a way, an aggregation of things I have read in the past few weeks with me putting the puzzle pieces together. Some of these things may wind up happening and some may wind up being way off base. At this point, only time will tell. Either way, commissioner Yormark is about to have a lot to handle in the next few years and Oklahoma State may have some decisions of its own to make as well.