Conference commissioners could be analogous to chefs who are all working out of the same cookbook. There might be a surprise at which entrée is served but there are no secret recipes. Commissioners might not know exactly what other conferences are planning but they're rarely caught off guard.
As 2009 drew to a close, Big 12 Conference commissioner Dan Beebe could sense the rumblings of change. Coaches in the 11-team Big Ten Conference had been clamoring for a 12th member and a league championship game.
The Pacific-10 Conference, long considered behind the times, had hired Larry Scott as its new commissioner. His charge was to modernize and monetize the Pac-10. To do that, Scott needed to add at least two schools.
Stuck between the Big 10 and the Pac-10 - two conferences who had long been in lock step because of their half-century tradition in the Rose Bowl - was the Big 12.
"I was accused to not doing anything but I would have been derelict in my duties if I had not started to prepare," Beebe said.
In late 2009 Beebe convened an advisory group to study options and brainstorm about the future. Big 12 deputy commissioner Tim Weiser, former associate commissioner Donnie Duncan, New York-based television adviser Joel Lulla and legal counselor Kevin Sweeney of the Kansas City law firm Polsinelli Shugart formed Beebe's "war council."
"The times we met, we were doing our due diligence," said Sweeney, who has been the Big 12's legal counsel since its inception. "We tried to look at the problem from all angles. Dan was adamant about being as proactive as possible."
"We played out every scenario, every aspect of what might happen," Duncan said. "It wasn't just involving the Pac-10. It was the national picture. If A moves to B, and B moves to C, then what happens? Who would pay for it? How does TV benefit? How do they not benefit? Then from a legal standpoint, what are our parameters?"
One consideration discussed was expanding the Big 12. Instead of waiting for its member schools to be courted, why not strike first?
"We concluded that 12 was the maximum number for us, in this part of the country," Beebe said. "Was there anyone out there we should try to add? The potential candidates would not have added to the Big 12; they would have taken away.
"When the Big Ten made its announcement we were in high gear."
On Dec. 15, 2009, the Big Ten announced that it would begin studying the issue of expansion. Since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1990, the conference had been an awkward 11 teams. Twice Notre Dame was courted for membership and twice the school decided to maintain its independence in football (Notre Dame is a member of the Big East Conference in all sports except football).
With Notre Dame likely to remain an independent, the formal announcement by the Big Ten created heartburn for the Big 12 and the Big East conferences - the two leagues which made the most geographic sense if the Big Ten decided to add members.
Over the next three to four months, the Big Ten kept its cards close to its vest while media speculation scatter shot stories. Would the Big Ten add just one school to reach 12? Would it become the first "super conference" and expand to 16? Which schools were on the "wish list"?
After his advisory group's first meeting, Beebe decided to visit all of the Big 12's campuses and meet with the presidents and athletic administrators. The scouting trips in early 2010 were two-fold. On the surface Beebe asked the schools' leaders what they desired, how they saw the future of their school and the Big 12. But the meetings also would hopefully give the commissioner a gut feeling about any land mines on the road ahead.
Duncan, the former Oklahoma athletic director who was a driving force in the creation of the Big 12 before joining the conference office, is now semi-retired and a consigliore for football matters.
"Dan worked very, very hard for a long time," Duncan said. "He went to see people, asked them, 'Where are you? What's it gonna take?'"
While the Big Ten's December announcement was public knowledge, Beebe and his advisors were wary of a West Coast threat. The Pacific-10 Conference was under new management.
Scott, who had spent six years in charge of the World Tennis Association, floated his expansion proposal to Texas administrators while the Longhorns were in Los Angeles to play at the Rose Bowl for the BCS national championship.
If the Big 12 was about to face a "two-front war" to keep its membership intact, revenue was the key factor in the battles to come. All universities with big-time sports programs are struggling to avoid annual baths in red ink. For conferences like the Big 12, the biggest revenue producer is football and the television contracts for that sport.
In early 2010, the Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference had the most lucrative television deals. The Big Ten Network, launched in 2007, had become surprisingly productive. The Big Ten's IRS filing for the year ended June 2009 showed the network paid the conference $72 million. The BTN revenue stream, along with the ABC/ESPN deal, has the Big Ten distributing about $20 million per school annually.
(Enhancing the inventory and the coverage area of the BTN was one of the reasons the Big Ten was considering expansion. The BTN's goal over the next five years is to grow from its current 40 million homes to 60 million.)
The SEC had signed a 15-year deal with ESPN that created a de facto SEC network similar to the BTN. In addition to its television deal with CBS, the SEC generated revenue that means about $17 million per year for its 12 member schools.
The desire to increase revenue streams was a driving force for the Big 12. Keeping its dozen members fiscally competitive at the highest level of college sports is a perpetual goal. However, questions were increasing as to whether all 12 schools were on the same page … or even reading the same book.
And like the Civil War had its Fort Sumter flash point, the Big 12 was soon to have its beginning to a seminal conflict.
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