Why KU is in better shape during this round of conference realignment than in years past
Conference realignment has once again reared its ugly and oh-so-lucrative head, but this time the University of Kansas appears to be in better shape than in the past.
That’s not to say there won’t be some restless nights or uneasy times, but thanks to the recent move that triggered this round — UCLA and USC going to the Big Ten of all places — both KU and the Big 12 seem to be on much more solid ground than they were during the chaos of previous rounds of realignment.
As things look today, KU’s two most likely options in the forthcoming Power 2 era of college athletics are, in no particular order, to stay in a suddenly-strengthened Big 12 Conference or become one of the last schools snatched up by the Big Ten.
There are legitimate reasons why each outcome is the more likely outcome for the Jayhawks, and KU still has plenty of work to do to get its house in order (yes, we're talking facilities and football stadium here) to continue to be a strong and attractive partner. But if that’s where KU lands when all of this is finished — if it ever is — then either option winds up being a win.
There’s no disputing that landing in the mega-millions world of the Big Ten is the better option financially. The schools that wind up there or in the SEC — be it with 16 in each conference or as many as 20 or 24 — will essentially be holding a lottery ticket that likely will be worth billions of dollars over the next couple of decades and worth even more in terms of stability.
Those two conferences are where everyone wants to be, and that’s why this thing is only going to get crazier.
But if Kansas stays in the Big 12, and if the Big 12 acts quickly and boldly to expand its membership with the best of the rest in the Pac-12, KU’s current conference suddenly winds up as the clear third-best option. And it’s probably not even close.
The ACC and Pac-12 fall way behind — if they don’t disappear altogether — and being in that third slot with the kind of guaranteed TV money that’s in the ballpark of at least what they’re used to bringing in today is a heck of a lot better than watching those dollars disappear and trying to figure out how to run your athletic department without them.
KU’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2023 is $110 million. Without the $40.6 million haul from the conference’s television rights deals, which is already 17% higher than the Pac-12’s and nearly 20% higher than the ACC’s, you’re looking a mid-major budget in a hurry.
The key to the Big 12 solidifying that No. 3 spot — for both financial gain and continued prime time exposure —is for the conference to act quickly and decisively.
Reports have surfaced that tie Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah to the Big 12. One such report, from Jason Scheer, who covers Arizona for the 247 Sports network, even indicated that that foursome would be meeting with Big 12 officials on Tuesday for “significant discussions.”
That’s acting fast. And smart. And if history has taught us anything with realignment, it’s that these types of conversations can turn into action quickly. The Big 12 moving to add those four programs not only would bolster the conference’s cache, but it also could be a final blow to the Pac-12. And getting rid of the Pac-12 on the power grid eliminates at least one conference from the competition of ESPN's and FOX's football television dollars.
Think of it this way: The Pac-12 just watched USC and UCLA do the equivalent of what Oklahoma and Texas did to the Big 12 just one year ago, but was left without the same kind of nationwide appeal to pick up the pieces and move forward. Pac-12 officials are no doubt looking at all of their options. But, at least as of today, those options appear to be both severely limited and lacking juice.
As for the Big Ten angle here, that conference appears to be locked in on seeing what Notre Dame will do before it makes any other moves.
Who knows when that will come? But it seems as if this latest round of realignment, for better or worse, will force Notre Dame into some kind of long-term and complete conference commitment if for no other reason than the fear of being left out because of its stubborn pride.
The fact remains that if the Big Ten ever decides to extend an invitation to KU, the powers that be at Kansas have to accept it and never look back. The money and stability the Big Ten can offer is just too great to turn down.
However, while many Jayhawks are still holding out hope that a Big Ten invitation is still on the horizon, those same people should be celebrating and supporting whatever moves the Big 12 makes in the meantime because a strong Big 12 merely strengthens KU's chances at survival.
None of this is fun. It all further contributes to the deterioration of college athletics as we once knew it and that’s a drag.
But this is no time for nostalgia or burying one’s head in the stand. This is a time to seek survival, and, as strange as it may seem, the tables finally appear to have turned in the Big 12’s favor — and therefore KU’s, as well — in that department.
Wild times get wilder.