A WHILE back in this space, I said there was an outside shot West Virginia could land in a conference other than the Big East. But I warned that, in the end, the Mountaineers might have to settle for the rebuilt league.Today, nothing has changed - except the options for escaping in the short term seem to have dwindled to one: the Big 12.The consolation for WVU: A resolution could come relatively soon, for better or worse.The New York Times on Monday night reported that Missouri's decision to leave the Big 12 and apply for membership to the SEC was "inevitable and imminent."
A WVU official, who asked to remain anonymous, said on Tuesday his sense is the Mountaineers' chances at joining the SEC are now "slim and none." The thought was WVU might have had a chance at the SEC had Missouri stayed within the Big 12.So it seems to be the Big 12 or bust. Or, at least, the Big 12 or the busted, rebuilding Big East for the foreseeable future.If Missouri does indeed move to the SEC, West Virginia's shot at joining the Big 12 might boil down to whether the league wishes to expand from nine to 10 or 12 or more teams.The Big 12 could take in WVU and be done. It could do the same by taking Louisville. Or Boise State. BYU could jump back in the mix. Different sources say different teams lead that race.One very reliable source told me TCU, WVU and Louisville have been the only schools seriously discussed within Big 12 circles. TCU, of course, has already been lassoed.So the Big 12 is deciding. And the word I get is it is nearing a decision whether to go to 10 or 12 teams.That decision is very important to WVU. If the Big 12 expands by three, the Mountaineers are almost a shoo-in to be included.The thought from here: The Big 12 should absolutely expand by adding three teams and moving to 12.Beside the tiny matter of it matching the conference's name, adding three would give the league the option of staging a league championship. Even if it decides not to hold one now, it will have the option in future years.Also - and here's the key to this whole merry-go-round - if the Big 12 (or any other conference for that matter) has designs on moving to 12 or 14 or 16 or however many teams, the time is now to grab the desired teams.Why? Because if the Big 12 doesn't grab, say, WVU now, the Mountaineers might be locked into the Big East for years. They might not be on the market.
I hear you scoffing. An exit fee of $10 million isn't going to keep WVU from moving. The Mountaineers can pony that up if it wishes to leave, right?Right. But what the Big East is moving toward is the granting of media rights. That's the path of Big Ten teams via the Big Ten Network. It's the path of Big 12 teams, which pledged their first- and second-tier rights to the conference for six years. It's the path of the Pac-12 via its blockbuster deal.When those media rights are handed over from schools, those schools are locked in for the length of the contract.West Virginia, for instance, wouldn't only be handing over rights to, say, ABC for a game against LSU, but its rights to a Norfolk State game. It would be handing over those rights given to the Mountaineer Sports Network, television and radio. To the rights of the seven or eight basketball games not claimed by ESPN. To the Capital City Classic.To everything. Schools are all in when those media rights are granted.Yes, a school like WVU could pay its $10 million and move to another league. But the league it's leaving would retain the media rights until the end of the contract, which could be 10 years. And the media rights are an athletic department's most important financial asset. No school is leaving those behind. No league is taking in a school without them.
So if the Big 12 has any designs on moving past 10 teams, now is the time to do so. Remember, this is a conference that lost Nebraska, Colorado and Texas A&M in a blink of an eye. Missouri is seemingly on its way out. Stability is of utmost importance.It has to know finding worthy free agents in the future will be almost impossible.Notice, by the way, in the Big East story on Page 1B, the league commissioner's announcements had nothing to do with the granting of media rights. That's because league schools like WVU, still waiting for or looking at options, aren't ready to commit to that.If, however, leagues like the Big 12 pondering further expansion sit on their hands, they'll find schools like WVU off the market. Big East commissioner John Marinatto, for one, can't wait for that to happen.A key part to Marinatto's Tuesday press conference was when he was asked why the league only jacked the exit fee from $5 million to $10 million. He said something about there being no "magic number" that would hold schools. But he also said the league would revisit the issue in 11 months, when his office will renegotiate a new television contract.Do you see where that's going? What will be discussed and probably agreed upon is the granting of those media rights. If WVU or Louisville or any of the other league schools sign on that dotted line, they will be locked in for a long stretch. Exit fees won't matter.So that's the deal. In the short term, it seems WVU has but two paths left open: the Big 12 and the Big East.It would be smart for the Big 12 to add more than a single member if Missouri leaves. It would give the league stability, the option of a conference championship and, of course, more television viewers.But if it does not, and 11 months passes by, WVU, Louisville and all other Big East teams will probably be off the market.We'll see if the Big 12 takes action. Or if the Mountaineers end up Big East-bound for years to come.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.