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Big 12 leaders give green light to expansion

Tim Warner/ Icon Sportswire

DALLAS – For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s Newton’s Third Law of Motion. And it could be The First Law Of Conference Alignment.

The news broke Monday that ESPN and the Atlantic Coast Conference are moving forward to start a network as soon as 2019. That announcement changed some minds on the Big 12 Conference’s board of directors.

Meeting here Tuesday, the Big 12 leadership instructed commissioner Bob Bowlsby “to actively evaluate (the) interests” of schools that have expressed an interest in becoming Big 12 members.

Oklahoma president and Big 12 board chairman David Boren told ESPN.com that there are “obvious financial advantages” to expansion. Last month at the Big 12 spring meetings, Boren said because there was little interest in a Big 12 network that expansion might not be pursued.

The ACC news changed the Big 12’s course, swaying schools opposed to expansion and bringing about unanimous approval to adding teams – at least two and perhaps four.

“Obviously it is an important development, something for us to watch,” Boren said. “It serves notice on us that we are still a part of a very changing environment and intercollegiate sports, that we cannot just sit on the sidelines and not be proactive ourselves.”

Being proactive means exercising a clause in its current television contracts with ABC/ESPN and FOX. It calls for pro rata increases if the Big 12 expands. In other words, the slices of the TV revenue pie will remain the same if its cut 12 or 14 ways instead of the current 10. Big 12 schools received about $25 million each in TV money for the last fiscal year.

And the Big 12, apparently, isn’t concerned about alienating its TV partners. According to SI.com, the Big 12’s consultants believe that adding four teams would bring in an addition one billion – that’s one billion – dollars in TV money.

“We’re in complete compliance with the contract,” Bowlsby said. “And it’s a mutually binding contract that we put in place four and a half years ago. So I don’t think we have to make apologies for activating around stipulations that we both agreed to.”

Without the revenue streams that the other four Power Five conferences have via conference networks (including the ACC in 2019), the Big 12 was boxed in terms of revenue growth. Adding teams to activate the pro rata clause in the contract could be a big-time money grab.

The football championship game that starts in 2017 is expected to pay each of the current schools nearly $3 million a year. New members who are added will not receive full shares of the TV revenue for several years. It’s likely that the Big 12 will negotiate with potential new members who could offer themselves in cut-rate revenue-sharing deals that nonetheless would be financial windfalls for those who join the Big 12.

The money that doesn’t go to the new members would be divided among the 10 current members. That boost could move Big 12 revenue sharing payments per school close to what Big Ten and SEC schools receive.

Expanding would mean splitting into divisions for football, which would erase a current issue created by the football championship game. The Big 12 would have to drop its round-robin schedule and decide between playing eight and nine conference games.

It’s possible that the Big 12 could expand in time to bring the new members in for the 2017 football season. Bowlsby mentioned an October board of directors meeting as a possible target date for recommending schools to add.

Bowlsby also told Dennis Dodd of CBSSports.com that it would be possible to add schools who would be football-only members.

Bowlsby, who said he was supportive of the board’s decision, will now impersonate Captain Renault in “Casablanca,” Bowlsby and round up the usual suspects: BYU, Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati, Connecticut, South Florida, Central Florida, Colorado State. (Maybe England, now an independent after leaving the European Union.)

“I would say that we are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow, that will bring stability to the conference and that have a high top end,” Bowlsby said. “They’re going to join a family. And it’s important that they strengthen the family and we strengthen them.”

Boren listed the following qualifications/criteria for expansion candidates: fan base, TV following, academics, reputation and values, and athletics.

The ACC and ESPN agreed to a 20-year TV rights extension through 2035-36. While a linear channel won’t debut until 2019, the ACC Network’s digital channel will start this fall.

The ACC also extended its grant of rights with its member schools to match the length of its revamped ESPN deal. That basically handcuffs current membership to the ACC for that period. Notre Dame, an ACC member in all sports but football, would be locked into the ACC should it decide to give up its independent status.

The expansion news managed to turn the Baylor sexual assault scandal into an oh-by-the-way sidebar.

Baylor president David Garland and two regents briefed the board of directors for two hours, further detailing the investigation conducted by Pepper Hamilton. The school has quadrupled the amount of spending on Title IX compliance and doubled the number of on-campus counselors.

“In a relatively short period of time they’ve made some remarkable progress,” Bowlsby said.

“The details provided today are a necessary step in helping the entire membership to gain a better understanding of the past actions and how the university plans to deal with the issues identified in the Pepper Hamilton findings,” Boren said. “We were assured of the university’s commitment to keep the conference apprised of what was going on as we move forward.”

And forward is the word used to describe the Big 12’s membership search. There was no declaration of “we’re adding two to four teams” but it’s clear that the conference believes expansion is in its members’ best interests.

“I think that this (expansion) continues to be exploratory, but it’s clearly another step forward and one that our board felt very good about,” Bowlsby said. “I would say clearly it’s another step in the process. We’re entering a different phase of the project.”

Big 12 leaders give green light to expansion

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