Sam Mellinger: The Big 12 does something smart, finally, by rejecting expansion

This time, the Big 12’s identity crisis was self-inflicted but ultimately only a flesh wound, and that this fact can be looked upon as progress says a whole bunch about the league’s ability to keep the car between the ditches.

The 10 schools and their collective “brand,” whatever that means anymore, will take another slap across the face, but by now that’s more of a muscle-memory reaction by media and fans who’ve been trained by the Big 12 to ridicule the league first and ask questions later – college sports’ version of Nickelback.

Because, yes, as it turned out the Big 12 did waste a lot of people’s time, money and hopes. The league will not expand, at least not immediately, ending months of speculation and following invited presentations from schools in all four time zones.

Yes, this was basically a result of the egomaniacal David Boren thinking out loud again, the Oklahoma president’s counterproductive need to stay in the news, insecurity about his school’s place in relation to Texas, and lack of self-control doing greater harm to the league and thus his own school.

But, hey. At least they came to the right conclusion this time.

And if they somehow got their TV networks to buy out the pro rata clause in exchange for bigger payouts to the existing 10 schools, then this is something like a unicorn riding a skateboard – the Big 12 played the expansion game deftly, and productively.

Nobody has screwed up conference realignment like the Big 12, and Boren. They mismanaged their way into losing Texas A&M, Nebraska, Missouri and Colorado six years ago.

If that wasn’t bad enough, they allowed TV networks to dictate their counterpunch, taking West Virginia and TCU when Louisville would’ve been the best option. There were voices within the league who saw it that way, too, but they did not have the combination of conviction and support to create their own future.

Maybe hindsight will be critical of this one, too. Maybe Houston, for instance, will either find a new home or fade away as its enormous spending can no longer be sustained without power-five conference money.

More likely: After all these years, all these embarrassments, all these broken bones, all of these bless-their-heart-they-don’t-know-any-better moments, the Big 12 actually made a decision that’s in its own best interests.

I know. I didn’t think I’d ever write that sentence, either.

Any human being can have empathy for the frustration of officials and fans at the schools who went through all of this for nothing, but that can’t be the Big 12’s problem or concern. Expanding just to expand would’ve been the worst thing to do, for everyone.

This was always the best outcome, if the Big 12 could just get here, could just work around Boren’s obstruction and harmful presence, to a place where they could see – with the help of expensive consultants and TV executives who are undoubtedly tired of holding the league’s hand – there simply aren’t candidates strong enough to bring along during a time of peace.

Houston has a lot going for it. A strong argument can be made for Cincinnati, or UConn, or even BYU and others. But those are backup plans.

The Big 12 is the one to be courted right now, and particularly as the TV partners saw the candidates so weak as to make the legally binding pro rata clause more of an exploited loophole than a negotiated clause, the only move was to stand down.

If a year passes, or two, or more, and the Big 12 needs to add programming, then the same pool of candidates will be available – with more information available to make the right choice.

Without the pro rata increase, the reasons to expand were, basically, to make deciding who plays the league championship football game simpler, and that going through this process without choosing someone opens the league up to ridicule.

But they can figure out the championship game, and on the scale of things to make fun of the league about, this is barely above promoting “One True Champion” in a season that ended with co-champions.

In other words, the Big 12 has weathered worse ridicule for more legitimate failings. If the league has proven anything positive, it’s that it can take a hit and remain in business.

The best way for this to go would’ve been for the league to not explore expansion in the first place, or at least do a better job of keeping it private. But at this point, knocking the Big 12 for being unable to keep its business in-house is a bit like scolding a baby for spitting up on himself.

Maybe there was some strange behind-the-scenes dynamic that made this brain-numbing process necessary. Maybe Boren just needed to hear other schools compliment him. Whatever.

The league is still together, made the best decision, and did minimal damage to itself. The conference’s grant-of-rights agreement has nine more years on it, and the same thing is true today that has always been true – the league will be together as long as it is the best place for Texas and Oklahoma to make money and pursue championships.

And if it turns out they’re able to get more money from their broadcast partners, then the Big 12 is being widely ridiculed for one of the stealthiest power moves in recent college sports history.


Sam Mellinger is a columnist for The Kansas City Star.

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