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What Does the Big 12 Conference Gain on TV from Adding Four New Members?

Not even two months ago, the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma announced they’d leave the Big 12 for the SEC. Despite that move being announced now, though, the schools just don’t pick up and leave the conference now, or even next year.

With its grant of rights agreement tied to media contracts that runs through June 2025, the Big 12 would own most of TV revenues for both Texas and Oklahoma (and any other school that decided to depart) until that point. So for anyone eyeing an early departure, they either have to be okay with missing out on $28 million per year for a few years, negotiate a settlement, or stick around awhile.

For the Big 12’s eight remaining members, sticking together meant a stronger position to keep UT and OU in the fold ’til the end of the current rights deals, and a way to collect on larger TV revenues for a longer amount of time. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has estimated that Texas and Oklahoma (two of college football’s most valuable brands) amount to half of the the value of its media contract. So any future Big 12 TV deal is automatically going to be worth less than that $28 million. But the task was to make up as much of that number as possible with new members.

Adding new members is easy enough in a vacuum, and more schools equals more TV revenue, since it increases the total amount of inventory available for TV partners. Yet, even adding four new members to replace two teams, it’s still a delicate balance for the Big 12. More money’s only truly “more” if you’re avoiding dividing the pie too much. If 10 teams made $280 million per year from TV, but 12 teams are making $310 million (hypothetical number there), you’ve still reduced per-school payouts by over $2 million per year.

And that hypothetical $310 million is just that — hypothetical. It would be hard for any of the schools available for expansion to make up that $14 million annual (per school) estimate OU and UT provided. And worse for the future of the Big 12, there’s no conference network coming at this point to help it keep up with the other power leagues.

Still, the Big 12 took its best shot with new additions, inviting Brigham Young University, the University of Central Florida, University of Cincinnati and the University of Houston.

The group leans into a mix of television markets and fan bases sizes, plus general “interest” as college football brands. The geography of the new league is questionable, perhaps, but it has been since the last round of realignment tacked West Virginia on to the (far) east of the conference’s core. The hope is that TV interest cancels out those concerns.

Houston is one of the largest and most football-crazed TV markets in the country, while Cincinnati and UCF exist in mid-sized markets (UCF’s in Orlando) but have a lot of success to bank on in the last decade. UCF, in particular, is the largest public school in the country in terms of undergraduate enrollment. Even if they’re not a household name today, the thought is that graduating nearly 18,000 students per year eventually catches up in terms of TV interest.

BYU, of course, is its own animal. Given its connection to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you could argue the school’s sports have a larger national following than any program but Notre Dame and the military academies. The school bet on itself by declaring football independence starting with the 2011 season, and has had a TV rights deal with ESPN ever since that’s rumored to be worth just a little less than what the American Athletic Conference members take home across all sports every year. That bet has now paid off, and likely will for the Big 12 as the school’s profile is significantly higher now than it was 10 years ago — and is perhaps higher than the profile for just about every Big 12 school as well.

So what does the Big 12 gain from these adds?

Along with the obvious like more football inventory (increasing from 10 to 12 teams means 24 additional games per season), the league’s new members are clearly a play to get the most possible eyeballs on its product — both now and in the future. Of the options available (basically all non-Notre Dame, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC teams), these were probably the best decisions using either lens. The only other one to even come up there is potentially Boise State, which itself has an FOX deal apart from league TV contracts.

There are questions about cultural fit and how you create a cohesive conference between religious and non-religious schools across three time zones, sure. And those are valid concerns for this league as it looks to retain its long-term foothold as a power conference. But as a TV entity, the Big 12 has kept itself entertaining, with recognizable teams to the casual viewer attempting to find games to watch on a fall Saturday.

Even if they’ll certainly fall short of the current $28 million per school rate when the new TV deal is negotiated for 2025, a new one that comes in around $20 million per with all members being equal contributors to that total could wind up being a better situation for all involved; including TV partners. A new contract with FOX and/or ESPN (or even an emerging streaming entity) that isn’t so reliant on a giant like Texas or Oklahoma could be a healthier setup for network expectations, as game-to-game tune-in could be much more consistent and easier to sell to advertisers at scale.

How things turn out here could wind up telling us a lot about how realignment shakes out over the next decade as college sports continues to evolve.