As soap operas go, the Big 12 expansion saga is pretty good stuff. It certainly has national implications and some fortunate schools could see their athletic revenue increase by something like $30 million annually.
Not only are high stakes involved, there have been story lines emerging on a regular basis since the spring.
The possibility of membership for East Carolina has had the Pirates campaigning in social media and enlisting state politicians for support before ECU has even finished paying its initiation fee to the American Athletic Conference.
The Big 12 apparently could take two, maybe even four new members, or perhaps stand pat with its current roster of 10.
The league was made for television, beginning competition in 1996, because Texas realized the old Southwest Conference with its Lone Star state membership wasn’t well-positioned in terms of national interest and, therefore, network demand.
Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M and Texas Tech joined the former Big Eight Conference — Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State — to form the Big 12.
Former Southwest Conference schools Houston, Rice, Southern Methodist and Texas Christian lacked the political clout in state government among other factors, such as fan support in football, and were left to fend for themselves.
Conference USA was the offshoot with the AAC later becoming home for the Cougars and Mustangs.
The Big 12 has gone through changes, too, with Texas A&M and Missouri opting for greener grass — and even bigger bucks — in the SEC.
Nebraska had its Prop 48 enrollees sharply reduced in the Big 12 and, some reports say, had gotten fed up with the maneuvering of Texas when it moved to the Big Ten. Colorado shifted to the Pac-12.
The Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia in 2012. The league, headquartered in Irving, TX, has had a relatively high degree of volatility.
Down to 10 teams, two short of the number for a football championship game, the Big 12 petitioned the NCAA to issue a waiver.
Indications were that the Big 12 had been slighted in consideration for the College Football Playoff in 2014 when Baylor and TCU were leapfrogged by eventual champion Ohio State in the last week of the season for the final spot in the four-team bracket.
In addition to that, a conference title game has anticipated revenue in the $28 million range.
The NCAA acted to let the league have a champoionship with 10 teams and the Big 12 has approved a title game for 2017 when two divisions are planned.
Although the Big 12 could have a championship with 10 teams, which appeared to reduce the urgency of adding members, conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in May that studies had shown that the best scenario for producing a CFP team was to have a 12-team league with a championship game.
That pretty much opened the doors to expansion speculation and schools have been lining up like candidates auditioning for American Idol.
At last count, 20 schools had shown interest in making their case to the Big 12.
ECU has been pushing its way through the crowd as best it can and the Pirates certainly have some valid factors to consider, which will ultimately depend on the degree of discernment by the selection forces.
There have been reports that ESPN and Fox are not thrilled about adding to their Big 12 tab with expansion. The league presidents likely would have to see financial benefits through television revenue before increasing membership and further dividing the pie. The 10 members of the Big 12 split $304 million in revenue evenly for 2015.
The list of schools seeking Big 12 consideration includes Air Force, Arkansas State, Boise State, Brigham Young, Central Florida, Cincinnati, Colorado State, Connecticut, East Carolina, Houston, Memphis, Nevada-Las Vegas, New Mexico, Northern Illinois, Rice, San Diego State, South Florida, SMU, Temple and Tulane.
As the point has been made, why wouldn’t a Group of Five conference member want to take their shot at winning the lottery?
Houston appears to be a frontrunner. The Cougars have become a CFP contender in one season under former Buckeyes assistant Tom Herman and football will weigh heavily if the Big 12’s television partners are to increase the ante. Texas apparently likes Houston for membership. Maybe the thinking is that the Cougars would provide an in-state foe from the region that was lost when Texas A&M departed.
Depending on the handicapper, Air Force, Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Connecticut, the Florida schools, Memphis and Tulane all have their plusses.
ECU is under the radar but if the Big 12 presidents and TV executives check out football attendance figures, the Pirates will vault significantly. Pirate Club membership also indicates the broad support and passion of the fan base.
It’s hard to see why those figures don’t translate like the size of television markets apparently do. There are bigger TV markets than Greenville but attendance figures would seem to indicate the relative interest within a market. Maybe TV advertisers aren’t looking that closely.
Depending on when an expansion vote is taken, ECU can add some credibility to its football program in September with a schedule that includes N.C. State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech.
If the Pirates are 4-0 and the Big 12 presidents are deciding the expansion issue in October, ECU’s appeal will have risen dramatically.
Positive relations generated by a Super Regional baseball trip to Texas Tech in June won’t hurt the Pirates’ chances as far as Lubbock interests are concerned.
The Pirates could even emerge as a compromise candidate depending on the politics in the Big 12 room on voting day.
A 4-0 start and/or an invitation from the Big 12 appear to be long shots at this point. The hope as the Pirates prepare to open at home against Western Carolina on Sept. 3 is that possible Big 12 membership would be a motivation and not a distraction.
What is more likely than a jump to the Power Five is that ECU will see some former C-USA teams graduate to the AAC. Southern Miss is interested. Marshall would be deserving of consideration. Charlotte and Old Dominion would reduce travel for the Pirates. Texas-San Antonio could be considered a replacement for Houston.
The American, based in Providence, RI, might like to bring in nearby Massachusetts as a travel partner for UConn.
As with any possibilities, dreams develop, like Oklahoma or Texas playing in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium — or Kansas coming to Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum. I wouldn’t mind seeing Texas Tech at Clark-LeClair Stadium.
Sometimes, dreams do come true.