Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is no stranger to change. It was on his doorstep when he assumed his post in 2012, in the midst of a realignment that saw the conference shrink to 10 teams. Now, change is upon him again as the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma—the pulse of the Big 12—are cutting ties with the conference.
Last week, Bowlsby was the keynote speaker at the YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas Key Leaders luncheon, where he spoke about the impact the Y had on him as a youngster, leadership in today’s world, which college sporting event he enjoys the most (Division I Wrestling Championships, he said), and more.
After the luncheon, I caught up with him to discuss all things Big 12, from the Longhorns and Sooners to the future of the conference, the College Football Playoff, media deals, and more. This recap of our conversation has been edited for clarity.
These last several months have been a whirlwind. Be honest with me—how are you really doing? Any fatigue setting in?
I’m a little crisp around the edges. But, you know, nobody should feel sorry for me. I’m very well-compensated. We don’t get to choose our controversies in life, and sometimes, things come along down the turnpike that you weren’t expecting. But between a long run with COVID-19 and [the Texas and Oklahoma departure] on the heels of it, I admit to being a little crisper around the edges than before.
It was a Wednesday morning, around 10:30 a.m., when the news leaked that Texas and Oklahoma were toying with the idea of leaving the Big 12 and entering the SEC. When you heard the news, what were you doing? What were you thinking in that moment?
I was just landing back in Dallas from a campus event at Kansas with Coach [Bill] Self. When we hit the ground and found out that the rumor was there about OU and Texas, at the same time, we were also relayed the news that Coach Self had tested positive for COVID. So, we were hit with the double whammy of having to manage two completely different pieces of news with equal amount of disarray.
As I got off the plane, the first thing I did was call the athletic directors and presidents at UT and OU, then I called [SEC commissioner] Greg Sankey to try and find out what in the world is going on. It took much longer than I would’ve wanted to get ahold of them. I kept getting their voicemails.
It was during the course of the next couple of days [that] we finally talked and got a little more understanding of whether or not this news was going to actually move forward. At this point, both parties were pretty noncommittal. No decisions had been made. But I felt [in these conversations], the SEC probably already had them.
It was a few days later they officially applied after the SEC opened their arms with the vote. And so, as they say, the rest is history.
But, as all parties know, we still have four years to play out, here. I’m not worried [about them leaving early], though. I have strong documents that say they will stay till June 30, 2025. The two schools have agreed they will stay till 2025, and I am going to take them at their word.
This isn’t the first time the Big 12 has dealt with a realignment. Obviously, we have the Southwest Conference transition, and when you were hired in 2012, the Big 12 was in the midst of losing Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas A&M before gaining West Virginia and TCU. When you were hired, folks thought the Big 12 was crumbling. It obviously didn’t. This time, it’s different; is it collapsing?
I haven’t ever felt that between the time the news broke and now, but I do think from time to time, our staff who was a part of that last process has feelings of deja vu. But I haven’t.
I think it’s a fair question to ask about stability. I think, for the most part, we worked through the last decade in successful ways, in supportive ways, but this happening now, we were very surprised. There’s no doubt about that. I don’t think I would be human if I didn’t feel some sense of betrayal. But I’m trying to separate the personal from the professional.
You went out and got three of the top AAC schools in Houston, UCF, and Cincinnati, as well as BYU. What do they bring to the table for the Big 12?
Well, you can’t replace the bell-cow programs, the national brands that are OU and Texas. We couldn’t have that aspiration because we could’ve brought in Alabama and Ohio State, and it wouldn’t raise the bar from a brand and media standpoint in comparison to OU and Texas’ impact.
But I think that we went after the four best institutions we could get. They’re all competing at a high level. They all have very high top-ends. They are in terrific recruiting areas—not so with BYU, but BYU is habitually in the top 25 and certainly has a national and even international recruiting environment. So, I just think we did the very best we could.
I also think it gives us some opportunity for growth. We’re in three time zones now. We finally got travel partners for West Virginia, in Cincinnati and UCF. Houston is in the best recruiting area in the country for football talent. Florida’s not far behind, and Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey are really good, as well.
The four schools we brought in along with the continuing eight were in the top 25 for 68 weeks last year, including 24 weeks in the top 10. It’s not like that group is not competing at a high level, and I think the opportunity for growth is certainly there.
Let’s talk big picture. What is college football going to look like in five to 10 years?
“I don’t think I would be human if I didn’t feel some sense of betrayal. But I’m trying to separate the personal from the professional.”
Well, college football is driving a lot of the decisions for universities because football, for most institutions and conferences, drives about 80 percent of the value through ticket sales, bowl arrangements, the College Football Playoff, and media contracts. So, keep that in mind with changes to college sports.
I think we’ll probably eventually have some congressional intervention on certain aspects of athletics. I think it’s possible we might get to a point where we’ll look at it and say, a larger association, something like the College Football Association of years ago makes sense as a governing body.
I could see a day when conferences are less critical, and we end up with a group of 48 schools that are all in an alliance together and playing each other all the time. That is a little bit of what was trying to be accomplished between the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, although time will tell whether or not that alliance is actually impactful.
The college athletic environment has been very resilient over a long period of time. There are changes that take place, and one of the biggest is NIL, which came on July 1, and people were immediately shaking their fists. But in the end, the roof hasn’t caved in. The sky hasn’t fallen. There are a few kids making a lot of money, and I’m interested to see if companies are going to continue to invest in 17-year-olds and trust spending millions that way. There are 550,000 athletes in college competing right now, and some of them are engaged in a big way. Some of them are not engaged at all. And I think that’s going to continue to be the environment there.
As far as other changes coming, I think it’s inevitable that the College Football Playoff will grow. I happen to think a 12-team playoff is a good thing and will be great for the regular season intrigue. I think with six weeks to go in the season; there’ll be 40 teams that have a legitimate claim to being in the playoff. With three weeks left, there will be 25 teams that have a legitimate dog in the race. I think that intrigue is good for TV. I think it’s good for the energy of the postseason and keeping energy high through the full season.
Speaking of television intrigue, when I’m relaxing and flipping through the channels on any given day, one channel I skip over is the Longhorn Network. I don’t have any animosity toward Texas, but I will never watch that channel. When are we getting a Big 12 Network?
The demographics of a Big 12 Network just are not very good. We have 35 million people in our footprint, across five states, and 27 million of those are in Texas. The numerical aspects of the network, the financials, what the accounting is, it would be a struggling network. As an example, the ACC has 91 million households up and down the East Coast. The Big 12 is a third of that size, and that makes it hard for us to have a network.
We do stream content on ESPN+, and I think that gamble is far more valuable in this age of streaming. Clearly, cable is shrinking, but having said that, broadcast TV is not going away. I know exactly what it takes, and the difficulties that come along with filling 8,500 hours a year of linear television. The ACC had to sell their soul to get the ACC Network, even with superior demographics to ours. But, hey, they took a 2 percent escalator on their distributable revenue through 2036 in order to get that network.
The SEC Network is smaller today than it was two years ago. The Longhorn Network only has about five or six million paying customers. I think we’re on the right side of technology with our streaming options, and we’re well-positioned to see how technology evolves moving forward. But going back to a linear cable network is not in the future for the Big 12.
Your headquarters are here in North Texas, and SMU is right here in Dallas. Is SMU ringing your phone, wanting in on the Big 12 party?
That’s a good question. I’ve had a lot of conversations with President [Gerald] Turner and with [athletic director] Rick Hart. I’ve known them both for a long time. I have great respect for them. But we went after the best athletes we could find, and it was the four we got. They were the ones that bring the highest top-end and the most value. But I have great respect for SMU.
Other schools I respect that we heard from include Memphis—they were very interested. Boise State raised their hand. Some others in the West wanted in. And just because we didn’t take them now, that doesn’t mean we are no longer considering growth. It isn’t just about taking in new members just to have more pie. There’s going to have to be good strategic reasons for getting larger.
It can’t just be about liking the school’s leadership or liking the location. There has to be more to it than that. So, I wouldn’t foreclose on additional expansion. But for us, right now, our indication is in the marketplace. That bigger is better.
How will these schools make the Big 12 bigger and better? Every conference has its dominant brand. The Big Ten has Ohio State, SEC has Alabama, the ACC has Clemson, and the Pac 12, although less of a competitor lately, still has USC. The Big 12’s blue bloods will soon be gone.
“I think it’s inevitable that the College Football Playoff will grow. I happen to think a 12-team playoff is a good thing and will be great for the regular season intrigue.”
Well, we’ve seen a lot of our schools have a lot of success. I think that is one of the strengths we have. Iowa State, last year, was a great football story. They were in our championship game, and they got a big win in a bowl game and finished in the top 10. Some of our new members certainly are going to be in that hunt every year, as well.
Kansas State has been ranked in the top five in the last 10 years. Baylor has had great success in the last 10 years. Texas Tech has obviously had a rich history with football. Even Kansas, who is near the bottom of the league this year, they were in a New Year’s Day bowl game just 14 years ago.
So, you contrast what we have going on versus the ACC. I think Clemson has been terrific, but I would suggest our depth throughout the league is better than theirs. Our depth is better than the Pac-12. For the SEC, the top six teams have dominated the bottom eight teams over a long period of time. I think our balance is our strength.
Do we end up having the same team that’s leading the way every year? Well, in basketball, Kansas has won a lot of championships in a row, and Oklahoma has won a lot of football championships in a row. So, maybe a team will find its way down the road in football. But our strength is having a very healthy blend of teams that can all compete. And I think that’s great for college football.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to? What does the future hold that you’re excited about?
A new age of Big 12 athletics. Cincinnati is not a flash in the pan. UCF is not a flash in the pan. Houston can be as good as Houston wants to be. And I think all of the rest of our programs are going to continue to mature and prosper.
Frankly, our members would probably tell you this also, but reading the tea leaves of our members, they look forward to the day they don’t have to walk on eggshells around Oklahoma and Texas. They’re ready for the fresh oxygen that’s coming to our room.