Editorial: Don’t give up on the Big 12 just yet

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Granted, the moments after you’ve hit the iceberg are not the best times to discuss the finer points of naval architecture and shipbuilding design. But, hopefully, after the Big 12 Conference gets disengaged from its current iceberg, its leaders will spend some time talking about how to build a truly better ship.

The higher education industry is full of smart people. Surely, they can see the current athletic system is not sustainable for the majority of universities. University presidents and chancellors — people who theoretically should be a step or two removed from the athletic passions that can cloud thinking — need to consider financial structures that will make athletics more sustainable for more institutions.

There’s a reason why nearly every professional sports league has some version of a spending cap. The highly competitive people who run athletic departments keep score with wins and losses on courts and fields. That’s fine, but every sustainable business has to also track wins and losses by dollars and cents. It would be a tremendous win for any university to have an athletic department that collects $100 million in media and other revenues, and then sends $40 million of it to the general university for instruction and other mission critical costs.

Really, you can run an athletic department that serves 500 or so student-athletes on $60 million a year. Competitive people, understandably, don’t want to do that if their competitors are going to continue to spend $100 million a year. Money will buy you advantages. That’s why the leaders of universities need to come together to create a structure to minimize that.

But . . . back to the iceberg and the water that is rushing into the hull.

In terms of KU’s path forward, there are a few obvious statements to make. If KU can get an invitation to either the Big Ten Conference or the ACC conference, Chancellor Douglas Girod should prick his finger and sign it in his crimson and blue blood, if needed. Entry into either of those conferences would be the easiest way to maximize the value of KU Athletics.

It is just very uncertain that KU is going to get an invitation from either. That’s not a statement on the quality of KU, by the way. Well, it is a bit of a statement about the current quality of the football program. But it is not a statement on the quality of KU’s academics. Rather, it is a recognition that college basketball doesn’t much move the needle with TV networks. Both the Big Ten and ACC may just have one simple question about KU: Would adding its powerhouse basketball program give the league enough leverage to go to its media partners and demand they sweeten their deals? It is not clear that it would.

Perhaps inclusion in the Pac-12 is more likely, but only if the Pac-12 gets serious about a major expansion into the central time zone. That would make some sense for the conference. It would give half of the country a better chance to see some good west coast teams, thus leading to a larger media deal. If KU can be part of a group of Big 12 teams going into a new conference, that may be an easier path than going it alone.

But KU fans also shouldn’t discount the possibility of again remaking the Big 12. The Big 12 has viability if the new college football playoff system adopts the current proposal, giving automatic births to the six top-rank conference champions. Even a reconstituted Big 12 could produce one of those six playoff teams, it would seem. If that playoff system indeed becomes reality, there will be new schools interested in joining the conference.

That’s where it could get really fun for a few years. Make Texas and Oklahoma stay in the Big 12 until 2025 — unless they want to pay the nearly $100 million exit fees. Add two teams right away. Houston? Cincinnati? Other takers? That would create a 12-team league that could then be split into two divisions. Put Texas in the southern division and Oklahoma in the northern division. Then, ensure that Texas and Oklahoma never play each other again as long as they are in the Big 12.

Their coveted Red River Rivalry game would be put on a multi-year break. They would scream and holler, while the rest of the league would smile and shrug.

It would be fun, but more importantly, it would send one small message that schools can band together to change college athletics.


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