Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark made waves when he said that his conference is “open for business.” Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff created a tsunami when he responded by saying “With respect to the Big 12 being open for business, I appreciate that.
We haven’t decided if we’re going shopping there yet or not.” And with that, the great conference measuring contest of 2022 is underway.
I’m becoming increasingly bored talking about the dominance of the SEC and the Big Ten as the only true power football conferences. That storyline is no longer interesting because either conference can essentially do whatever it wants at this point.
Either can sit still or add eight more teams. There’s nothing stopping them. This isn’t a knock on either conference. It’s an admission of their established success.
It’s much more interesting to dissect conferences in crisis either existential or otherwise. The Pac-12 was placed in intensive care after USC and UCLA took the bag and left for the Big Ten last month but are things truly as dire for the conference as what’s being depicted in the media? Should we really be impressed with the Big 12 adding BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, and Houston in 2023? Who really has the upper hand in the all-important TV rights negotiations getting set to take place with both leagues? Let’s break it down by diving into the two most important questions.
1) Which is better at football?
There’s no hiding that football and the economic power of the sport is driving conference realignment decisions. The power of football is also the main indicator of a conference’s success or failure moving forward in this brave new college sports landscape.
To analyze each conference’s football merits, I’m going to look at a couple of factors: 1) BCS+CFP: Pretty simple.
This is a way to look back at relative recent history in college football and calculate the number of appearances in either the College Football Playoff or BCS National Championship Game (which began at the end of the 1998 season). I’m only counting the teams remaining in each conference as well as the four teams joining the Big 12 next season.
This formula paints a grim picture for each league. The Pac-12 is the winner with a whopping 3 appearances between Oregon (2010 and 2014) and Washington (2016). Neither won a title with Oregon losing twice in the National Championship game. Things get worse for the Big 12. Its lone appearance was last season when Cincinnati reached the Playoff… as a member of the AAC.
The current or future members of the Pac-12 and Big 12 combined for four appearances in either BCS or CFP in its 24 years of existence. For context, the SEC alone has 21 appearances and 14 titles in that same timeframe. I realize its unfair to compare anyone with the big boys in the SEC but that should give you some perspective on the long road ahead for either conference.
Things are so bad in the elite football department for both leagues that we need to extend it out a bit. Let’s look at AP Top 25 finishes from 2000-2021. That tally looks like this.
Big 12- 72
Pac 12- 57
The Big 12 was aided big time by Cincinnati, Houston, UCF, and BYU over the last 22 years. four programs that spent no time in the actual Big 12 as they were racking up Top 25 appearances. These teams will see a step up in competition so Top 25 finishes could be fewer and further between. Even with those inflated numbers, it’s no runaway win for the Big 12. The Big 12 only wins in this metric for volume and not quality.
An example is that if the Pac-12 announced tomorrow that is was adding Boise St. and San Diego St., the two conferences would be dead even at 72 appearances a piece since 2000. I’m giving a slight nod to the Pac-12 in this department given their more established brands and proven ability of Oregon and Washington to at least approach the top of the mountain.
Which conference is more desirable to TV networks/streamers?
The Pac-12 has been denounced as a second-rate conference because of the terrible leadership of former commissioner Larry Scott. And he was bad at his job. His poor decision making helped get the conference in its current predicament. Payouts to member schools was in the $35 million range for the past fiscal year. That’s not great.
The current media rights deal is up in 2024 and new commissioner George Kliavkoff has already hit the ground running on negotiations for their next deal.
“We are in the enviable position of being next to market after the Big Ten. We already have significant interest from potential partners including incumbents, new traditional television, and, most important, digital media partners,” Kliavkoff said. The man exudes confidence but is the Pac-12’s bite as big as its bark? Time will tell.
As for the Big 12, it also has a new and outspoken commissioner in former Brooklyn Nets CEO and Roc Nation COO Brett Yormark. He was the first to break out the ruler when he stated the Big 12 was “open for business” while discussing the possible poaching of Pac-12 schools.
Awfully bold for a man whose conference’s TV deal isn’t much better than the Pac-12’s.
The Big 12 most recently paid around $38 million to its member schools. The conference will certainly be helped by the additions of BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF but it still won’t come close to offsetting the upcoming loss of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC.
The Big 12 is also at a slight disadvantage because the current deal doesn’t end until 2025 which is a year after the Pac-12.
But an executive like Yormark probably doesn’t view that as a disadvantage because he will be able to operate knowing what the Pac-12 is making which will aid his ability to leverage his league’s value against theirs.
One problem with that is that there’s only so much TV money to go around and a lot of it is being tapped by the SEC and Big Ten.
The conference that can get the most creative with combining traditional “TV” with a streaming service or multiple services will put themselves in the best position to win in the long run. Given the factors listed, I give a slight edge to the Pac-12.
There’s an opportunity to turn the “After Dark” late night game into a spectacle. It’s already a surprising ratings driver for ESPN.
You could combine a uniquely College Football primetime wrap up/preview show (think Football Night In America on NBC) that rolls right into your late night on the east coast kick-off each and every week.
When you combine that with the fact that of the remaining Pac-12 and Big 12 schools, you must scroll all the way past Oregon, Stanford, Washington, Washington State, Colorado and Utah before reaching the first Big 12 school in the TV ratings rankings for each individual school. That school is Oklahoma State. And while Mike Gundy is certainly “a man” and now well over 40, so is George Kliavkoff. And he appears to mean business.
In conclusion, I find that the Pac-12 is both better in football and more well positioned for a future TV contract. This is proof that a wounded duck does not equal a dead duck (pun intended).