The Big 12 will expand sooner rather than later.
Last September, BYU, Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston were admitted to the Big 12 Conference and slated to be members by the 2024-25 athletic year. BYU, an independent in football, then announced it would join the conference in 2023, while the rest were still bound to the American Athletic Conference.
But on June 10, the Big 12 revealed that all four newcomers will be joining for the 2023-2024 athletic season. After much speculation, the incoming AAC universities will depart a year early. For schools like Cincinnati, the idea was to strike while the iron is hot.
“I feel like it was the completion of a very special year for the Bearcats,” said Cincinnati athletic director John Cunningham at a press conference last Monday. “Everything we went through and all the things we were able to accomplish, it made a lot of sense for us to move into the Big 12 in 2023. I'm thankful we were able to get that done, and it's going to move our program forward, and it's really important.”
The AAC requires a 27-month notice and $10 million fee to exit the conference, so the expedited departure required extra negotiation. Former AAC member Connecticut left in 2019 and was required to pay $17 million to get out of its contract.
The agreement reached, which allows the three universities to join the conference effective July 1, 2023, orders for a payment of $18 million per school spread over a 14-year period, according to The Cincinnati Enquirer, which gives them flexibility and eases the hefty payments. Comparatively, BYU will pay only $500,000 to exit from West Coast Conference affiliations, of which it is only a member in non-football sports. An entry fee into the Big 12 of $2.5 million is also in place for all schools.
Regardless of fees, the propositions involved with joining the Power Five conference as soon as possible were too enticing to pass up. Especially propositions financial in nature.
“I won’t talk specific numbers right now, but it will be significant,” Cunningham said. “More than two times what we were making in the American Conference, in terms of television and media rights.”
But UCF athletic director Terry Mohajir did talk specific media rights numbers the day of the announcement, and those numbers back up Cunningham. Mohajir said his university will now make around $18 million in 2023 and $19 million in 2024. Whereas in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, UCF received only $7.96 million in annual revenue payout from the AAC, Cincinnati earned $9.44 million, Houston raked in $8.52 million.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 dispersed approximately $35 million to each of its members during that time, and that number increased to over $42 million for the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Cincinnati, Houston and UCF will not earn full revenue until new TV and media rights are negotiated in 2025, but the near $20 million payout in the meantime represents enormous growth.
Mohajir is no stranger to conference realignment. He was assistant offensive line coach at Kansas from 1993-1996 when the Big 8 became the Big 12, and he was the senior associate director of athletics at KU from 2011-2012 when Texas A&M and Missouri departed the league and TCU and West Virginia joined.
He knows the extra year between Big 12 entrance and the media rights contract in 2025 gives UCF more time to build a reputation and prove its worth before the brokering begins.
“It could really be a game changer for us,” Mohajir said. “We have to do our part with the league, we have to continue to be competitive, we’ve got to continue to grow our emerging brand nationally… and I think when you do all that, I think that’s when the broadcast companies will come back saying, ‘We’ve got to have this, this is a major brand, they’ve got a lot of eyeballs, this can create a lot of value for our property.’”
Money aside, the move immediately puts the incomers in a better position to compete nationally. All four have had national success – Cincinnati’s College Football Playoff appearance last year, BYU’s 1984 football national title, Houston’s 2021 men’s basketball Final Four, UCF’s 2017 undefeated football season.
But their Group of Five conference competition has limited their postseason potential. Cincinnati and UCF have seen that in recent CFP discussions. The Big 12 offers an exciting step up in scheduling, which BYU is already looking forward to, and it’s another reason why it was the first to make the early jump.
“I don’t get into the intricacies of the matchups (in the new Big 12),” BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe said in January. “But that’s what I want them (BYU’s coaches) to do.”
BYU’s conference independence in football has been a struggle at times. Last season, the Cougars’ strength of schedule ranked 70th, according to ESPN, making a case for national relevancy difficult. The Big 12 offers assistance to the solidify a schedule, as all current members ranked in the top 40 of SOS, and six made the top 30.
The same goes for the other institutions. UCF’s SOS rank was 75th. For Houston, 78th. Cincinnati was most impressive at 54th, but their schedule included a non-conference road game at Notre Dame. The earlier the jump to a major conference, the better for competition level and brand pertinence.
“This emerging brand we have here will be a national brand,” Mohajir said. “We’ve just got to get people in the Big 12 to start calling us UCF and not Central Florida… We’ll get that. They’ll be calling us UCF, everybody will across the country.”
Even since announcement of the move, the new schools have seen change. Cincinnati is currently ranked seventh nationally in the 2023 football recruiting class rankings, according to 247Sports, with three four-star recruits and its highest-rated class since records began.
Sure, it helps the Bearcats are coming off a run to the CFP, but Cincinnati hasn’t ever had a top-40 recruiting class. And though it’s early, the sample size is significant; UC also has 16 three-stars. Cunningham says their Big 12 status is the factor.
“I think absolutely, when you talk to our coaches, they’re in on recruits that they’ve never been in on before,” he said. “And certainly, the level of recruit is rising across every one of our sports.”
Holmoe concurs. The transition has leveled BYU’s playing field with schools at the top of college athletics.
“There’s no question, the recruiting is totally different. I think our recruits understand that,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any question that we lost recruits in the past because we weren’t a member of a Power Five conference, and some of those recruits had offers to play in a P5 conference. Now that can’t be the argument.”
Money and platforms are more important than ever, and the accelerated entrance into the Big 12 quickly stabilizes the four programs in a volatile world of collegiate athletics. The quicker a rise in profile, the better.
“I think we’re ready. I think this year gave us a sense of what that’s going to be,” Cunningham said. “… I think we’ve got a sense of it, we drove the brand this year in a really special way, and then as we go into the Big 12 it will just be enhanced. So, we’re ready.”