Big 12 leftover teams must weigh options if Oklahoma, Texas depart for SEC

Kellis Robinett
The Wichita Eagle (TNS)
The remaining Big 12 schools face an uncertain future after Oklahoma and Texas announced that they are seeking membership in the SEC.

WICHITA — The biggest question currently looming over the remaining members of the beleaguered Big 12 Conference boils down to a single word — unity.

Will they work together to rebuild the league with a collection of new schools? Or will they go rogue and seek entrance into a different power conference without wasting a moment's thought on what happens to their traditional rivals?

Now that the Big 12's two most powerful schools (Texas and Oklahoma) have formally requested membership into the SEC, the remaining eight teams (Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia) must decide what is best for their collective future.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has said they will face challenges "head-on" because they "have confidence that the Big 12 will continue to be a vibrant and successful entity in the near term and into the foreseeable future." But presidents from across the conference issued statements on Monday that pledged varying degrees of solidarity, which means the question of unity will for now go unanswered.

Reading between the lines

Kansas State president Richard Myers and athletic director Gene Taylor released one of the strongest statements, which read: "Kansas State University and the additional seven members of the Big 12 Conference are eager to collaborate and position ourselves for future success. We have terrific leadership at the conference, university and state board of regents levels, and our fans should know that every effort is being made to put Kansas State and the Big 12 Conference in the best position moving forward."

A statement from West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons was much more ambiguous. He mentioned his school's time in the Big 12 almost entirely in the past sense, and spent several paragraphs hyping the Mountaineers as an athletic department, perhaps as a way to sell themselves to the ACC. But he did mention that "we look forward to working with our colleagues in the Big 12 and across the country to navigate this new terrain."

Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard told Cyclones fans "it's not time to panic" and also warned that this round of conference realignment "is not going to be solved any time soon" in a video message.

Reaching out to other leagues

One thing is clear: at least some of the Big 12's remaining teams have reached out to the Pac-12 to inquire about future membership in that conference. Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said Tuesday that "we've already had significant inbound interest from many schools" about possible expansion.

He went on to say the Pac-12 won't feel pressure to expand just because that's what is happening in the SEC, but it would be foolish to rule out the possibility.

Perhaps the two conferences could merge into a 20-team league or agree to sell their future TV rights as a package.

For now, that is nothing more than speculation, which leaves the remaining eight schools in the Big 12 with some uncomfortable unknowns.

Big 12 expansion

There is one big reason why the Big 12's remaining eight teams will be motivated to present a united front, at least in the short term.

They will want to keep collecting lucrative TV payments through 2025, when the Big 12's grants of rights is set to expire, with Oklahoma and Texas as Big 12 members or force them to pay hefty exit fees on their way to the SEC.

Big 12 teams receive close to $40 million each year from the conference office, with TV revenue serving as the biggest piece of the pay. Four more years of those payments beat just about any other option. But if the Longhorns and Sooners are dead set on leaving earlier than that, which seems like the most likely option, they will have to pay exit fees in upwards of $80 million each to switch leagues.

If the Big 12 is able to collect $160 million from its departing teams, each remaining school would receive $20 million to help with any budget shortfalls they might experience with conference realignment. Or the conference could use those exit fees to entice new members to join them as it looks to grow back to 10-plus teams.

The Big 12 won't be able to demand the same type of dollar figures without Texas and Oklahoma, but the remaining eight teams have big enough fan bases to command more than less prestigious conferences such as the American and the Mountain West.

There has always been a spot for a power conference located in the middle of the country, and there are legitimate paths forward for the Big 12 to remain among the nation's strongest five leagues, even without its departing flagship members.

Adding new schools

In a dream scenario, the Big 12 could expand beyond eight by looking to the west.

The Pac-12 has fallen behind other power conferences in recent years, leaving some to wonder if schools like Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah would consider a move to the Big 12. Sure, that seems less likely without Oklahoma and Texas in the fold, but it's within the realm of possibility.

More likely expansion candidates can be found in the American and Mountain West. When the Big 12 vetted expansion candidates five years ago, it considered Air Force, Central Florida, Colorado State, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis, SMU, South Florida and Tulane, among others.

The Big 12 decided against expansion back then. It might not have much of a choice this time around. BYU, Boise State and San Diego State could also make desirable expansion candidates.

The Athletic anonymously quoted a Big 12 athletic director saying that none of those teams are desirable because they don't bring enough "eyeballs" with them. But adding any combination of Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis or UCF would at least bring stability to the league.

That conference would be among the nation's best in basketball and play a fun, competitive brand of football. The conference champion could still make noise in a new College Football Playoff.

Replacing Oklahoma and Texas with those teams wouldn't command anything near $40 million a year per school in TV money. But maybe $20 million would be on the table?

Ugly alternative

That would certainly be better than the American or Mountain West raiding the Big 12.

The AAC reportedly distributes around $7 million to its teams every year. That conference would love to bolster its product by adding any of the Big 12's remaining teams, but they will likely view joining the American as a last resort. They will if they unite together and try to rebuild the conference, anyway.

But if some of the Big 12's remaining teams find life rafts to other conferences on their own accord, some teams may have nowhere else to go.