On your mark ... get set ... go.
When the Big 12 Conference announced Tuesday that it will begin exploring candidates for potential expansion, you could practically hear the starting gun going off inside the athletic departments of more than a dozen Group of Five schools.
Let the stampede begin, an unbridled free-for-all for money and exposure.
Let the Big 12 stampede begin, an unbridled free-for-all for money and exposure.
For the Have Nots of Division I college athletics, Big 12 membership could provide the last golden tickets, last seats on the gravy train, last invitations to the platinum-members club – whatever analogy you care to make – that could come along for a good long while.
Which means now’s the time for all Power Five aspirants to stand up straight, primp in the mirror and make themselves as presentable as possible.
“We are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow, that will bring stability to the conference and that have a high top end and will benefit from an affiliation with the schools that are currently in our conference,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
No matter which national sources you read, the list of expansion candidates contains the same names: Cincinnati, Memphis, Houston, Connecticut, Central Florida and South Florida of the American Athletic Conference; Colorado State and Boise State of the Mountain West Conference; and independent BYU.
What school aren’t you reading or hearing about? Fresno State.
Are the Bulldogs angling for the Big 12? Have they sent baskets of Fresno State sweet corn to Bowlsby’s doorstep?
Your guess is as good as mine. Athletic director Jim Bartko did not return my messages.
I want to position us to be part of those conversations.
Fresno State President Joseph Castro, in August 2014
On a national conference call, Oklahoma President David Boren listed six criteria for Big 12 expansion: strength of the athletic department, fan base size, media market, reputation, integrity and academic strength.
Allow me to translate and winnow to the three that really matter: revenue, football and TV sets.
Let’s begin with revenue. Fresno State’s $39 million athletic budget for 2014-15 ranked seventh in the MW and well behind AAC members UConn ($72M), Cincinnati ($52.5M), Central Florida ($51.4M), South Florida ($45.4M), Houston ($44.8M) and Memphis ($43.4M). (BYU, a private institution, does not make its financial figures public.)
While Fresno State’s budget is comparable to Colorado State’s ($38.4M), both trail Boise State ($43.8M).
Football comes next, and boy did the Bulldogs pick a bad time to go 3-9. The program’s lowest win total since 1978 caused last season’s average attendance to dip to 29,036 – down from 34,876 in 2014 and 36,917 in 2013.
29,036 Average attendance for Fresno State football in 2015, a dip of 5,840 from the previous year and among the factors that would hurt a Bulldogs bid to join the Big 12
How does that compare to other Big 12 wannabees? Worse than some, better than others. BYU averaged 58,532 last season, followed by Memphis (43,802), Cincinnati (37,096), Houston (33,980), Boise State (33,612) and Central Florida (30,065).
The Bulldogs did manage to draw more fans in a down year than UConn (28,224), South Florida (26,578) and Colorado State (24,917). That’s a plus.
Bartko’s plan to renovate and modernize Bulldog Stadium (estimated at $60 million to $70 million) is another positive, but it’s not as if the competition has been standing around idle.
Houston built a 40,000-seat stadium in 2014, made $240 million in facilities improvements and is paying coach Tom Herman $3 million per year.
Colorado State is building a $238 million football stadium that’s scheduled to open in 2017. Cincinnati spent $86 million to add luxury suites. Boise State already has facilities comparable to some Pacific-12 Conference schools.
BYU hasn’t done any recent stadium renovations – and doesn’t need to with a facility that seats 65,000.
We’ve been contacted by a number of institutions, and I would imagine after this news breaks we’ll be contacted again.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby
Media market size is important because television ratings dictate how much the rights holder can charge for advertising. Fresno-Visalia is ranked 54th in market size, well below Houston (10th), Denver (17th), Orlando-Daytona Beach (19th), Hartford-New Haven (30th), Salt Lake City (34th) and Cincinnati (36th).
At least Fresno boasts a larger TV market than Boise, which ranks 107th. So there’s that.
Although the Big 12’s announcement that it will explore adding two or four members came as a surprise, schools have been planning and positioning for years. Here’s what Fresno State President Joseph Castro said on the subject in August 2014:
“I’d like us to be in good position to do that and as these things change over time, as there are different sorts of discussions that happen nationally, I want to position us to be part of those conversations.”
I don’t doubt Castro’s intentions – or his commitment to athletics. Yet his main priority these past two years has been bringing back wrestling, a move that makes him popular in the community but puts the athletic department in a financial pinch. There’s no denying that.
Under the previous regime, Fresno State seemed bent on being a national leader in gender equity. Admirable, but again it doesn’t help now.
In truth, the Big 12 was always going to be an extreme long shot for Fresno State. But if the Bulldogs had been working toward that goal a decade ago, they could’ve at least been in the discussion.
Which is more than they are now.
I don’t doubt Castro’s intentions – or his commitment to athletics. Yet the main priority these past two years has been bringing back wrestling, a move that makes him popular in the community but puts the athletic department in a financial pinch.
Instead, it’ll be up to Castro and Bartko to position themselves for what comes next. If the Big 12 gobbles up two or three AAC teams as expected, there will be reverberations. You can bet the AAC, which boasts the best TV contract among the Gang of Five and will have millions in exit fees at its disposal, will aggressively pursue members of the MW. That’s the dog-eat-dog world of college athletics.
How will this all play out? It’s way too soon to say. But this is the race that should concern Fresno State. The one for the Big 12 was lost a long time ago.