MORGANTOWN — It was Big 12 Football Media Day and Commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s annual press briefing and Q&A session was down to the final question.
It turned out to be one he’d been waiting for and one, quite frankly, one he now would rather not have been asked.
Q. If the College Football Playoff is expanded to 12 teams, does that automatically ensure that the number of teams that exist in the Power Five conferences stays the same, or is there still potential for future consolidation and reduction from that number?
Bowlsby began by turning it into something of a joke, perhaps unaware that the joke would turn out to be on him.
“I think conference realignment — and thank you for none of you asking me the expansion question. I think I won five bucks on that,” he said.
And when someone in the group tried to — pardon the expression — expand the scope of the question to include realignment, he added: “No, sorry, you missed your chance.”
But, in reality, the chance was about to come, even though he didn’t have a clue it was standing outside his door and about to knock.
Of course, there’s the chance he knew what was going on for about a year in dark corners of his own conference and simply lied about it, but considering the way he answered and how the entire conference seemed to be taken aback by the developments that would come forth within a week, the assumption is that he didn’t know Texas and Oklahoma were pointing a gun at his head, let alone that it was loaded.
“It’s really moot on that question,” Bowlsby said as he began to answer it. “Conference alignment is always at the discretion of the conferences.”
Is it really? Try selling that on a street corner Stillwater, Oklahoma or College Station, Texas, today.
The conferences, in truth, have sold their right to control their own futures, to say nothing, of their souls to the whims of the new media. He certainly was aware of that and, therefore, had to suspect major change was in the air.
“You have to remember, the last time around, the last round of conference realignments was all driven by cable households, and we find ourselves now in a rapidly shrinking cable environment,” he said. “It is much less driven by capturing a particular cable market because if it’s an in-market fee, you get a lot more money for it than if it’s an out-of-market fee. So, the more you can include those things, the more revenue you’re going to derive from it.
“That motivation is essentially gone. The cable universe has shrunk 20 million households already. It’s going to continue to shrink as we migrate to digital consumption and streaming.”
Streaming is what the future holds and that is what the universities and media giants are now playing to. HBO, major networks, cable networks, Netflix ... they can’t get to streaming fast enough and bring in programing that will sell.
“A lot of the motivation for realignment is no longer there,” Bowlsby said “Is that to say it couldn’t happen? No, it could possibly happen for other reasons. But it doesn’t appear to me that the motivation is there at this point in time.”
Then he added a line he has to regret having uttered.
“Not to say it couldn’t happen, but it’s not one of the things that keeps me up at night.”
Well, one suspects if you approached Bowlsby now, a week later and asked him how he slept last night, you might get a yawn and a look from eyes with big, dark circles under them while his mouth said, “Couldn’t sleep a wink.”
Cue the background music, Bobby Lewis’ 1961 hit “Tossin’ and Turnin’.”
In case you don’t recall the song, this was how it began:
I couldn’t sleep at all last night
Got to thinkin’ of you
Baby things weren’t right
Well, I was tossin’ and turnin’
Turnin’ and tossin’
A tossin’ and turnin’ all night
Instead of a girlfriend who was about to leave him, Bowlsby is tossin’ and turnin’ all night because Oklahoma and Texas are about to leave him and his conference ... and if they pulled this off behind his back, should the Big 12 really keep him on as commissioner.
Certainly, the conference hasn’t been much of a force in playoff football. Since going to the four-team playoff format in 2014-15, the Big 12 has not won a playoff game, let alone a championship. Oklahoma is the only Big 12 team to qualify, doing that four times, and losing all four by a combined score of 199-to-127.
One of the major reasons to expand the playoffs was to get more representation from the Big 12, although that paled as a reason compared to the money to be made by expanding.
Bowlsby should have seen this coming in such a changing environment as college football has become. It’s moving fast in all areas and the elite teams all want to be part of what looms in the future. Perhaps it was Texas Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife who summed up his school’s position this way back on Jan. 2 when Steve Sarkisian was named football coach:
“At the University of Texas, we have a proud tradition of competing at the highest levels among the elite programs in college football. “And, in honor of that tradition, we never settle for anything short of excellence. We don’t do things halfway.”
By that time, of course, Texas and Oklahoma were talking about defecting and a perceptive commissioner would have sensed that and moved to intervene before matters reached the point that we are at now. It’s expected this week that Texas and Oklahoma will inform the league officially they don’t want to extend their television contracts five years, through 2030.
It is the first step toward the exit and the rest is supposed to move swiftly behind it with the SEC voting to expand to them before the week is out, setting in a motion what could be a total restructure of the face of college football with another round of realignment.
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