When Brett Yormack became the new commissioner of the Big 12 in August, many people were scratching their heads. Before landing the coveted job, he spent the last three years as Jay-Z’s partner at Roc Nation. Add that to his background with the NBA’s Nets and running the Barclays Center, and he built quite a resume. So, what’s next for the conference’s new boss?
I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Brett Yormack before he became the Big 12 Commissioner last year. I read his bio and felt he might be a risky hire, but his predecessor, Bob Bowlsby, was so bad at this job that the bar was low, and thus one could imagine Yormack might be a good fit. After all, he has always been an outside-of-the-box thinker with plans to execute his strategies.
After stepping into his new gig, he quickly shoved the Pac-12 out of the billion-dollar TV window. Amid rumors several of their members might bolt the Pac-12 for the Big 12, he negotiated a new TV deal with FOX and ESPN that exceeded expectations. It also created provisions for expansion. But what he learned in those negotiations was his league was far more valuable to the TV people, and he seized the moment.
In pushing the merits of the Big 12 over the Pac-12, Yormack convinced FOX and ESPN to pony up over $2.2 billion, giving its existing partners, including new conference members BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, and South Florida, equal shares. It also proved that the sum of the parts of the conference was greater than losing Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC.
Now, with the Pac-12 on life support ad clinging to their poverty deal with Apple TV, Yormack is set to meet with league officials at the Big 12 College Basketball Tournament in Kansas City. He’s going to show his members that creating a basketball super-conference that could include additions like Gonzaga and Connecticut might allow the conference to break up the next network negotiations by separating basketball and football rights.
In recent weeks, those TV talks have centered on ways to create more revenue, not through traditional football means but via college basketball. The Big 12 has been the premier basketball conference in America and that only grows next season when the four-membered schools join the conference.
For now, he’s focused on football and adding at least two to four west coast teams. In talks with members, he’ll lay out the additional revenues that can be created by adding a west coast arm to the Big 12, and the cost to expand. To prevent any undo financial hardship on the conference, Yormack negotiated an early $100 million termination fee so Texas and Oklahoma could bow out of the Big 12 after this season.
Regarding expansion, depending on which media outlets you subscribe to, Yormack has spoken with Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Colorado. Other schools such as San Diego State, UNLV, Oregon, and Washington remain interested.
Regardless of the numerous teams interested in joining the Big 12, I can’t see Yormack accepting more than four schools. Which four? That remains a mystery. Of the four corner schools, both Arizona State and Utah have been relatively snobbish about the jump to the Big 12, and honestly, Yormack doesn’t need either school. Arizona and Colorado, now that Deion Sanders has hit the Buffaloes like a bulldozer, understand their regents are all in for a move back to the Big 12.
For the fading Pac-12 and their embattled commissioner, George Kliavkoff, he’s setting the blueprint on how to sink the conference. With the defection of USC and UCLA to the Big 10, the Pac-12 leader has lost much of his leverage with the networks. Those two schools are the epicenter of college football on the left coast. Without them, it’ll be hard to see how they can survive.
They have a glimmer of hope that Apple’s TV deal will pay more than $25 million per school, but current members do not want to share the revenues equally. That means the surviving schools don’t feel warm and fuzzy about staying in the Pac-12.
Where Kliavkoff went wrong was turning down three separate overtures by the Big 12 to merge. One of these happened prior to UCLA and USC leaving the conference. The other two occurred shortly after their announcement to defect. Those talks centered on eight members merging into the Pac 12. But those overtures were rejected each time due to ignorance and the belief the conference is viable without the olive branch.
To his credit, when Yormack negotiated his TV deals, he made it very clear to both FOX and ESPN that his intent was to expand nationwide. In doing so, provisions were made to increase revenues with the right conference additions. “Right” is the keyword.
That’s why his master plan is to expand both ends of the country. Once he adds a few west coast schools, he could go east. Schools such as Louisville, Duke, Pittsburgh, and Syracuse might be strategic markets. If the ACC in-fighting continues and schools are brave enough to exit early, Georgia Tech might be an option as well.
Regardless, Yormack is expected to strike quickly. Once Texas and Oklahoma depart after the 2023 season, the Big 12 could have 18 football schools and 20 basketball schools. That would keep them below the success of the SEC in football, but miles ahead of the SEC for basketball. The league already boasts the best basketball conference in America from a competitive standpoint. They also have back-to-back National Champions in Baylor and Kansas.
It’s clear the Big 12 isn’t going to stand pat. Yormack has a plan, and though it’s bold to be the leader of the pack, he’s not going to allow his conference to be blind-sided like it was years ago when Texas and Oklahoma made their decision to exit.
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