PHOENIX -- Later this month the Big 12 presidents and chancellors will gather in Irving, Texas, for the league's most crucial meeting in the past five years.
There, the leadership will weigh in on the merits of expansion and a championship game, and whether both or either could help put the Big 12 on equal ground with the other Power 5 conferences in the era of the College Football Playoff.
Yet the most complicated issue the league will debate in late May will be whether it will -- and whether it can -- pool its tier 3 media rights together to form a single conference network entity.
Along with the ACC, the Big 12 is the only other Power 5 league that doesn't have a conference network. That's one of the primary reasons why Oklahoma president David Boren says he believes the league to be, as he has termed it, "psychologically disadvantaged."
Monday, after Oklahoma's regents chair publicly voiced his opposition to Big 12 expansion, Boren reiterated that he remains committed to making "the Big 12 stronger through holistic reform that allows for possible expansion and the creation of a Big 12 network."
But is a Big 12 network the panacea that Boren and others, such as Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, have suggested it is?
Or, is it something else?
Interviews with industry and Big 12 insiders revealed a complex picture.
Look west for a cautionary tale
In 2012, shortly after having added Utah and swiped Colorado from the Big 12, the Pac-12 launched the Pac-12 Network.
The league ambitiously formed six regional networks (Pac-12 Arizona, Pac-12 Bay Area, Pac-12 Los Angeles, Pac-12 Mountain, Pac-12 Oregon and Pac-12 Washington) to complement a "national" network.
Unlike the Big Ten, which had partnered with Fox, or the SEC, which would partner with ESPN, to form their networks, the Pac-12 went it alone. On its own, the conference poured millions into facilitating the infrastructure to broadcast from each of its campuses, while also constructing a pristine network headquarters in San Francisco.
In the short term, the endeavor gave the Pac-12 immediate cachet. But over the long term, the network has cost the league dearly, both figuratively and literally.
Without a TV giant like Fox or ESPN backing it, the Pac-12 has struggled to gain traction in distribution. The Pac-12 remains unable to strike a deal with DirecTV, which has left it with only 12 million subscribers, according to the San Jose Mercury News, approximately one-fifth the total of the Big Ten and SEC networks.
The West Coast's population base is massive, but the scarcity of public outcry has diminished pressure on providers, like DirecTV, to carry the channels.
As it stands, there could be Arizona fans living in Los Angeles this football season that won't see Wildcats games, because either they don't get Pac-12 Arizona or the national feed. Likewise, there will be Utah fans in Salt Lake City who won't have access to Pac-12 games that don't include the Utes or Buffaloes.
The Big 12's travails have been well-documented. But at least its fans can watch almost every single game involving a Big 12 team.
"For K-State, the last five years have brought unprecedented coverage through the Big 12's [tier 1 and 2] contracts with Fox and ESPN, both in football and basketball. That incredible distribution has helped us build our brand," Kansas State athletic director John Currie said.
According to USA Today, Kansas State produced more revenue last year than Pac-12 members Colorado, Oregon State, Utah and Washington State. The Wildcats also bagged roughly $4 million last year in tier 3 revenue from K-StateHD.TV. That is more than double the relatively paltry $1.4 million in TV revenue the Pac-12 distributed to its members.
Is there a partner?
Given what has transpired in the Pac-12, the Big 12 would be wise to integrate a partner should it pursue a network, to spearhead distribution while defraying the institutional costs of erecting infrastructure.
But as the old saying goes, it takes two to tango.
The Big 12 could have seen Fox's reported new deal with the Big Ten -- $250 million per year over six years for half of the Big Ten's first tier media rights, according to Sports Business Daily -- as reason to be optimistic.
"Shows there's money for live content," one Big 12 administrator said.
But as one industry insider who worked directly with programming and distribution before recently leaving for another job in the industry indicated, there's also plenty reason to be pessimistic a Big 12 network could ever get off the ground.
"I believe the days of conference networks have kind of come and gone for the most part," the insider said. "The SEC Network feels like the last one to me. No cable or satellite distributor wants to pay for another network, not in this environment."
Customers moving away from subscription are part of that environment.
"I feel that the Big 12 network is an uphill battle," the insider said. "Nobody in the industry wants to spend money right now in the satellite or cable distribution world. Nobody wants to dance in this climate. That is the biggest issue with a [Big 12] network."
The LHN factor
Of course, the concept of a Big 12 network is a non-starter until the conference addresses the $300 million burnt orange elephant in the room: the Longhorn Network, which pays Texas an average of $15 million per year through 2031.
It remains unclear whether Texas would be willing to fold its lucrative tier 3 agreement with ESPN into a Big 12 network, or whether ESPN would even be open to the same. Officials around the league have indicated that new Texas president Greg Fenves has continued to stay tight-lipped on the issues of expansion and a conference network, and new athletic director Mike Perrin gave a cryptic answer when asked during meetings in Phoenix: "I can't say I've got an open mind on any of these issues. ... I can say I've got an open mind for receiving data."
Still, unlike the previous regime in Austin, the new one has at least agreed to listen.
"We can't do a network without Texas raising its hand and saying, 'We're willing to roll it in,'" commissioner Bob Bowlsby told CBS Sports two months ago during the Big 12 basketball tournament. "We've had those conversations [and] they haven't raised their hand. But they also haven't said, 'Stop right now. We're not willing to talk about it.'"
Even if Fenves agreed to folding Texas into a Big 12 network, finding the money to entice the Longhorns while still making the venture worthwhile for the rest of the league would not be easy.
Through their agreements with Time Warner Cable, IMG and Fox, respectively, Kansas, West Virginia and Oklahoma all bag more than $6 million a year in tier 3 revenue. Though it doesn't go through a linear channel like the Longhorn Network, Sooner Sports TV especially has enjoyed tremendous distribution, with its content bouncing between Fox's regional channels.
"Our own institution's media properties have developed a strong way to reach the people interested in Oklahoma athletics," Sooners athletic director Joe Castiglione said. "If we can find means of reaching more and more people through a conference-wide approach, that makes a lot of sense."
Closing the financial gap
Distribution, however, is not behind the drive to create a conference network.
In the SEC Network's infancy, the SEC already rakes in $9 million more per school than the Big 12, which even Bowlsby acknowledges only stands to widen in the status quo.
"If we do nothing, we will be substantially behind a decade from now," said Bowlsby, who noted the league has already had "frank discussions" about falling behind the Big Ten and SEC financially as "trend lines start to diverge."
That should push a league that has proved to be short-sighted at times in the past to give serious consideration to the future.
"We really haven't gotten into the revenue part of it, what a network would look like, what revenue that would bring additionally into the conference," West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons said. "But you're looking at the big picture, trying to look years down the road at what [a conference network] would bring. ... Where is the revenue growth, where can it be, making sure there's not a large separation between us and the other Power 5 conferences' revenue distributions as we go down the path. Not today or tomorrow, but five years, 10 years from now."
Yet for Texas -- not to mention Oklahoma, Kansas and West Virginia -- to recoup a palatable portion of tier 3 money, a Big 12 network would have to generate a collective payout in the ballpark of at least $80 million, provided the conference would share the revenue equally. That's a tall task, considering the Pac-12 delivered about only $17 million total through a network in its fourth year of existence.
CBSSports.com reported consumers outside the state of Texas pay only 2 cents per month for the Longhorn Network; consumers in the state, meanwhile, pay 28 cents for it on their monthly bill.
Through shrewd expansion, which would deliver more content and theoretically more eyeballs, could a Big 12 network prompt a hike in that average subscription fee while doubling the current distribution of the Longhorn Network to, say, 40 million?
Boren seems to think so.
The Big 12, meanwhile, has hired consultants Navigate Research and Bevilacqua Helfant Ventures to crunch the numbers on the potential of a conference network. Both are slated to give presentations in Irving before league presidents and athletic directors.
If either firm concludes that Texas would have to give up millions to make a revenue-sharing model work, the network effort could be dead on arrival. Otherwise, the Big 12 would have to come up with an alternate proposal, like ESPN forking over millions to buy out the Longhorn Network contract, or Texas getting a much larger chunk out of the conference network pie.
Said the former industry insider, who worked in programming and distribution: "Texas is going to come away a winner from this, regardless."
According to Castiglione, the conference network question hinges on whether "it can be proven that it's a means to an end -- and the end being greater conference strength and stability."
In the summer of 2010, the Longhorn Network was created in large part to keep the Big 12 from imploding. Now, Boren says he believes the Longhorn Network's demise is the key to making the league stronger and more stable.
"I'm not out to embarrass Texas," Boren said in January. "I'm not out to make them financially worse off."
But could Texas still be made whole, or close to it, through a conference network?
And could a network actually help close the revenue gap with the SEC and Big Ten?
Is there a willing partner?
And do the numbers make sense?
The network debate is already raging in every corner of the league. And in one of the most pivotal times to hit the conference since its inception two decades ago, the network debate figures to consume the league in the coming weeks.
The outcome could determine the league's future or whether the Big 12 has one at all.