The Big 12 Conference recently announced that it was giving its Commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, permission to speak with potential candidates to expand the conference by two to four teams and bring the membership from the current 10 teams to either 12 or 14 teams. Now, let the posturing games begin!
Some schools have been campaigning for months, if not years, for inclusion in the Big 12. Cincinnati, Memphis, and Houston – all current members of the American Athletic Conference – have not been shy about making public overtures to the conference brass. Cincinnati last year hired a consultant with close ties to current Big 12 members in the hopes of currying favor with them if the conference chose to expand. Memphis has leveraged “home town” hero FedEx to make it known that the corporation would stand behind the university’s inclusion with big financial commitments. Houston, probably the most accomplished football program in the bunch, has let their position in the Big 12’s current footprint do the talking for them – and their well-heeled Houston businesspeople who not only would like to see the Cougars there, but would also like to see the likes of Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, etc. come to town on a regular basis.
Other schools, are desperate to get into a “Power 5” conference, but are not as natural fits or may be hoping to get called to the realignment dance elsewhere – Connecticut is a great example. There is not a more accomplished athletic program in the country that is on the outside of the Power 5 than the Huskies. The Huskies women’s basketball program may become the greatest NCAA dynasty of all time before they are done with it! UConn men’s basketball is a routine Sweet 16 participant and has won two championships in this decade already. Men’s and Women’s Soccer are frequent Final Four teams as well. Add in its regional presence between the New York and Boston media markets where many UConn alumni work. So, why isn’t UConn kicking and screaming quite the same way to get into the Big 12?
Well, for one, it’s geography and fit. Big 12 membership would be a boost to UConn financially for sure, although not right away. New members would likely not see full member shares of revenue for at least five years. So, it would still be better than their AAC share, but not the windfall others are waiting for. Its location would stick out like a bigger sore thumb than West Virginia currently does and does not really help anyone by having a team that is over 1,500 miles from most of its conference members. That does not help scheduling or managing travel costs. The addition of 2-4 more teams likely would mean that the Big 12’s marquee teams – Texas and Oklahoma – may only come to town once every few years which limits the benefit to UConn as well. Conversely, would football-crazy Longhorns and Sooners fans get excited that Connecticut is coming to town?
Unlike it’s brethren in the Big 12 courting game, UConn has options. It is one of the few unattached schools in the Northeast. The argument may be that the Northeast is more of a “pro sports” region than college, but there is no question that the region supports its teams as well. Look at former peer Rutgers who have enjoyed some of the top rated college football games in New York City market of all time despite its lack of a national brand. UConn fans travel very well and support their teams. Basketball is a regular sellout on the men’s and women’s sides. Football draws 40,000 plus for most games, which is in the upper tier of non-Power 5 schools. Even men’s and women’s soccer are among the national leaders in attendance. Ice hockey too benefits from its New England location and regional rivalries with schools like former Big East brethren Providence and Boston College.
So, if not the Big 12, what should UConn do? Well, there are two great options that sooner or later will come calling – namely, the Big Ten or the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC). UConn is a natural fit for either conference should either look to expand. The Big Ten sits at 14 members which can create scheduling difficulties. The ACC, with non-football member Notre Dame, sits at 15 members – an even odder number.
With the Big Ten’s eastern expansion of Rutgers and Maryland, it added two more flagship state universities near major markets of Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York/New Jersey. Well, the addition of UConn would likely add more territory in the New England markets of Hartford and Boston and would also booth NY market numbers by bringing in the northern New York State suburbs and Connecticut commuting areas along the I-95 corridor. Rutgers and Connecticut is more of an established rivalry than Rutgers-Maryland already and Maryland-Connecticut is an instant rivalry in basketball and Olympic sports such as soccer, field hockey, lacrosse and others. Maryland would definitely see more Huskies fans in town than they have been seeing with the somewhat apathetic Scarlet Knights fans. UConn also adds ice hockey as another revenue sport where it will fit right in with schools such as Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio State. Did you know the last two NCAA Hockey champions are from Connecticut? Quinnipiac and Yale both proved that championship hockey is possible in the Nutmeg State! Despite the soft benefits, the key question for the Big Ten is still whether Connecticut brings it enough to make it want to add another seat at the table.
While there would likely be synergies with the Big Ten’s eastern, basketball and hockey members, the same can be said of the ACC. UConn, like Duke, North Carolina, NC State, etc. is a “basketball first” school. So, the Huskies would fit right in with the basketball side of the conference. With recent ACC additions of Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Boston College in the north, the conference has a big gap geographically in the Mid-Atlantic and restoring some more Big East rivalries with Boston College, Syracuse and Pittsburgh are natural fits in several sports – including football. A UConn-BC football game in November will likely draw better than a Huskies-Texas Tech matchup. The addition of the ACC Network also can be a factor and the network’s media partner ESPN was founded, in part, to broadcast UConn games.
So, what should UConn do with the Big 12? Well, it’s hard to not do anything. The AAC is being held together by a thin string. At least one AAC member is likely to be lost to Big 12 expansion, regardless, with Cincinnati or Houston a top candidate and a weakening of the AAC likely as a consequence. Expansion by four teams could see those both and maybe Memphis leave which would cost the conference much of its left over sizzle after all of the defections in the last decade. So, strategically, it needs Big 12 overtures to help bolster its case for either the Big Ten or ACC and sell up the benefits of the school for membership. While it will not likely scare anyone, the seriousness of such promotion can make the addition of UConn more palpable to fans in the other two conferences which can make the move easier to accomplish. Remember the outcry from Big Ten blue-bloods when traditional doormat Rutgers was allowed to join the club? There were more than a few eye rolls in the Carolinas too when BC, Syracuse and Pittsburgh were added.
So, UConn, best of luck to you and use the Big 12 dance to your advantage, you have nothing to lose.