What I know, and think, about Gonzaga and the Big 12
Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.
On Wednesday afternoon, Pete Thamel of ESPN dropped a bombshell. Gonzaga and the Big 12 are discussing the Zags potentially joining the Big 12, with the talks advanced enough that Gonzaga's AD physically met with Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark. Multiple writers at The Athletic confirmed the report, with Dana O'Neil calling the meetings 'real, but exploratory', while adding that Gonzaga has also spoken to the Pac-12 and the Big East.
I've spent the last day on the phone, trying to better understand the whats, whys and whats next with a potentially seismic move. After talking to a few ADs, media consultants, here's what I know, what I think, and what I am trying to better understand:
What would this partnership mean from a competitive standpoint?
The Big 12 is arguably the strongest and deepest men's basketball conference in the country right now, (every single current and future Big 12 member is in the KenPom Top 100). With Gonzaga, it becomes inarguable. The top four KenPom teams in the country last season would then all be in the Big 12, and the league would very credibly claim at least five programs that could potentially compete for a Final Four on a regular basis. Every single conference game would be highly compelling.
But Gonzaga is no slouch at other sports. Gonzaga women's basketball has been an NCAA Tournament mainstay over the last decade (seven bids since 2012), with two Sweet Sixteen appearances. Gonzaga's baseball team made the tournament last season and has regularly won 30+ games. They've been consistently competitive in women's soccer as well. This is a strong athletic department across the board.
The Zags, of course, do not sponsor football.
What would this mean from a television rights standpoint?
After talking with multiple professionals who help schools with media rights valuations...the answer I got was "that's complicated."
Adding Gonzaga to the Big 12 makes the league a truly national conference, and gives them access to additional broadcast windows thanks to their presence in the Pacific Time Zone, albeit a window that is less valuable than a late-night college football broadcast window. Because the Zags have been such a consistently elite program, industry experts told me their brand appeal extends beyond their market (small) and enrollment/alumni base (also small). College basketball fans across the country are likely to watch a January game between Gonzaga and Kansas.
But how much TV money we're talking about is less clear. The overwhelmingly majority of the valuation of the Big 12's media rights deal stems from football inventory, not basketball, which Gonzaga can't help with. While the Big 12's new media deal does reportedly have a pro rata clause, other reports have said that the clause only applies to P5 institutions.
The consensus opinion of the people I have spoken to is that they do not see a pathway, based on information available, for Gonzaga to bring boatloads more broadcast television revenue to a Big 12 partnership, although surely even a limited share of money would be an increase from what the school currently gets from the WCC. This would not be a move that would give every Big 12 school an extra eight million dollars every year, I'm told.
What about other forms of revenue? What about potential costs?
The most obvious cost comes from travel. Gonzaga is really far away from everybody else in the Big 12. The closest school, BYU, is about 750 miles away. UCF is nearly 2,800 miles away...roughly the distance from Gonzaga to Russia.
Of course, pure miles aren't the only consideration here. Spokane isn't a major airport hub and doesn't appear to fly direct to most Big 12 markets. And even if everybody decides to take on the significant expense to charter all flights (unlikely for non-basketball sports), Gonzaga will be flying out of their time zone for every single conference game. Jet lag is real, and athletes believe it impacts their performance. Travel is unquestionably a significant concern for anybody concerned about athlete welfare.
A few sources also pointed out that making the Big 12 even tougher could be a net negative for some basketball programs. A program like UCF, who will face an uphill climb to make the NCAA Tournament, would now have to fly across the country once a year and have an even harder time of making the tournament, all without adding big numbers to their TV check. In private, perhaps not everybody would love that.
It's also important to talk about revenue beyond just broadcast revenue. While it's unknown exactly how NCAA Tournament expansion or Transformation Committee Reform might change the process, conferences currently earn lucrative NCAA Tournament Unit payouts for performing well in the men's basketball tournament. Over a six-year payout, the Big 12 already clears more than $30 million in unit payouts, and adding another team that expects to make the second weekend only makes those units more lucrative for the league.
Another consultant pointed out that the Big 12 is also aggressively looking to increase revenue from marketing and sponsorships, and that a deeper, more competitive conference could potentially make their sponsorship campaigns more lucrative. "If I can call up Pepsi or State Farm or something and say that I'm going to get 10 teams in the NCAA Tournament, have X number of draft picks, play in X number of huge games, that might make my inventory package more attractive", one told me. 300% more attractive? No, but every single dime and quarter adds up.
Okay, but how serious are these talks? Is this really going to happen? And why are we hearing about it now?
Let's tackle that last question first.
When conference realignment rumors or news drops, I think readers would do well to consider a) where that information likely came from and b) who benefits by that information becoming public.
Sometimes, information really does get out despite all involved parties wanting things to remain secret. But other times, an administrator, consultant, media executive, etc, will leak something. Maybe they want to help shape the narrative before other news drops. Maybe that want to try and mess with a competitor. Perhaps they want to apply pressure on other schools via the media. Maybe they want to drum up business for their consulting firm or clients.
As of right this second, I don't know the answer to those questions right now. I would not be surprised if the timing and framing of these meetings was, in part, to apply pressure or shift focus away from the Pac-12 or Big East, or to create #buzz.
And I say this not to imply nefarious intent. That's just the game, and that's coming from somebody who participates in this world too. Not everybody who decides to talk to me on the phone is doing so because they just passionately believe in supporting independent media or because they think I'm funny. Something for a reader to consider.
For what it's worth, based on the best info I have and from what I have read, I do not think Gonzaga to the Big 12 is imminent. It could happen. But schools, even sometimes with their ADs, do have conversations with leagues about potential media rights valuations, department benchmarking etc that do not lead to immediate membership invitations. Like this one, for example.
So what happens if Gonzaga DOES go to the Big 12...or some other conference?
I actually talked to WCC Commissioner Gloria Nevarez a few weeks ago about the league's philosophy with conference realignment, the Transformation Committee, etc. I reached out to her again last night for comment about the recent reports, but she declined.
Perhaps the most interesting part of that conversation was the fact that Nevarez admitted that the WCC would theoretically be open to adding a public school, provided the school was a good fit philosophically and competitively. The WCC is unique among leagues in that the schools share a institutional profile. They're all Christian private schools on the West Coast. They don't sponsor football, they're academically selective, and (mostly) have similar budgets and philosophies.
There aren't many of those schools in the west...Seattle, Denver, Cal Baptist, Grand Canyon...and that's about it. Industry sources familiar with the league have told me that the WCC has had early conversations with some of those schools. Depending on what happens with the Pac-12, Mountain West or WAC, potentially other options could become available, which is partly why the WCC hasn't already expanded.
The other Most Eligible Bachelor type institution in the West is San Diego State. It's not exactly a state secret in the industry that the Aztecs would like to be in either the Pac-12 or the Big 12. John Canzano reported yesterday that SDSU has talked with the Pac-12, and has retained the services of a consulting company to assist them with, among other things, realignment options. I'm told that Boise State has also sought assistance from similar companies.
There aren't many D1 schools out west, and with the WCC, MWC, WAC, and maybe others all facing potential realignment dominos, it's not hard to see a cascading impact that touches nearly every league west of the Mississippi. Some combination of SDSU/Boise/Fresno/UNLV leaving the MWC for the Pac-12 or Big 12 might not necessarily be a cataclysmic event at the FBS level, but it would be felt very significantly from FCS to 1-AAA.
I don't think any of that is about to happen right this second, although I realize by typing this I am tempting fate and/or Bret Yormark. If and when I learn and read more, I'll be sure to share it here.
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Real quick, here's what else we published this week:
- Our last Going For Two went long on the significant differences between NIL collectives...in not just their sophistication and fundraising ability, but in who practically controls that money. Those differences are going to be important in markets with uh, very active booster communities. Like Auburn.
- I shared a few updates on I've learned about helmet stickers in EA Sports College Football, what licensing professionals are telling me about college sports video games, and why I really do not believe EA Sports College Football will be a pure Madden Reskin.
- I shared a few early takeaways on the reported Big 12 media contract....which I believe is a nice win for the league, albeit not a transformational one.
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To sponsor a future Extra Points newsletter, please email [email protected] For article ideas, newsletter feedback, FOIA tips, athlete NIL sponsorships and more, I'm at [email protected], or @MattBrownEP on Twitter, and @ExtraPointsMB on Instagram.