Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Big 12 emerges smaller and richer
By Jeff Caplan
Oh, Pac-16, with your promises of grandeur and red-eye flights, it truly is a shame we shall never know ya.
Excitement began to bubble with thoughts of a rekindled Border Conference rivalry between Texas Tech and Arizona; of Texas and Oklahoma playing at the Rose Bowl and the Los Angeles Coliseum and of hosting USC and UCLA and Oregon; of tailgate spreads of Texas ribs and Chinook salmon and swilling Shiner Bock, Oregon micro-brews and Washington wine; of spanning three time zones and more than 2,000 miles; of early-morning kickoffs and late-night tip-offs.
Of becoming the first in college athletics to usher in the super conferences, an inevitable era we've all seen barreling down University Drive for years.
Which is why witnessing the master plan suddenly screech to a halt is so stunning. What in the name of the Southwest Conference just happened?
At a time when the Big Ten and Pac-10 have desperately worked to expand membership and create a football conference championship game, the Big 12 has just completed the opposite. And here is the slimmed-down Big 12 proclaiming that it is the biggest winner. Here it is telling us that it will not only survive, but will become more profitable by downsizing and ditching its lucrative championship game, one that would have been played the next four years in front of 80,000 fans at palatial Cowboys Stadium.
From near-death to rising from the ashes like a phoenix in the form of a cash cow, this has been a truly amazing turn of events. The irony of it all is that fear of the inevitable, and still perhaps the eventual in college sports, appears to be the reason the first super conference didn't get off the launching pad.
TV networks and others banded together out of fear. Fear that the formation of a Pac-16 would collapse the conference structure as we know it and create chaos in the world of multimillion-dollar television contracts now and in the future.
In the 11th hour, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe gained assurances from analysts and consultants and media companies that a 10-team Big 12, minus one of the country's marquee programs in Nebraska, could actually reap revenue on par with a Big Ten that now stands at 12 teams and will stage a championship game, as well as the mighty 12-team SEC.
It is important to note, as Beebe pointed out, that TV figures published in reports that would likely double the revenue of the 10 schools -- earning Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma some $20 million annually -- are not sealed and delivered in the form of an extension or completed future deal. They are projections.
"We are in a tremendous position to execute future agreements that will put our member institutions on par with any in the country," Beebe said. "Based on that and that information and that verification, I think that solidified in a lot of our member institutions' minds the future of the conference."
Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were on the verge of cashing out of the Big 12 and riding a wave of cash into the Pac-10. Texas A&M just might have joined the SEC's money machine until Beebe's last-ditch presentation brought everyone to the table.
What hasn't been answered is why a downsized Big 12 that no longer possesses Nebraska is worth more than it was and is now equal to the Big Ten and SEC?
Is it possible that fear of the specter of a super-conference structure becoming reality overvalued the Big 12?
"This process," Beebe said, "has resulted in so many people in our community, our business and our enterprise, indicating to me and to others, how they felt like it would not be beneficial to what we do to have these megaconferences and really become like associations."
The new Big 12 spans five states and carries just three of the top 21 markets and five of the top 50. The Pac-10, which also spans five states, carries five of the top 22 markets.
Texas and Oklahoma are the only power programs with any national appeal, and their game played annually at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas is traditionally held in early October. Only Texas has a stadium with a capacity that exceeds 100,000. Seven of the teams play in stadiums with capacities of less than 70,000, and four are 55,000 or less.
Yet, this 10-team league with only two teams -- Texas and Oklahoma -- that have sniffed a national championship is worth as much TV money as the SEC, which spans nine states and is watched by the country's most loyal and rabid college football fans?
The Big 12, or whatever it winds up calling itself, is alive and much richer today than it was last week. Beebe said he's confident the bond among the teams has been made stronger by this process, and even that the continued staggered distribution of revenue that will provide Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma with more of the pie won't be a sticking point as it was with Nebraska and perhaps others in the soon-to-be former North Division.
Texas president William Powers Jr. called his school's revitalized association with the Big 12 "a long-term, unequivocal commitment." If that's true and the Big 12 thrives in its newer, more regionalized 10-team form, it might just go down as cause of death of the super-conference complex.
"We're not professional teams moving multimillionaires from city to city, who only have their jobs to worry about and don't have to come back and do classwork and be in a community of students," Beebe said. "That's my firm belief. Maybe the future's going to prove me wrong. I hope I don't have to exist in that future. We landed in a good place, not just for the Big 12, but for all of intercollegiate athletics, in my judgment."
Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.