Missouri governor talks up Big Ten

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- From geographic proximity to its membership in the prestigious Association of American Universities, Missouri in many ways is a natural fit for an expanded Big Ten.

Need another reason? Try 13 million -- that's about how many extra dollars Missouri could expect to earn annually from a conference with its own television network and a revenue-sharing model that distributes equal payments to all 11 members.

The Big Ten insists that no decisions have been made on expansion -- and no offers extended, contrary to a Kansas City radio station's report earlier this week. But Missouri isn't waiting idly for its prospective suitor to make up its mind.

The Kansas City Star reported that athletic director Mike Alden, Missouri system president Gary Forsee and Columbia campus chancellor Brady Deaton met last week to discuss the school's potential interest in leaving the Big 12. A campus spokeswoman declined to confirm the meeting, referring to a previously issued statement that the school "will not respond to speculation about conference realignment."

At the same time, school leaders have never outright rejected the notion of Big Ten membership, offering public statements with plenty of room for conjecture.

On Tuesday, Deaton told The Associated Press that Missouri will "always do what is best for the university."

"You've got every major conference looking at how they should reposition or if they should reposition," Deaton said. "I don't think all the benefits and costs are known."

Sports economist Andrew Zimbalist suggested that expansion by the Big Ten or other power conferences is a near certainty.

"There's going to be some merger and acquisition activity," said Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor. "That's a done deal ... The dominant conferences would like to aggregate."

To that end, the Big 12 and other major conferences are not waiting for the Big Ten decision, which commissioner Jim Delany has suggested could still be another year away.

Most of the Big 12's athletic directors met with their Pac-10 colleagues at that league's annual meeting in Phoenix last week. Among the topics: a TV-driven alliance that would offer broadcast partners the chance to lock up most of the major media markets west of the Mississippi.

Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said the league has also discussed a partnership with the Atlantic Coast Conference. And it has hired the Los Angeles-based Creative Artists Agency as a consultant to explore potential media deals.

Still, Scott isn't convinced that conference expansion -- whether by the Big Ten, a weakened Big 12 or other leagues fighting for relevance and survival -- is inevitable.

"From our perspective, expansion is not a fait accompli," he said. "I haven't heard a compelling argument for why one conference expanding means other conferences have to be bigger too."

The Big Ten announced late last year it is considering adding at least one school, and possibly more, to add a league championship game in football and broaden the reach of its cable television network.

The conference pays its members an estimated $22 million annually. Missouri, by contrast, received about $8.4 million from the Big 12 in 2007, the most recent year for which tax records are available.

Missouri's flirtation with the Big Ten isn't its first effort to upgrade its dance partner. In the early '90s, with the Big Eight Conference on the verge of collapse and the Big Ten also talking expansion, Missouri pushed to join the 114-year-old league. A group of state business leaders even formed a lobbying group to boost its efforts.

While Missouri is a charter member of the Big 12, which was founded in 1996 when the Big Eight schools added four members of the defunct Southwest Conference, dissatisfaction with the conference has been growing steadily in Columbia.

The conference's postseason selection process allows bowl game partners to select any eligible team, regardless of win-loss records or head-to-head results.

For the past three years, Missouri has been passed over by more prestigious bowl games that selected teams it had either beaten or that ranked below the Tigers in conference standings. Most notably, the Orange Bowl selected Kansas as its BCS at-large choice over Missouri in 2007 even though the Tigers beat the Jayhawks weeks earlier.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, an avid sports fan, is among the most outspoken supporters of a Missouri move to the Big Ten. He cites the league's academic excellence, noting that each of its 11 members, like Missouri, is an AAU member.

"We should look at it if it's offered," he told reporters Wednesday.

Zimbalist called Big Ten membership a step up in prestige and national recognition for both Missouri and Nebraska, which has also been mentioned as a possible expansion target. Rutgers, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame are among the other schools seen as potential additions.

"Going to the Big Ten is a step up in branding, it's a step up in reputation," he said.

Leaving the Big 12 wouldn't come without a cost. Under conference rules, Missouri could have left without penalty had it given the league two years notice by June 2009.

Now, a "breaching member" wanting to withdraw would owe the Big 12 a payment equal to 80 percent of its two-year conference revenues if notice is given by June 30. The penalty increases to 90 percent before the end of the year or 100 percent is notice isn't given until 2011.

Further discussions of conference expansion could take place next week when Big Ten athletic directors meet in Chicago. The Big 12 holds its spring meetings the first week in June in Kansas City.