Big 12 Expansion: Why Texas Is Unlikely To Be Interested

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 15: University of Texas at Austin Men's Athletics Director DeLoss Dodds, right, University President William Powers Jr., center, and Women's Athletics Director Chris Plonskon announce the athletics programs will continue competing in the Big 12 Conference June 15, 2010 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Erich Schlegel/Getty Images)

I don't have time to put together an organized essay at the moment, but with expansion fever heating up once again, I do want to weigh in with a few thoughts on all this from the Texas perspective. I'm particularly interested in weighing in as a proponent of evaluating conference realignment -- broadly speaking -- as live action game theory, and within that context, trying to consider how Texas might be thinking about all this.

* First of all, Texas fans shouldn't lose sight of that: the Texas perspective. Back when all this stuff started -- when everyone was speculating whether UT would join the Big Ten or Pac-10 -- I predicted that we would stand pat and try to figure out a workable solution with the Big 12. Then, as now, it was easy for people to evaluate the situation solely in terms of the potential value of various plausible moves. (E.g.: Would there be value in making Move X or Move Y, where said move involved an expansionary play.) But then, also as now, the key was to stay focused on Texas' position, and think hard about its long-term positioning.

* With that in mind, a lot of the focus at present seems to be on the broad questions of, first, whether Florida State and Clemson (and Notre Dame, if you're inclined to indulge that fantasy) are valuable properties, and second, whether those schools stand to gain by joining the Big 12. Those are legitimate questions, but they are not -- I would suggest -- the questions that Texas will be asking.

* To the extent one understands Texas to be uniquely positioned in all this, the operative questions are quite different. Instead, the primary question is whether expansion strengthens our long-term position, in ways compatible with our revenue model. After the last round of realignment, there shouldn't be any doubt about our long-term plan, and it isn't a race to build the biggest, bestest super-conference. Texas wants a solid, stable, beneficial partnership that allows it to capitalize on its opportunities as the biggest, bestest brand. (Hello, Longhorn Network.) In other words, Texas isn't betting its stakes on being a big fish in the biggest pond; it's betting its stakes on being the biggest individual fish it can possibly be. And that's a crucial point to keep in mind when evaluating whether Big 12 expansion is something Texas is likely to embrace.

* Against that backdrop, let's get the Notre Dame issue out of the way. I'll offer two thoughts on the matter: First, I'd be more shocked if Notre Dame joined the Big 12 as a full-fledged member in football than I would be if Texas joined the SEC. Barring a relatively unlikely string of falling dominos, it's not going to happen. Second, that said: in the unlikely event that Notre Dame were in play, that would insert a huge new variable into the equation for Texas -- one which would impact the evaluation on the prudence of taking on Florida State and Clemson (and/or others).

* Assuming, however, that Notre Dame is not going to join the BIg 12 for football -- and it's not -- then Texas fans need to focus a lot more on Deloss Dodds' recent comments hinting at reasons why expansion might not be particularly appealing to us right now. First of all, Texas and Oklahoma are extremely well-positioned to compete for national championships in the current structure. That could change, and as always, the actions of others could redefine the options for Texas, but at least for now, and certainly as we might like them to be, the status quo is very, very friendly to Texas. Second, and relatedly, and bringing this back to an earlier point: expansion isn't necessarily optimally compatible with our revenue model. Yes, other schools could bring more eyeballs (and other things) to the Big 12, but remember, Texas' actions have made clear that its intentions are not to be a strong player in the strongest alliance. We've had numerous opportunities to pursue that strategy, and have not -- for good reasons. And for those same reasons, the present calculus is not as simple as whether any given pair of other schools are valuable. They might well be, but that's not the evaluation for Texas.

* Unsaid by Dodds, but important to think about, are the dominos that might fall after the Big 12 makes any significant move. It's not as simple as evaluating the decision in a vacuum; Big 12 expansion could very well cause others to act. Which means Texas must also be concerned with whether those actions would serve or hinder its interests. I would argue that Texas does not at all want the chain reaction to end with a system of four 16-team superconferences, and to the extent that's correct, UT is going to be highly reticent to make a move that could set off such a chain reaction.

* Finally, one key word to keep in mind: leverage. Action -- or perhaps more accurately, perceived action -- can and does provide meaningful benefits to well-positioned players in the game. Or put another way, the availability of options to a given participant in the game drives up its value, thus creating in some circumstances an incentive to create smoke -- or at the least, to welcome it when it shows up. To return to the previous point, that can be a delicate dance where setting off a chain reaction is likely to work disadvantageously to one's position, but to the extent that one can welcome (and perhaps even encourage) smoke without sparking an actual fire, it can be beneficial to do so. Thinking about it that way: the recent smoke reinforces the strength and viability of the Big 12; the commanding position of Texas; and the unique, potentially game-changing position of Notre Dame. Which is to say: even if neither Texas nor Notre Dame has any intention of pursuing a path involving the Irish joining the Big 12 as a full-fledge member for football, there may well be good reasons to embrace its viability as a potential option.

CONCLUSION

Add it all up, and -- at least in my reading of things -- the key thing for Longhorns fans to keep in mind is that Texas, by its actions, appears to have taken a contrary position to expansion. Think, first, about what we did in the last round of realignment. And then think, also, about what that suggests about UT's long-term outlook. I may be wrong, but when I look at what we know both about Texas' evaluations and the current trends in media consumption, I see Texas as (correctly) having identified the current model as something that is soon to be outdated.

Just like with every other media product, there are good reasons to believe that fans will (continue to) increasingly insist on consuming college football content according to their tastes. Although that question may be debatable, it's hard to deny that Texas appears to have bet long on that position... and when evaluating what UT might desire in terms of conference expansion, that is the necessary and proper lens through which the proposition must be evaluated. At least for Texas, the question is not whether the Big 12 is stronger with Florida State and Clemson (or whomever, Notre Dame excepted), but whether expanding the conference to add them (or whomever) adds value to the future model on which Texas has gone all-in.

I will gladly concede that there are circumstances that could dramatically change the equation for Texas. For example, if Notre Dame were in play for football, that would provide a good reason to look hard and long at whether expansion could be the right move -- even in the new paradigm. Likewise, the actions by other conferences could force Texas into action.

But in the status quo, and to the extent none of those hand-forcing circumstances unfolds, I'm a lot less inclined to see why Texas would be eager to expand the Big 12. I can understand why Florida State would want to leave the ACC. I can also understand why Florida State would, in some very important ways, make the Big 12 stronger. But when I focus singularly on Texas -- its position, its interests, its long-term bets... I find myself back where I was in the last round of realignment: unconvinced that Texas would, or should be, interested in making such a move.

Texas is exceptionally well-positioned in the status quo. Other conferences might make moves that catalyze a chain of falling dominos... but I continue to have serious doubts that Texas wants to do anything that could set such a reaction in motion.

Same as last time: my gut feeling at this time is that Texas is in no hurry to disrupt the status quo, and that while it is taking prudent actions to position itself for super-conference armageddon, and happy to play the game to its best advantage, to the extent it can preserve the status quo -- and more importantly, the value of its long position -- it will.

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