The Morbid Curiosity Draw of Big 12 Football

The Big 12 is different. The question is whether that will make it worth watching.
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This weekend’s “Bedlam” game between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State could decide the Big 12 title this year – depending, of course, on what Baylor does against TCU. This is only possible because the Bears, down to their third-string quarterback, snipped OSU in Stillwater last week, while OU squeaked by TCU in a battle of second-string signal callers. The eventual survivor will then wait while the other Power 5 conferences hold their championship games on Dec. 5, after which they may or may not get into the College Football Playoff.

Or, come Sunday morning, it may be in pieces after each team shattered the other’s playoff hopes.

 

Got that? Bedlam.

 

The confusion seems apropos in a conference still working through its non-growing pains. Yet it also triggers a fascination that only comes when the whole thing seems perpetually at risk of teetering off the rails. This is what happens when a conference with no conference championship game also inadvertently backloads its entire schedule so that the top teams all play each other in November.

 

Here’s what we don’t know: In lieu of a statement game, can the Big 12 make a different kind of statement? And, more importantly, will people watch?

 

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Being different sometimes works out, like it did in 1992 for the SEC. The conference, having expanded to 12 teams, held the inaugural conference championship, pitting undefeated Alabama against Florida. Under the system back then, the Crimson Tide would have gone straight into the national championship game. Now, if they lost, that dream was over. Looking back, then-SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer told the ESPN Documentary SEC Storied, "I was concerned we had shot ourselves in the foot."

 

But Alabama won the game, and the national championship. Then the SEC ran up the score after the added exposure helped it thrive beyond expectations. That one extra game not only netted an extra $6 million for the conference, but its success also spurred big television deals with CBS and ESPN. Going big put the SEC on more screens. There's now even an SEC Network. As Forbes points out in its look at the most valuable conferences in college sports, “The more schools a conference has, the more teams it can send to bowl games…Even more importantly, the additional regular season games provide more content to be sold to networks.” This past year, the SEC brought in a record $476 million in revenue, $347 million of which came from television revenues.

 

Unsurprisingly, the other conferences decided it was in their best interests to attempt a similar gambit.The Big 12 was no exception, but it didn’t work out as planned. Initially, it tried to go really big, seeking to merge the now-defunct Big Eight and Southwest Conference to form a 16-team conference, then wound up settling for the Big Eight and half the Southwest Conference in 1996 to form a 12-team league, then from 2010 to 2013 lost four of its teams to other conferences, and finally brought in two teams to end up at ten.

 

In the movies, the little guy usually finds a way to prevail over a host of obstacles. But in the Manifest Destiny atmosphere of college football these days, being the little guy hurts, especially in terms of television revenues. The Big 12 earned only $162 million in TV money last year, less than any other Power 5 conference. In addition to one fewer regular season game, the conference also lacks a conference Network (like the SEC Network or Big Ten Network) and its fan bases are concentrated in smaller media markets. To boot, there’s also concern that FOX, which currently broadcasts Big 12 games, is trying to lure Big Ten football over to the network when its deal with ESPN expires. 

 

And yet, the Big 12 is reticent about expansion. Despite some estimates that a conference championship game could bring in upwards of $20 million in revenue -- to say nothing about how the lack of one was partly responsible for conference co-champions Baylor and TCU being shut out of last year’s playoff - - there’s neither a consensus within the Big 12 about expanding nor a lock on who to bring in if it did. To be fair, a championship game with the current ten teams carries its own challenges. Given its round-robin schedule and non-divisional format, a Big 12 championship game would pit the top two conference teams against each other, something no other conference must deal automatically with. Either route returns us to the status quo: The Big 12 operates with a set of challenges unlike any other inside the Power 5.

 

In lieu of a defined direction, then, the only real chance these teams and the conference at large have to make a lasting impression is a thrilling finish to end the regular season. The Nov. 14 OU-Baylor game was the highest-rated game in Week 11 in college football, and the TCU-OU game also took that honor this past week. What will remain at the end of the slog is anyone’s guess. This is the bedlam nature of the Big 12 at its finest. And try as you might, morbid curiosity may also make it difficult to stop watching.


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