When I reached out to Jamie Pollard to schedule our annual preseason podcast a little over a month ago, Big 12 expansion chatter was all but dead.
While watching his son compete in international track competition last week, Pollard was in Poland when he received a call from Iowa State president Steven Leath, who had recently attended a Big 12 Board of Directors meeting in Dallas.
Conversations at that meeting (thanks greatly to the ACC’s announcement of its television network and new grant of rights agreement) spurred the Big 12 to make a public announcmeent that it was officially exploring expanding the league to 12 or 14 schools.
Key words: Exploring expansion, according to Iowa State’s candid AD.
“I would just caution people to not get so far out over their skis,” Pollard said recently on the Cyclone Fanatic Podcast. “I’m still not convinced we will expand. I’m still not convinced we won’t expand.”
All signs point to eventual expansion but as is always the case, it is important to remember that there are moving parts behind the scene. Presidents, television networks and backroom Texas politics will all dictate what eventually happens.
And frankly from a strictly Iowa State point of view, Pollard doesn’t seem to care whom the Big 12 adds or if it adds any school at all.
“What I do know is this: The viability of the Big 12 is contingent on the grant of rights,” Pollard said.
Grant. Of. Rights. That’s the key.
For novices to realignment chatter, the “grant of rights” transfers all media revenue from schools to the conference for a specific amount of time, where it is then dispersed throughout its members.
As an example, the ACC signed a new grant of rights last week that will last until 2036, meaning that it is almost impossible for any other league (I’m looking at you Jim Delaney) to raid the ACC for the next 20 years. The Big 12’s grant of rights coincides with its current television contract that is set to expire six years from now, which isn’t very long at all in the big scheme of things.
“In order for the Big 12 to be viable, that grant of rights needs to be extended,” Pollard noted once again (this was the theme of our expansion conversation).
So how does that happen?
Two factors generally trigger the extension of a grant of rights: A new television deal or expansion, often times both, hence the current situation that the Big 12 is in.
“What I know is that the 10 members of the Big 12 are not going to vote to extend their grant of rights unless the institutions or the television deal or both are something that is unanimous amongst the institutions,” Pollard said. “The grant of rights extension is only going to happen among the 10 current members if those numbers are so substantial that you want to stay that I am committed to the Big 12 for more than the next six years. That can happen in multiple ways.”
The Big 12 sat down with television partners earlier this summer to explore a conference network and didn’t have much luck, which is why the expansion conversation was all but dead heading into media days earlier this month.
However the ACC’s new deal certainly changed things. It left the Big 12 as the only Power 5 conference without a conference network (although the Pac-12 Network is kind of a joke) going forward, which also threatened the Big 12’s current position in conference revenue. As of last year, the Big 12 ranked third behind the Big Ten and SEC in conference revenue. The fear for the Big 12 is falling behind and dropping to No. 4, and eventually 5.
It’s also important to note (which Pollard all but confirmed in my interview) a CBS report that due to its current television contract, ESPN and FOX would owe the Big 12 up to $1 billion should it expand by four schools.
“There is uncertainty, not within the Big 12 but will the television partners negotiate with us or do we have to force them to negotiate with us by adding members? Because if we add members they contractually have to give us more money,” Pollard said. “And perhaps they will choose to give us a lot of money but not add members. There are a lot of things that could happen.”
The latter example is what happened during the last round of major realignment (following Missouri and Texas A&M’s departure to the SEC while TCU and West Virginia were added as replacements), when the television networks agreed to pay 10 Big 12 schools the same amount of money as the previous 12 schools, contingent on the league playing nine conference football games (which evened out television inventory).
Iowa State’s stance going forward seems fairly simple: Do whatever it takes to keep the Big 12 stable.
“If any institution would compel the current 10 members of the Big 12 to unanimously extend its grant of rights, then I would support that institution being a member of the Big 12,” Pollard said. “If they are not an institution that would compel everybody to extend their grant of rights, then Iowa State is not going to vote yes for that member.”
Pollard added, “We have great leadership and they will make the right decisions for the long-term interest of the Big 12. We, Iowa State, need the Big 12. Being in a power five conference, financially, is a make or break. If we weren’t in one, we aren’t anywhere near the athletics program that we are today.”