With network off the table, Big 12 expansion focus could narrow

IRVING, Texas -- On any other day in the Big 12, the announcement would've made big news.

Sandwiched between proclamations that the Big 12 would be bringing back the championship game and that it would continue to examine expansion, Oklahoma president David Boren slipped in that the "boat had sailed" on the opportunity for the league to form a traditional conference network.

"The marketplace," Boren said, "has decided that issue for us."

The drive to create a network had previously complicated expansion. But with the network debate now obsolete, the expansion picture could begin to crystallize -- in a way that could be good for BYU and Houston. And not so good for Central Florida and South Florida.

Boren had acknowledged in the past that his push for a network had been one of the biggest drivers behind expansion. With only 10 schools and limited markets in the status quo, expansion was viewed as a prerequisite for getting a network off the ground. And not just any expansion, but expansion into large markets to help build a substantial subscriber base that would make a network financially viable.

Perhaps above anything else, that made UCF and USF attractive, with the two schools residing in two of the top 15 television markets in the country.

Yet, while TV markets will remain part of any expansion discussion, it won't be the overriding factor it would've been in the framework of a network. Which means, moving forward, the Big 12 could turn the focus back on the schools that might best strengthen the football profile of the conference -- like BYU, which has the seventh-most wins of any FBS program dating to 1980. And Houston, which is coming off a two-touchdown victory over Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

"Yes, TV markets are important. Yes, the financial aspect is important," Boren said. "But ... our fans want to see our teams play against great teams. They don't want to see them play mediocre teams. We have to determine what that's going to do to the longtime reputation of the brands at each of the schools and what quality of opponents we're having."

At this point, it remains unclear if the Big 12 will expand at all. The conference is asking for more information on the subject from its two hired consultants, perhaps to run numbers on how the expansion candidates stack up without a network as part of the equation. The Big 12 presidents are expected to meet later in the summer to vote on the issue.

With the network off the table, expansion is no longer a theoretical necessity.

"I wouldn't say (the expansion debate has) cooled," Boren said. "I would say it's ongoing."

But, as Boren had suggested before, Big 12 sources confirmed that the league would receive the full pro-rata kick-in through expansion, which could hover in the neighborhood of $50 million a year in distribution revenue. Assuming new members would receive partial distributions their first few years in the league, that would translate into an additional couple million for each existing member, which just netted a Big 12 record $30.4 million apiece in distribution -- a 30 percent hike from the year before.

Now, the league must determine whether any of the expansion candidates rise above "diluting" the product on the field.

"We are certainly continuing to consider possible expansion and what that might do -- how it might impact the conference, both positively and negatively." Boren said. "We're looking at the whole picture."

But at this point it’s difficult to see the Big 12 pursuing candidates simply on the basis of TV market. Assuming the Big 12 makes it to another TV contract negotiation, those talks will hinge mostly on the strength of the football -- and the brands -- the conference can deliver.

That's one reason why the Big 12 ultimately added TCU and West Virginia during the last round of realignment. The Big 12 already had a stranglehold on the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex. And West Virginia hardly gave the Big 12 a noteworthy market. Both schools, however, had football traditions that had an appeal that resonated outside Fort Worth and Morgantown.

As a result, neither TCU nor West Virginia has diluted the Big 12. In fact, both school have reinforced the conference, particularly the Horned Frogs, who have generated 23 wins over the last two years.

"We want to make sure (expansion candidates are) not dilutive to what I think is a very strong conference at the present time," Boren said.

The Big 12 could begin to evaluate candidates through such a lens, which is a good sign for Houston and BYU.

For others, not so much.