KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Leverage. In the conference expansion carousel, only a few key players have it.
The Big Ten, obviously. The SEC, no matter what the Big Ten does, is just beginning to reap the windfall from its new CBS-ESPN 15-year, $3 billion deal. The Pac-10 seems poised -- whether it expands or not -- for its own TV big payday sometime soon. It is far enough removed from the falling dominoes that it could be largely unaffected by a 16-team Big Ten.
Caught in the middle, literally, is the Big 12. With 16 percent of the nation's television sets in a narrow strip of the Great Plains from Iowa to Texas, the 15-year-old league has little of that leverage when it comes to expansion.
Just don't tell Dan Beebe. The conference's commissioner has made this week's Big 12 meetings a bit of a battleground. As those meetings begin Tuesday, the overriding message from the commish to all the members will be: You're either in or you're out.
What Beebe actually told a Kansas City radio station is something less juicy but got the point across: "I think we need to have a very frank conversation about where we're going and who's going to be on the plane when we take off."
It's likely that Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado officials will have no better idea about their futures than they did in December when this expansion madness started. There is no decision to make this week because the schools themselves don't know if an invitation is coming. For Nebraska and Missouri, that means the Big Ten. For Colorado, it's the Pac-10.
The original 12- to 18-month window for expansion exploration originally set forth by Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany is now down to seven to 13 months. The Pac-10, supposedly on a faster track, is still considering if it will expand at all. In these harried first few months, though, there has been zero tangible evidence that any Big 12 school would be invited anywhere. All we know for sure is that all three schools would be willing to explore new conference residency.
As for an ultimatum? If Beebe issues one by Friday when the meetings end, it is likely to be met with lots of shrugs of lots of shoulders.
"If I was president or chancellor I'd say the same thing they're saying right now," former Missouri curator Woody Cozad said. "We're in the Big 12 but we have a fiduciary obligation to the students and people of Missouri to do what is best for the university."
It's hard to commit to the Big 12 as long as the Big Ten is sniffing around. If the league called Missouri and/or Nebraska, it would be a game-changer in terms of academics and athletics. The schools' athletic revenue would at least double, possibly triple, in the long run. The Big 12 would either have to fill in with the likes of BYU, TCU and Utah or stand pat.
Those Mountain West teams would be a push for the Big 12, at best, compared to Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska. As long as the Big 12 retains Texas and Oklahoma, there is still a chance for a big payday when its Fox cable contract expires in 2012.
But, officially, no one from the Big Ten has called. For the moment, we're going to have to take Delany at his word. We might not know anything about his league's intentions for another year -- another reminder that the Big 12 is in no position to be dictating terms.
"I talked to a couple of curators who I know well enough to ask a question," Cozad said. "The minute I ask the [expansion] question they go from two old pals shooting the breeze [to] you hear the knob go, 'Click.'"
Cozad was a Missouri curator from 1991-97. The school's Big Ten leanings go back to at least the early 1990s when a group of influential businessmen (calling itself "Missouri -- A National Asset") believed Mizzou should be in the Big Ten. At that time Penn State had just been invited to make it an 11-team Big Ten.
"When the Big Ten took in Penn State, everyone assumed they're going to get another team and make it an even 12," said Cozad, now a state capital lobbyist in Jefferson City, Mo. "I was vocal as a person on the nine-member board [of curators]. The phone never rang."
The early '90s was a time when the old Big Eight was trying to decide its future. It eventually merged with leftovers from the Southwest Conference to form the Big 12. Now with financial forces seemingly causing more conference realignment, things have come to a head again here in Kansas City.
It is believed that the Big 12 would like to get an in-or-out decision by the beginning of the next academic year (August). The league will begin new TV negotiations next spring on what could be that lucrative new deal.
Beebe was heartened recently that the ACC reportedly more than doubled its annual revenue with a new ESPN deal. That Fox finished a close second in the ACC bidding indicates that the more-desirable Big 12 could be in for its own windfall. Beebe's problem remains telling those bidders who exactly is going to be in his league.
The Big 12's board of directors has few options if they want to apply pressure to The Undecided:
1. Change the revenue distribution plan: Missouri isn't the only conference school upset at the way revenue is divided. In the Big 12, half of the revenue is distributed evenly. The other half is distributed to according to television appearances.
Obviously, schools like Texas and Oklahoma make most of those appearances in football. The difference between the top (Texas, $10.2 million) and the bottom earners (Baylor, $7.1 million) in the league was $3.1 million in 2007, according to the Omaha World-Herald.
Missouri ($8.4 million) and Nebraska ($9.1 million) were in the middle of the pack.
Why it won't work: The conference basically exists because Texas and Oklahoma make the majority of those appearances. If the distribution plan hadn't been implemented, the Big 12 would not have come together. It's the price the rest of the league pays to have a place to play.
Beebe is basically on record as saying the distribution plan won't change. You can't change the rules in midstream when a school like Texas has done nothing but increase its earning power. Besides, any gain made by Missouri would be negligible. In fact, the issue is a bit of a red herring. Missouri wants into the Big Ten because of the windfall dollars and prestige. Mizzou should answer this: If the Big 12 changed its distribution plan and the school got an invite from the Big Ten, would it stay in the Big 12?
2. Increase the buyout for departing members: Currently, Big 12 schools must give two years' notice and forfeit 50 percent of their conference revenue if they intend to leave. There is a sliding scale that increases the buyout if schools leave within that two-year window.
The board could conceivably increase the buyout to, say, 75 percent and/or lengthen the notice period to three or more years.
Why it won't work: Mere buyout dollars aren't going to keep a school from departing if it is bent on leaving. WAC commissioner Karl Benson sought a five-year commitment from SMU, Rice and Tulsa in the mid-1990s. It didn't work, and the schools left shortly thereafter for Conference USA.
The WAC, near the bottom of the conference pecking order, has lost 13 member schools since 1999. No. 14 may be Boise State, which could receive an invitation to the Mountain West as soon as next week.
The Big Ten is at the top of that pecking order. It has added members twice in the past 60 years. For any school joining at this point, the financial implications already would have been considered.
Let's use Missouri as an example: This is just an estimate, but it could cost Mizzou at least $20 million to move to the Big Ten. Fifty percent of its Big 12 revenue over two years would amount to at least $7 million. Also assume a "buy-in" to the Big Ten that would perhaps double that total. (Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez has been quoted as saying there would be a buy-in.)
Missouri probably wouldn't get a full Big Ten share -- currently $22 million per year -- for a period of years, perhaps until a new TV deal could be negotiated to account for new members. The existing 11 members would split extra revenue until the new members were "vested." In that sense, the new members would essentially be paying expansion fees similar to new teams in professional leagues.
If $20 million sounds like a lot for an athletic department with a $57 million budget, it is. But consider how it could be "financed." The Big Ten could merely withhold an extra $1 million from Missouri's payout for the next 20 years.
3. Begin withholding conference revenue if schools don't declare their loyalty: If Beebe wants answers by August, it's looking more and more like there won't be any by then. Is it worth it -- or even fair -- to begin holding back revenue from members who don't know their future?
Why it won't work: Not only are Nebraska and Missouri in limbo, Colorado is likely to stay put. The Big 12 and Pac-10 are talking about a partnership that would stop short of a full merger. If that's the case, what difference would it make what conference Colorado plays in? Plus, there are rumblings that the CU athletic department is financially strapped and couldn't afford the Big 12 buyout.
4. If schools can't pledge their loyalty, kick them out: You guys don't know your status? Sayonara. The Big 12 will become the Decreased Dozen and get along without you.
Why it won't work: For the same reason the Big 12 wants Missouri and Nebraska to stay in. The Huskers are a name brand known throughout the country. They are one of the top 20 programs in the country. Think of the Pac-10 kicking out USC. Missouri? Those two markets in St. Louis and Kansas City are a big part of that 16 percent.
This is business, not personal. You don't wreck your model because you're angry.
"It's not very smart to put the laundry out there," said one conference official, reacting to Missouri's desire to go to the Big Ten, "Then the question is: What's the message going to be if you don't get in?"
Cozad has that message. Get over it.
"There will be ruffled feathers," he said. "There will be some jokes about us not going to the Big Ten. Then it will be business as usual and we'll go back to playing football."