In a year with near-daily headlines pertaining to the changing landscape of college athletics, the Big 12’s hunt for a new commissioner has flown under the radar.
Bob Bowlsby is set to step down as the commissioner of the league later this year and the person hired to fill those shoes will have a monumental task ahead in helping the league navigate this fast-changing industry.
Conferences are likely to receive even more autonomy as the NCAA works through its constitutional changes this summer. The addition of four new schools, and the departure of two others, still lingers on the horizon.
Oh, and the league is just a few years away from intensely diving into its media rights agreements set to expire in 2025.
The league’s future in the college athletics hierarchy hinges heavily on this hire — and that’s why it is something the league has no choice but to nail.
“There’s a wonderful opportunity for whoever comes in as our commissioner,” Iowa State Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard said on Monday ahead of the first stop on the 2022 Cyclone Tailgate Tour in Carroll. “It’s a critical hire for the Big 12. We have to on-board four, off-board two, and get a new television deal at a time when the waters are really choppy. Getting somebody hired sooner than later will be really important and getting the right person will be extremely critical.”
The possibility of conferences gaining even more power to govern themselves is a long time coming. The viability of an organization like the NCAA with hundreds upon hundreds of members, all of which are pulling in their own personal direction with drastically different missions, has been in the crosshairs for years.
That means an every-man-for-himself industry is going to become even more divided as the players involved try to position their league or school in the best spots to be successful in the long term.
Pollard seems understandably leery about this shift towards more power for the conferences and less overarching oversight for college athletics as a whole.
I can’t blame him for the leeriness considering there doesn’t seem to be much trust oozing from the college sports business these days.
“The devil is always in the details of how that plays out. That appears where it’s going, so you might as well start coming around to it, right? But, the verdict will still be out,” Pollard said. “You still have to manage it. Just because you have less, yes, we could sit here and say that that will be better, and I can I can understand that, but at the same time, less means there might be less checks and balances too. Be careful what you wish for, I guess is what I’m saying.”
This shift towards conferences holding the majority of their own rule-making power is likely to keep pushing individual conferences further and further apart from each other.
The Big Ten and SEC are poised to push their exposure — and revenue — even higher once these changes are made, and past events can leave fans confident neither of those leagues will do what’s best for the entire college sports landscape rather than further driving home their own agendas.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 will be continuing to fight a public perception battle that has left it with an appearance of being a weak league compared to others across the country.
“It’s a narrative that is out there, but we’ve created a narrative by having the inconsistencies of both our membership, and quite frankly, having a discontent — or at least perceived discontent, because they haven’t always been that way in the room, but the perception has been that Texas has never been happy in the Big 12, right? I’m not saying they’re not, just saying that was the perception,” Pollard said. “That has put us in that spot. So, yes, doesn’t feel like we’ve gotten our do. In the basketball tournament, the last four Final Fours, there’s been a Big 12 team in it. In the last three championship games, we’ve been in it. For the last two, we’ve been the champions. We had, over the last two years, the best winning percentage of any conference in bowl games. We set a record this year, men’s and women’s basketball both going 12-0 in the first two rounds of the tournament. So there’s been really great things that have happened. Texas won the Director’s Cup last year, and took it away from Stanford, but from top to bottom, you don’t get that same credit.”
Changing that perception is going to be one of the first major keys for whoever is hired as the Big 12’s next commissioner later this year. It must be someone willing to zig while others zag, embracing new ideas or avenues that the other leagues have not.
They also have to be the kind of strong leader who can prevent lingering eyes, not allowing schools to seek out new opportunities apart from the conference and keeping the unit strong.
The reality is the new Big 12’s biggest strength is likely to be some level of parity across the league where there is no traditional power that holds the majority of the chips at any bargaining table.
In order to be at its strongest, it needs to be the kind of league that buys into the strength of everyone over the few. It needs to be the league that tries to do the best things for college sports, and its membership as a whole, rather than looking to land the biggest paydays available to its largest brands with little regard for everyone else.
That will especially be the case once the league’s four new members — Cincinnati, BYU, Houston and UCF — take their seats at college athletics’ biggest table next year for the first time.
“I think what’s been the most refreshing part is it’s four members and fan bases that are really excited about coming to the Big 12,” Pollard said when asked about the new members. “For the majority of my time, it’s always been about what’s wrong with the Big 12 or who’s leaving the Big 12. It’s really refreshing that four schools are just really excited to be here. Secondly, I think if you look at those four schools, their profiles, at least more recent in football and basketball have been very, very competitive nationally. Three, they’re all big, robust schools in new parts of the country that I believe will add some additional excitement to our conference.”
While all four of the new additions have had their fair share of success on the gridiron, perhaps the best way for the Big 12 to carve out its niche in this new-look college athletics landscape will be leaning heavily into something outside of football.
Don’t get me wrong, football is — and always will be — king in this country, but, remember what I said about zigging while others zag?
The Big 12 is already the best basketball league in the country. The numbers — and the league’s success in the NCAA Tournament on both the men’s and women’s sides — speak for themselves.
The league is only getting stronger on the hardwood with its four additions even despite the looming loss of Texas and Oklahoma.
This might be the league that is best set by selling itself as the most powerful basketball conference in the land while also being one of the country’s most balanced football leagues.
Does that allow you to keep pace with the Big Ten and SEC? Probably not, but the league likely isn’t going to do that anyway, so why not try to angle its way into being the third-best option that is different from the first two in the things it embraces?
“(The league’s basketball strength is) not even arguable,” Pollard said. “I’m on the (NCAA Tournament Selection Committee). It’s not even an argument that with all metrics the current Big 12 basketball league is 30 places higher than any other conference, and we’re adding four members, three of which have been really, really good, and Central Florida had the run there a couple of years ago. So yes, basketball league is gonna get a lot better.”
The person who ends up in that Big 12 commissioner’s chair is going to have a unique opportunity to go against the grain of the rest of college athletics.
They’d be smart to start their work atop the league by figuring out the way to make its best in the country basketball product as lucrative as possible. The league’s strength is on the hardwood, and it would be smart to find media rights partners who will value that product nearly as much as — or more than — any of the league’s other inventory.
Football is always going to be the king in college athletics, but it would be difficult to deny the winter months’ strongest league a spot at any college athletics head table.
The Big 12 has been made to look weak by going with the college athletics flow. That must change as the league looks toward its future, and it can be started by leaning into its biggest strength, but that will require an innovative leader who isn’t afraid to upset the apple cart a little bit.
“Football is the engine that pulls the train,” Pollard said. “But, I think there’s a great opportunity for the Big 12 from a brand standpoint to have basketball be at the highest level and still be very competitive in football. That’s something I think the new commissioner is going to have to really try to help develop that brand as we move forward.”
Whoever ends up filling that commissioner’s chair is going to have a tall task ahead, but they’ll be lucky to walk into a position with the flexibility to try new things.
The Big 12 needs to lean into being different from all those other leagues, and that starts with nailing the hire of its next commissioner.
The health of the best basketball league in America depends on it.