Five reasons why the Big 12 isn't panicking

Instead of worrying about expansion and a conference TV network, the Big 12 is moving forward with confidence about its future. Jerome Miron/USA TODAY Sports

IRVING, Texas -- The Big 12 doesn't share your angst.

Even before last week's feel-good presidents' meeting, the temperature within the league was surprisingly cool. Forecasts of the Big 12's demise, either when its grant-of-rights agreement expires in 2025 or before, had cropped up in various forms (those predictions aren't going away, either). Commissioner Bob Bowlsby's alerts about what inaction on big-ticket items could mean for the future seemed to raise the threat level.

And yet the Big 12's power players breezed into the Four Seasons at Las Colinas, and left the same way.

"We're not in any sort of crisis," said Oklahoma president David Boren, the chair of the Big 12's board, "in which we have to decide something very, very quickly, and move in a different direction.

"I think we are blessed with the situation."

#Big12Blessed? Get used to it, at least for now.

Here are five reasons why there's no panic in the Big 12.

1. The league's leaders actually get along

Until recently, the Big 12 has been college football's answer to reality television. It featured public backbiting, bold proclamations and a blatant caste system. The league, since its inception, has been more salad bowl than melting pot. There was no better example than the presidents' meeting in 2010, which had more tension and plot twists than a Hitchcock film.

The Big 12 constantly provided entertainment but rarely projected stability. It's why four members left in a 17-month span, including national brands Nebraska and Texas A&M. But the league that often lacked collegiality seems to be coming together. Big 12 leaders both publicly and privately celebrated a collaborative approach to studying and debating major items. Bowlsby considers the past two board meetings to be the most productive and forthright of his four-year tenure.

"I don't think there's ever been a better spirit of cooperation," said Boren, OU's president since 1994. "The individuals serving in these various positions in the conference, they're very determined. ... They feel very invested in the Big 12."

Last week, Boren distributed compliments like Baker Mayfield does passes, recognizing Texas president Gregory Fenves ("an extraordinary person") and Bowlsby ("the best commissioner the Big 12 has ever had"), among others.

The Big 12 has tried to demonstrate its solidarity before, but rarely sounded convincing. This time, there seems to be a genuine desire to work as partners, and not just until the grant of rights expires.

2. Texas and Oklahoma both are (relatively) happy

The Big 12's egalitarian shift doesn't change the fact that its survival depends on Texas and Oklahoma sticking around. The two schools are, by far, the league's most powerful brands. Keeping both happy is arguably Bowlsby's top objective.

Texas officials left the Four Seasons with smiles as broad as Charlie Strong's after whipping OU last October. The campaign to explore a conference network is essentially dead, meaning the Longhorn Network, and the approximately $15 million it annually brings Texas, isn't going anywhere. Big 12 members will continue to control their own third-tier media rights, and there's a growing belief that conference networks -- outside of the Big Ten's and SEC's -- aren't bonanzas in a changing content marketplace.

The Big 12, like other conferences, is exploring new technologies to distribute its product. While some still view LHN as a boulder in the Big 12's path, they aren't joining forces to push it aside.

Texas also benefited from no immediate action on expansion. Athletic director Mike Perrin voiced his concern Wednesday, saying he's "not for expansion just for expansion's sake."

But the expansion examination isn't over, a win for OU's Boren, the most vocal advocate to explore the possibilities. According to Boren and Bowlsby, the decision to reinstate a championship game doesn't slow the evaluation process for expansion. The presidents will continue what Boren called "thoughtful analysis of the data," and there's optimism in some league circles that expansion eventually will happen.

The swift decision to reinstate the championship game also pleased Boren, accustomed to the league's foot-dragging tendencies.

"I've been a frustrated member of the conference several times," Boren said, "where some of those ships might not have sailed ... if we'd moved a little more quickly. Maybe even some of the optional members of the conference might have been different if we'd acted six or eight years ago, or five years ago.

"The thing I do feel good about is this meeting, we were able to act decisively and more forward on something that makes sense."

3. A realistic outlook on revenue

Bowlsby's ominous statements about how dithering would damage the Big 12's future financial position might have obscured a general belief within the league: We're not catching the SEC or Big Ten in revenue, and we're OK with it.

Big 12 officials, both publicly and privately are pragmatic about revenue. If the league can be a solid third among Power 5 leagues, and not a distant fifth, the plusses of staying together could outweigh the potential benefits of expanding or, in the cases Texas and Oklahoma, moving to deeper-pocketed conferences.

"If we're in the same ballpark, the same neighborhood," Boren said, "we're going to be extremely competitive."

The return of the title game -- projected to bring in $27 million to $30 million -- was a revenue slam dunk. Friday's financial release also boosted confidence. The Big 12 reported distributing $30.4 million to its members for fiscal year 2015-16 -- a 20 percent increase from the previous year -- putting it third among Power 5 leagues.

The ACC and Pac-12 have more members, but is their long-term outlook much better than the Big 12's?

The ACC Network still isn't off the ground, and commissioner John Swofford's vague comments about the negotiations last month, combined with the market changes, doesn't inspire excitement. Remember, if the Big Ten expands again, its desired choices likely would be ACC schools, not Big 12 schools.

The Pac-12's distribution difficulties with its network haven't led to the revenue windfall members had expected. There has been grumbling about commissioner Larry Scott, who recently went all Big 12 on longtime UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero for botching the satellite camp vote. After nearly winning the realignment sweepstakes with Texas, Oklahoma and four other Big 12 schools, the Pac-12 has lost pizzazz.

The Big 12's revenue model creates internal inequalities, but if the baseline distribution continues to rise and members capitalize on their third-tier freedom, everyone could be satisfied.

"It's something we actually like. We are all able to go out and find deals or contracts to help fit each other best," Kansas AD Sheahon Zenger said. "At Kansas, our contract with Time Warner allows us to have an additional 70 productions a year. Our coaches and our student-athletes love the fact that they're on TV all the time. If you're on a conference network, volleyball might only be on once or twice."

"That can be very substantial," Boren added. "That helps close the gap, the differential, between the Big 12 and some of the other conferences because our schools have been very creative."

4. Leverage in potential expansion

Potential realignment always gets the blood flowing, but the Big 12's current exploration has seemed dull because none of candidates moves the national needle. There is financial incentive, though, for the Big 12 to get bigger.

The Big 12 has contract provisions with ESPN and Fox that require its TV partners to pay a pro rata -- the amount equal to the current members -- for any additional member added. Whether the Big 12 adds Florida State or South Florida, it gets paid.

Although the actual amounts are unclear, as Boren explained, "If our current distributions are X and we added two more teams, you would add two times X."

The league would control the additional funds, and could structure distribution to new members in an extremely gradual way, putting more in the pockets of its existing members. Imagine the opposite of the Big Ten bailing out Maryland. Given the desperation of BYU and Group of 5 teams to jump on the final realignment train, the Big 12 essentially could dictate the terms.

Bowlsby is well-aware of the provision, although he cautions, "There's a diminishing return when you get bigger and bigger, so it's not quite that clear that we keep telling [ESPN and Fox] to keep sending us checks."

Still, it's a nice option to have when weighing whether to expand now.

"We will always be open and willing to change. But at the same time, there's such a liking of the 10 schools we have and the leadership we have from Bob Bowlsby as a commissioner, the presidents and chancellors in this league," Zenger said. " It's like getting married. It's easier to get married than unmarried. We'll be very cautious."

5. Bowlsby's leadership

When diagnosing the causes for the Big 12's turbulent history, you can't ignore changes at the top. The league has had six commissioners (two interim) since its inception in 1995.

Compare that to the other Power 5 conferences: Jim Delany has led the Big Ten since 1989; Swofford has led the ACC since 1997; before Greg Sankey's appointment last year, the SEC had two commissioners in the previous 25 years; the Pac-12 has had two since 1983.

Although Bowlsby will log four years on the job June 15, he has provided the steady hand the league needs. His experience in other conferences (Big Ten, Pac-12) is helping him manage one with unique challenges. Those working in and with the Big 12 have singled out Bowlsby for his leadership, especially in recent months.

"He's one of the most measured, consistent individuals you'll ever be around," Zenger said. "He's easy to fall in line behind."

The Big 12 might not be around in a decade, especially if Big Ten and/or SEC money becomes too tempting for Texas and/or Oklahoma to resist. There's an argument that adding a title game isn't enough, and if the Big 12 doesn't get bigger, which means getting Texas on board, it will be picked apart.

"We've got a lot of moving parts right now," Bowlsby said.

Maybe there should be more Big 12 panic, especially among schools not named Texas or Oklahoma. But Bowlsby's combination of candor and calm gives the league the captain it needs when the surf gets choppy again.