Big XII conference expansion is a hot topic among Memphis fans – primarily because (a) Oklahoma State booster Boone Pickens confirmed a popular Memphis rumor when he recently said, ‘Memphis wants in’ (duh), and (b) the Big XII was shut out of the inaugural College Football Playoff – which caused some people to suggest that the Big XII should expand by 2 members in order to immediately institute a football championship game. Even Memphis football head coach Justin Fuente, in a recent interview with Geoff Calkins of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, acknowledged candidly that the program should aspire to join the Big XII.
So we can all agree that Memphis – its fans, its boosters, its administration, heck even its football coach – wants in. This piece examines Memphis’ conference affiliation – both present and future – and provides a realistic assessment of their chances at inclusion into the Big XII.
Reality check #1: The Big XII isn’t expanding right now – primarily because the candidates aren’t worth $22m per year. This isn’t to say the Big XII won’t expand down the road, particularly if their petition to de-regulate conference championship games – so that that they can stage one without expanding to 12 teams as the current rule requires – is denied. As of now, however, Big XII Commissioner Bob Bowlsby couldn’t be clearer about his conference’s attitude toward expansion. According to CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd, the available schools, Memphis included, do not bring the equity to the table that matches the annual Big 12 per-school payout from the media contracts — $22 million. Bowlsby confirmed that fact to Dodd, and added some additional considerations:
“That’s right. Even more than that — it’s academic, it’s competitiveness, it’s geography, it’s scope of program. Just getting to 12 so you can have a playoff is among the worst reasons to expand.”
Ouch. Bowlsby recently appeared on talk radio in Orlando (AM 740) with Mike Bianchi, and clarified his league’s position:
“We don’t have any schools on our radar at the present time. … We don’t have any expansion initiative; we don’t have any list of prospects or any plans to expand. But as our ADs and CEOs talk about the challenges of the future and our immediate past experience we had in the playoffs, these [expansion initiatives] are things that are going to get discussed.”
He again explained the financial factors, and why they’re not interested in expanding (yet):
“We divide the money 10 ways. Right now, we’re distributing the largest amount of money to each of our members in any league in college athletics. I don’t know that our members are prepared to take a reduction in that distributable revenue. It (expansion) is certainly about TV sets. It’s certainly about recruiting. It’s certainly about the possibility of competitive implications in all of our sports, but particularly our high-profile sports. At the present time we have no strategy. We haven’t had any discussions around expansion. Our CEOs have said they like 10. I expect that we’ll be at 10 for a while. Could that change down the road? Sure it could… I don’t think we’re going to take a kneejerk reaction and think immediately about expansion just because on this occasion we got left out of the playoff.”
In other words, Memphis and other hopefuls can wait by the phone if they want, but don’t expect a call for at least a little while.
Reality Check #2: Memphis’ lack of prestigious academic reputation matters – but it can be overcome. Bowlsby’s comment about academics should concern Memphis fans. The fact is, academic fit and reputation does matter. These are university presidents making these decisions, not football coaches or fans. Conversely, Louisville is a good example of a school that used its extensive success on the field / court to overcome a lower academic profile. Forbes ranks Louisville #548 overall as a college, similar to Memphis at #609. Cincinnati is #391, UCF #405. Whether or not 200 spots on Forbes’ rankings matters enough to take one school over another remains to be seen, but if I were directing Memphis’ expansion efforts I’d make sure to keep the Louisville story in the front of my mind. Which leads us to…
Reality Check #3: Memphis needs to achieve more success on the field in order to position itself. When programs get promoted from outside the “power” conferences, they typically do so after years of extended success in the primary revenue sport – football. In the latest round of conference reshuffling, 6 of the 7 schools promoted out of the old BIG EAST and MWC into the current “Power 5” had enjoyed multiple years of football success. The anomaly was Syracuse, and to a lesser extent, Pittsburgh:
||10 win seasons in previous decade
||3 (2012, 2006, 2004)
||1 (2009) + 2, 9 win seasons
||1 (2006) + 3, 9 win seasons
||5 (2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2002)
||4 (2011, 2007, 2006, 2005)
||5 (2010, 2009, 2008, 2004, 2003)
It’s no accident that arguably the 2 most successful programs on that list (West Virginia and TCU) were the programs chosen for inclusion into the Big XII. Football is what matters to guys like Boone Pickens and power brokers in Texas. Whereas basketball powers with suspect football pedigrees (Syracuse & Pittsburgh) might sneak into the ACC, that isn’t going to happen in Big XII country.
In other words, for Memphis to position itself as a strong, obvious candidate for inclusion into the Big XII, it needs to keep winning in football. One great year probably won’t cut it, but 2 or 3 might.
Reality Check #4: Memphis’ needs to continue to grow its football brand. This is a corollary to #3, and why it was so crucial to retain Justin Fuente for another year. Memphis could enter 2015 as a preseason top 25 team – which would translate into better television time slots within the AAC / ESPN / CBS Sports package. The Memphis vs. BYU Miami Beach Bowl drew a very strong 1.3 rating, despite an awkward 2pm-Monday time slot. Obviously BYU’s national brand helped that number, but so did simply being on primary ESPN (as opposed to ESPN branded channels with more limited distribution such as ESPNU and ESPNEWS) and playing a thrilling game. Though Memphis had a number of games on television in 2014, they were often on ESPN’s less distributed platforms (ESPNEWS & ESPNU). Accordingly, the ratings for their games suffered:
Rating: Viewers: Time / Day: Teams: Platform:
||2:00 PM (Mon)
||4:00 PM (Sat)
||3:30 PM (Sat)
||12:00 PM (Sat)
||8:00 PM (Fri)
||7:30 PM (Fri)
TV ratings can’t be considered in a vacuum, as they don’t reveal important factors such as what games or alternate programming was being aired head to head. Accordingly, it is not clear whether or not these ratings met or failed to meet expectations. For a list of all CFB ratings in 2014, see this list (courtesy of Sports Media Watch). Nevertheless, it’s clear that being on ESPN matters. Being ranked matters. It means more people see your name, your team, your logo. But most importantly it means that you might be able to generate higher ratings… which will then help you pitch the Big XII CEO’s and TV Network executives that your program will bring enough additional revenue to offset the additional mouth to feed. AKA – $22 million.
Reality Check #5 & #5A: If the Big XII does expand, Memphis has a lot of connections and the right geography. In politics, it’s all about who you know. The same is undoubtedly true when university presidents and AD’s get together to discuss expansion candidates – especially if all other factors are relatively equal. In their quest to gain admission to their conference, it can’t hurt that many of the powers that be at The University of Memphis have Big XII ties. Consider that several high ranking people in the Memphis administration previously worked in the Big XII:
|Dr. David Rudd, University President
||Former Dept. Chair at Texas Tech from 2006-2009
||Worked at Baylor
||Graduated from Texas
|Wren Baker, Deputy Director of Athletics
||Worked in Athletic Department at Oklahoma State from 2001-2005
|Stacy Martin, Sr. Associate Athletic Director
||Assistant AD at Kansas State from 2009-2012
|Justin Fuente, Head Football Coach
||Assistant coach at TCU from 2007-2011
Assuming that Boone Pickens’ statement (that Memphis wants in) was based on conversations at the donor level, one can imagine a multifaceted lobbying campaign targeting every school in the Big XII and trying to win broad based support in advance of any expansion discussions.
Reality Check #5A: Geography & TV do favor Memphis: Bowlsby has said that the Big XII, should they expand, would look to bridge the gap to West Virginia:
We have one member in West Virginia that’s on the East Coast. We have to be mindful of their situation. If we took somebody…on the far West Coast it would certainly do a disservice to our member in West Virginia.
This would indicate a candidate pool of possibly Memphis, Cincinnati, UCF, SMU and Houston. Of those 5, only Memphis and Cincinnati offer a true geographic bridge for West Virginia to the rest of the Big XII membership. Of those 5, only Memphis, UCF and Cincinnati offer new television markets for the conference – as Houston and Dallas are television markets already saturated by the Big XII. Memphis, on the other hand, is a top college football television market but one that is currently dominated by the SEC. The potential of generating big ratings in SEC country would seem to be an enticing argument in Memphis’ favor. Memphis vs. a Big XII opponent (Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia) on Fox, Saturday in prime time from the Liberty Bowl would certainly generate a higher rating than, say, Memphis vs. Tulsa on ESPNU on a Friday. Would it be a big enough rating to eat into the SEC Saturday night game of the week on ESPN? Big enough to pique the interest of Bowlsby and his CEOs?
Reality Check #6: Memphis needs to support and grow the AAC now – especially since Big XII expansion is uncertain and the environment is treacherous. NCAA governance reforms (aka autonomy) and various class action lawsuits attacking the NCAA’s amateurism model virtually ensure that the next few years will bring tumult and change to college athletics. Most observers have predicted a coming arms race in student athlete benefits (lifetime scholarships, family travel, meals, health insurance, etc…) which will rework athletic department budgets. While pursuing Big XII membership is vital, Memphis and other AAC programs have to deal with the reality that their financial model is currently closer to UAB’s (which just went out of business) than to Alabama’s. If it hopes to remain relevant over the next decade, Memphis must grow its athletic program within the AAC and support the AAC’s growth as a brand. If the Big XII’s petition to de-regulate conference championship games is granted, it’s very likely that conference simply won’t expand. At that point, the AAC becomes a solid long term home for all the so-called Big XII candidates.
The AAC signed a 7-year, 126m contract with ESPN in 2013. With his leverage eroded due to the timing of the last round of conference shuffling, AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco negotiated a television contract with ESPN that provided for unprecedented exposure (did you ever think you’d see the day that every single Memphis conference football game was on national television?), but much lower TV payouts than the “Power 5” conferences. By comparison, the SEC will likely distribute more to one single school in 2015 (approx 30m) than the AAC will collect in total annual revenue from the ESPN contract. Though the money isn’t good for the AAC, ESPN has given the conference a clear opportunity, through exposure, to demonstrate greater value for future TV negotiations. The current contract reportedly has a look-in provision that will allow for potential extension and renegotiation. At the end of the day, Memphis and other AAC schools have to get eyeballs on their games. With the NFL increasingly becoming a 3 or 4 night a week sport, this won’t be easy.
If there truly is no Big XII expansion for the next 10 years as some predict, then the AAC schools will look to Aresco, a former television executive with deep understanding of the marketplace, to manifest his statement about the conference economic landscape being 5 + 1 (as opposed to 5 haves and 5 have nots).
Bottom line: In sharp contrast to where they found themselves during the last round of shuffling – as a last gasp, desperate addition to a dying BIG EAST – Memphis actually makes some sense for the Big XII should they decide to expand. That decision, however, is far from certain and some are saying it’s not likely at all. That’s the bad news. The good news is the market for college football will recognize value. Therefore, Memphis can do the most to strengthen its position by simply continuing to invest in football and positioning itself competitively ahead of schools like Cincinnati, SMU, Houston, UCF – whether that be in the AAC or the Big XII. The competition among those schools for the next life boat out – might just be a rising tide that lifts the AAC to a favorable market position.