It’s an open secret that the Big 12 is not content with being at 10 schools in its membership. From its open flirtation with a conference championship game being played even after 9 conference games in which everyone played everybody in football, and a clean 18 game schedule in basketball, there’s more money involved when more teams join the fray. And it’s not just the Big 12 itself searching for new members, those prospective new members are trying to come to them.
Enter the University of Cincinnati. Former members of Conference USA and the Big East, they are naturally looking for a way out of the American Conference in order to find further riches elsewhere. And University President Santa Ono’s push for the Big 12 to come to the banks of the Ohio River has been a strong one.
“I am indeed optimistic that through these efforts the University of Cincinnati is positioned exceptionally well to continue to compete at the highest level,” Ono told The Cincinnati Enquirer. This was the first time he has spoken publicly about the university’s push to join the Big 12.
Big 12 chancellors recently met and discussed possible expansion in the same meeting they tried to hash out a conference title game in football. They will meet again in May when a decision could possibly be in the offing. Through a public records request, the Enquirer found out some interesting details about Ono’s push for Cincinnati to join the Big 12.
One of the power brokers in the conference, Oklahoma President David Boren, appears to like Ono. “You are truly an outstanding leader and knowing that you are at the helm in Cincinnati makes me even more inclined to support your cause,” he said in an e-mail from February of last year. Oklahoma is one of the major powers in the conference, and having their approval from the start could be critical in an expansion push. Boren is also a member of the conference’s expansion sub-committee.
Ono has also traveled to meet Big 12 leaders in the past year and beyond. He went to Manhattan, Kansas back on Thanksgiving weekend in 2014, and he took two separate trips to Texas in January of 2015. In April, according to UC Foundation board minutes also acquired through the same public records request, Ono, “personally visited every Big 12 president regarding the merits of the University of Cincinnati and its academic and athletic programs.”
The university has also produced information comparing itself to Big 12 schools not only academically but financially. In November of 2014, the school hired Pacey Economics to do a study to see how the school compared with the Big 12’s membership. Cincinnati’s budget ($27.7 million), would be the lowest in the conference, but it would be expected to increase if they made the move. The conference would also make inroads in Ohio, a state dominated on the big stage by the Big 10, which would be a major move. UC’s own calculations say that the university could stand to make $20 million more annually if they made the conference switch.
“It is true that one of my biggest responsibilities as president of the University of Cincinnati is to represent the institution’s record, accomplishments and dynamism,” Ono later said. “It is an honor and privilege to tell that story. I do so with tremendous pride.”
However good the pitch is from the Bearcats, the conference appears willing to expand only if the TV money is right, and up until now it hasn’t been. The Big 12’s deal with ESPN and FOX expires in 2021, and the only candidates ripe to be plucked are not in great TV markets from the conferences point of view to make expansion viable and worth cutting the TV pie a further two ways.
But that won’t stop Cincinnati from trying to woo the conference the other way. This is a story that figures to be only beginning.