With ESPN time slots there for the taking, Big 12 should get aggressive in pursuit of standing as college football’s No. 3 conference

Incoming Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark smiles before for a news conference opening the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 13, 2022. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

When news broke this week that ESPN had turned down a massive rights package offered by the Big Ten Conference — $380 million per year for seven years — my thoughts immediately turned to the Big 12.

Without the Big Ten in the mix for the first time in nearly 40 years, ESPN is going to need quality games and teams to fill a whole bunch of time slots.

And while that stands to be great news for the Big 12 and likely what’s left of the Pac-12 as well, the powers that be at Big 12 headquarters would be wise not to take anything for granted.

Rather than sitting back and waiting for ESPN to come to the Big 12 as a fallback solution when its next television rights deal is negotiated, the Big 12 should look for opportunities to be proactive in doing whatever it can to remind the network that not only does ESPN need the conference but it should want it, as well.

We’re still talking a few years down the road here, so there’s no need to scour this year’s schedules to point out the best games. But that time will come. And it can be addressed both by highlighting the best conference showdowns as well as by scheduling to create even more attractive options in the nonconference slate in the future.

If we’ve learned anything in the various rounds of realignment over the years it’s that the waiting game is for fools.

So fire up the full-court press to promote the conference’s media value. While the Big 12 might be locked out of top-three markets New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, it’s not as if Dallas (No. 5) and Houston (No. 8) are Dayton and Honolulu, which ranked No. 65 and 67, respectively, in the most recent Nielsen ratings.

Beyond that, in addition to adding Houston, the Big 12 also will be bringing in the 13th, 17th, 30th and 36th ranked TV markets — Tampa/St. Pete, Orlando, Salt Lake City and Cincinnati — when the four new programs join the conference one year before the current rights agreement expires.

That might not sound like powerhouse stuff. But nobody is pretending that that the Big 12, on its own, can compete with the Big Ten or SEC in terms of market and media value any longer. On the field? You bet. And that’s another point for the Big 12 to drive home when selling itself to ESPN.

There’s no sense in leaving anything to chance here. Not with the stakes as high as they are.

Just because most of the realignment headlines have involved college football’s power conferences, don’t think for a second that the so-called second tier isn’t constantly brainstorming ways to make itself more attractive in hopes of swooping in and collecting some of these mega millions that are now suddenly available.

Look at what’s happening at San Diego State (new stadium), Boise State (new stadium) and SMU (eye-popping NIL collective) for proof that the little guys are strategizing and ready and willing to make moves.

Sure, it might not seem likely that the American Athletic Conference or the Mountain West have the sizzle to become a power conference. But it also never seemed likely for UCLA and USC to be in the Big Ten, did it?

There’s good football being played in those smaller conferences and we already have seen what the power of marketing, branding and exposure can do for a sport, a team or a conference. It might not be what it once was, but don’t underestimate ESPN’s reach and power.

I can’t imagine that new Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark will do so, and, for that reason — and others — the Big 12 is likely to remain in a good position moving forward. Yormark made it clear during his introduction in July that he’s agressive-minded and willing to wheel and deal in whatever realms are best for the conference.

That type of leadership and approach should benefit the famously reactive conference, and it would be wise for the Big 12 and Yormark to stay aggressive in how they act and think.

After all, the race for bronze is still on, and even though the conference that finishes third in the future power rankings won’t be anywhere close to closing the gap on the Big Ten and SEC, it could benefit a great deal from a similarly sized gap between itself and the conferences sitting in fourth and fifth.


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