MORGANTOWN — Last Tuesday, Oklahoma won the national championship in softball for the second straight season. It’s the sixth NCAA team championship won by a Big 12 school in 2016-17, a list that includes West Virginia’s rifle triumph, eludes the women’s soccer team’s push to the championship game and has room for TCU baseball, which is alive in the College World Series.
There’s nothing wrong with the Big 12. Is it the best? It is not, but it’s proximity to the best is so, so far from what would be considered bad shape. What you hear and what you read, things that make you laugh or angry, might have you believe otherwise.
The Big 12 is to blame for some of that. There have been some bad headlines, some bad decisions, some bad monikers and some bad mottoes. No, there hasn’t been a national championship in football since 2005 while the SEC, ACC and Big Ten have put their hands on the trophy. No, there hasn’t been a men’s basketball national championship since 2006, and no one other than Kansas has even played for the crown since the league debuted in the 1996-97 season.
Those are concerns and those are problems, but are those in the past? The Big 12 had a few bad years in the news. Infighting occurred and persisted before and after schools fled and arrived. While the league was organizing and recovering, peers were advancing. The SEC and Big Ten were progressive and ambitious, and they were rewarded for it on the playing surfaces and in the ledger — and if you don’t think money and performance are connected, skip to the comics, please.
But along the way, the Big 12 became a perpetual punchline, and maybe that’s why a bigger deal wasn’t made of a big day earlier this month. The league announced — without much promotion or fanfare, it should be noted — it will distribute $348 million in revenue. There are 10 members. That’s $34.8 million per school, and that’s close to the lowest payout in the SEC and the same as the payout to 11 of the 14 Big Ten teams in 2015-16.
Except, that’s not altogether true.
The Big 12 is weird, and people point and laugh. It doesn’t have a conference network and couldn’t agree on whether it needed one or not. It plays games on channels that can be hard to locate, and its television partners aren’t in a booming business. But the Big 12 also lets its schools handle their own media rights. Schools in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 sign those over to the league, and the league monetizes those rights and includes the money in the payouts. The Big 12, obviously, does not. But that’s not bad.
At WVU, let’s assume that an ordinary year would see the school collect $7.5 million from its partnership with IMG College, and let’s say this past year was an ordinary year. That’s now $42.3 million in revenue, and that’s above the top payout in the SEC. We haven’t seen new numbers for the SEC and Big Ten, and they’ll surely be up, but the Big 12 won’t be miles away. The Big 12 is going to look very good.
Forty-two million dollars is insane, and, apologies to the fundraisers who have it hard enough as it is these days, that ought to make you think about rising ticket prices and donation demands for season seats. No question, WVU is spending more, but it’s making more, too.
There’s more money on the way, too. Football’s conference championship game is going to be worth $2 million or so per team per year, and the goal is to get a team into the extremely lucrative College Football Playoff. The Big 12 was even smart in how it formatted football by choosing not to split into divisions.
It’s sticking with a single-file line of 10 teams. That’s going to invite spoofs, because that’s what people do to the Big 12, but those people miss the point. Divisions could keep the best two teams from playing each other in the championship game, and that matchup is the sole purpose for a league that hasn’t been able to catapult teams into the final four.
Where all the money goes is anyone’s guess, but that’s not the point. The point is the Big 12 is repositioning itself. If the cash can do good things for WVU football and its staffing, it can do good at Kansas and Iowa State and bring those football programs up. It can help Oklahoma State keep a good basketball coach and it can help TCU continue to enrich its program. Again, performance and income are absolutely and inextricably related.
In the end, outcomes are what will improve the common opinion of the Big 12, which is why there’s an onus on Tom Herman at Texas and Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. The Big 12 needs its marquee football programs doing things marquee football programs do. But perceptions should already be changing.
Expansion and realignment became an obsession, and it does not quit. The demise of the Big 12 is repeatedly predicted, and schools are shipped to a different conference in a different part of the country. That’s a fun pastime, but has that time passed?
How many of those projections need updated data? Can the same case be made against the Big 12 when its schools are as profitable as any other conference’s? Where is WVU going to get a better deal? And who can find a better situation in the Big 12 than what they have now?