Big 12 growth must include six key elements

BYU’s football program is worth $99.46 million, according to the Wall Street Journal, and the Big 12 expansion candidates with the best football records over the past five seasons are Boise State (52-14), Houston (47-20), Cincinnati (45-20), BYU (43-22) and San Diego State (43-23). Last year, above, BYU beat Boise State 35-24 in Provo, Utah.
BYU’s football program is worth $99.46 million, according to the Wall Street Journal, and the Big 12 expansion candidates with the best football records over the past five seasons are Boise State (52-14), Houston (47-20), Cincinnati (45-20), BYU (43-22) and San Diego State (43-23). Last year, above, BYU beat Boise State 35-24 in Provo, Utah. Idaho Statesman file

By the time you read this, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby could be perched over a plate of dry-rub ribs in Memphis asking FedEx executives how much money they can funnel into conference coffers through title sponsorships to help the hometown college secure an expansion vacancy in a Power 5 league.

He could be on campus at BYU, assuring administrators at their school, which offers the best international brand and the most valuable football program of any expansion candidate on the free-agent market, that Texas politics will not trump the Cougars’ candidacy … this time.

Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin addresses the print media July 26, 2016 at Mountain West media days in Las Vegas.

Or he could simply be sitting in his office in Irving, Texas, digesting data and giggling about how much positive publicity the league is receiving these days. Rest assured, all the “pick us” tweets and emails directed toward Big 12 administrators is music to the ears of a group that has spent the past six years hearing where they fell short in the estimation of disgruntled former members.

This much we know: Bowlsby, as of last week, is the point man sounding out the merits of Big 12 expansion candidates. Later this fall, he will offer his findings to Big 12 school presidents who envision extending two to four invitations to newcomers interested in joining the 10-member league.

Boise State football coach Bryan Harsin addresses the offseason issues facing his team at Mountain West media days June 26, 2016 in Las Vegas.

Bowlsby does not plan to offer public updates. But he has made it clear that expansion candidates must be willing to accept partial shares of league revenues during the early stages of their membership, much like the phase-in agreements given to TCU and West Virginia in 2012 before both schools accepted their first full shares of league-generated revenues ($30.4 million per school) in June.

Although the league prefers to grant full memberships, Bowlsby said football-only memberships could be offered.

Clearly, existing members are going to take care of themselves first. But in doing so, a six-pack of key considerations cannot be overlooked.

Harsin spoke with the Statesman's Dave Southorn on Facebook Live Tuesday evening while in Las Vegas for Mountain West Football Media Days.

Among them:

BYU must be involved

Conference expansion is all about football and finances, regardless of the league digesting the data.

Not only is BYU the most valuable football program among the obvious and available options, based on its January valuation of $99.46 million from the Wall Street Journal, the Cougars have the most fans of any college in Utah and filled 92.2 percent of their seats last season in a 63,470-seat stadium while playing an independent schedule with Boise State as the most attractive visiting team.

Even if the school is granted a football-only membership (and it deserves better), the dollars attached to a BYU addition make too much sense for the Big 12 to overlook.

Football defines the brand

With all due respect to the Big 12’s strong basketball performances in recent seasons, this league will sink or swim beyond the 2024-25 school year based on the national relevance of its football teams.

Toward that end, the expansion candidates with the best cumulative football records over the past five seasons are Boise State (52-14), Houston (47-20), Cincinnati (45-20), BYU (43-22) and San Diego State (43-23), an expansion sleeper from the Mountain West.

When push comes to shove, it’s hard to believe that three of those five — Cincinnati, BYU and Houston — will not be mentioned when Bowlsby presents his findings to Big 12 presidents later this fall.

Keep Texas and Oklahoma happy

For this league to exist beyond the 2024-25 school year, when Big 12 television contracts expire, administrators from Texas and Oklahoma must be on board with the newcomers.

Texas administrators have weighed in heavily in support of Houston, likely because of political undercurrents that could benefit both schools. That support from one of the league’s two foundation pieces trumps a lot of statistical shortcomings that can be attached to Houston’s candidacy.

Be creative behind the scenes

Rick Neuheisel, a former UCLA coach and quarterback, created ripples last week when he told Sirius XM College Sports that he would not be surprised if his alma mater pondered a Big 12 opportunity.

Frustrations about financial shortcomings of the Pac-12 Network would be the primary reason, and other sources within the Big 12 have suggested Arizona and Arizona State might share similar sentiments.

Such movement would be stunning from a member of another Power 5 league, but the Big 12 has seen the door swing in the other direction. In this environment, no option truly seems off the table.

Geography is irrelevant

In today’s climate, assembling a strong digital footprint means more than travel concerns for a league that soon will be divided into divisions.

A Connecticut addition would raise the Big 12 profile on the East Coast. A Houston addition should help the Big 12 counter recent gains made by SEC telecasts in that market. That would be two significant markets to impact, even if it’s only a small uptick in both areas.

Growth potential matters

Oklahoma President David Boren, chairman of the Big 12 board of directors, has stressed the value of emerging programs and cited TCU as an example during its Big 12 tenure.

That makes it notable that the Wall Street Journal placed a higher value on existing football programs at Central Florida ($94.65 million for a program that started in 1979) and South Florida ($92.55 million for one that began in 1997) than it did on established Big 12 programs at Baylor ($89.69 million) or West Virginia ($81.8 million).

UCF (enrollment 60,767) and South Florida (48,793) probably bring more to the table than most fans in Texas realize.

Boise State on Big 12 expansion

Comments from Athletic Director Curt Apsey, made Thursday on KTIK’s Idaho Sports Talk:

▪ “We have not had any lengthy conversations with anybody in terms of expansion. ... That does not mean that we’re not having short conversations with the appropriate people, especially when we’re talking about it internally and it’s been a big topic of conversation with us.”

▪ “If you’re just going to look at market size, it is what it is. But the other way to look at that is, when you’re playing on TV, are people tuning in? Are they watching? And I’m very proud to say that I think our brand is attractive.”

▪ “Let’s say we have the opportunity to say yes or no to something like this. The very first question I’m going to ask is, can we stay competitive? ... If resources change, and we have the coaches that we have on our staff, I’m confident that we can compete with anybody in the country.”