Parity, unity must lead Big 12 into future of new-look college athletics

Photo by Mike Craven

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The formation of the Big 12 signaled a shift in college athletics as a broader, more national sport concerned with television markets and mass appeal over regional rivalries and tradition. Eight members of the Big Eight, led by Oklahoma, and four members of the Southwest Conference, spearheaded by Texas, merged into a super conference that was announced in February 1994 and began play in 1996. 

There is an obvious irony at play for the Big 12. The conference was formed because the Big Eight, despite brands like Oklahoma and Nebraska, couldn’t score big money deals in markets such as Norman, Okla. and Lincoln, Neb. The introduction of professional football in Dallas and Houston, as well as multiple recruiting scandals that resulted in NCAA penalties that drove top talent out of the Lone Star State, hurt the perception of the Southwest Conference and eventually caused a fallout with Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor leaving for the Big 12. 

In the summer of 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could not punish members for selling media content in what is known as the NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. The Pacific-10 and Big Ten sold their rights to ABC following the case decision. The rest of the FBS joined together to sell their rights collectively through an organization called the College Football Association to ABC and CBS. The CFA existed to negotiate television broadcast rights and maximize profit shares. 

The 1990s brought about more shockwaves when the Southeastern Conference invited Arkansas and South Carolina to the league to create more value for an independent television deal, resulting in a departure from the CFA in 1994 with a $95 million dollar deal from CBS. That caused the founding members of the Big 12 to band together for a better chance at keeping up with the new television money flooding the college football market. 

The conference remained intact at 12 teams despite obvious cracks in the façade between members who didn’t see each other as equals. As Bryan Curtis pointed out in a 2021 piece titled A Requiem for Big 12 Football, “the conference has little common culture. It has no Big 12 TV Network. No trolling chant like ‘S-E-C!’ Big 12 members saw the conference not as an identity but as a host organism for their ambitions.” 

Those ambitions outgrew each other after 14 years as the Big 12 lost four members – Colorado, Nebraska, Missouri, and Texas A&M – between 2010-13. Colorado headed West to the Pac-12. Nebraska stayed geographically relevant by joining the Big 10. A&M and Mizzou headed to the SEC. Concerns over television contracts and unequal revenue sharing caused divisions which were used by other conferences to entice Big 12 members to different conferences. 

The news that Texas and Oklahoma would set sail for the SEC broke in 2021. Looking back, it was predictable in 1994. The SEC beat the Big Eight and Southwest Conference to the punch with the CBS deal. The SEC also recognized that building a collective conference identity would win in time. The Big 12 was a great football conference with multiple national champions, Heisman Trophy winners, and loads of NFL draft picks early in its existence. What it always lacked compared to the SEC and Big 10 was unity. 


Brett Yormark was tabbed as the fifth commissioner in Big 12 history in the summer of 2022 and he seemingly understood something about the future of college athletics: There was only room for four power conferences despite the existence of five. A consolidation was in play just like in the 1990s when the CFA collapsed and the Big Eight and SWC merged. Someone had to go, and the only way to keep the Big 12 alive with Texas and Texas A&M walking out the door was to consolidate. After all, there is power in numbers. The conference added Houston, Cincinnati, UCF, and BYU prior to the 2023 season. 

The next move was crucial. With the Pac-12 on the ropes and with their leaders’ heads buried firmly in the shifting sands of college athletics, the Big 12 made a move. Yormark secured Colorado’s return along with Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah. With 16 teams spanning from Houston to Boulder, the Big 12 was no longer on the chopping block. It swept the Pac-12’s legs. 

The expansion of the Big 12 coincides with easier entry into the College Football Playoff. The 16-team league gets an automatic bid into the 12-team CFP for the conference champion. Yormark & Co. hope to be a two-team qualifier most years as NIL and the transfer portal help spread talent more evenly across the country for the first time in decades. 

Maybe fans won’t want to hear it but the goal of the Big 12 shouldn’t be to catch the SEC or the Big 10. The goal is to survive. To remain considered No. 3 or No. 4 in the pecking order and to avoid getting regulated to the G5 ranks by the next time conferences – and the television companies that run them – play musical chairs for a few extra bucks. If perception wins the day, TCU and Tech need to be seen as closer to Texas and Texas A&M than UTSA and North Texas. 

In mid-March of this year, all nine FBS conferences and Notre Dame agreed to the next CFP contract, which begins in 2026 and creates an even further divorce in funds at the top of the sport. The Big Ten and SEC schools will each receive more than $21 million annually while the ACC schools get more $13 million and the Big 12 schools get more $12 million. A G5 program is expected to make roughly $1.8 million once the contract kicks in. 

Outside of the SEC and Big Ten, the Big 12 feels like the most stable in the sport with the ACC currently attempting to cannibalize itself from the inside with Clemson, Miami, and Florida State wanting out. As of now, it looks like the 16 teams in the Big 12 know they need each other and Yormark is the type of commissioner that understands brand unity and identity is important. He’s leaned into marketing and can sell the conference as the home of parity on the football field and competitive dominance on the basketball court.

Big 12 Media Days begin in Las Vegas this week – the site of the old Pac-12 media days over the last couple of years. The 16 members should feel confident about the future – well, as much as anyone outside the SEC and Big Ten can feel. They’re together. They’re alive. They’re still relevant. And while maybe that won’t mean much in 10 or 20 years if the machine continues down the path of a two mega conference and everyone else, it buys Yormark and his continuants time to formulate their next move. 


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