How will Big 12 turmoil affect K-State sports stability and KU rivalry? Here's what economics roundtable says.

Jason Tidd
Topeka Capital-Journal
Conference realignments are driving by TV contracts and football programs, according to a panelists speaking to an Economics Club.

As conference realignment rumors swirl in the early months of college athletics, stability could be on the horizon for Kansas State University.

K-State economics professor Daniel Kuester points to expiring TV deals and the year 2036.

"Trying to move forward for K-State, it's probably kind of a 10-year time horizon that you're looking at, where you can hopefully lock in a fair amount of stability," he said. "And then you hope to build those relationships and brands, and have the league be strong enough where you can move forward from there."

Kuester, who teaches and researches sports economics at the university, spoke during an Economics Club roundtable last week on the future of K-State athletics and the Big 12 Conference.

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The Big 12 has been embroiled in turmoil in recent months as Oklahoma and Texas announced they are leaving for the Southeastern Conference. Now, the Big 12 will be adding Brigham Young, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston.

With their move to the SEC, Oklahoma and Texas "kind of blindsided the conference, I think that's very fair to say," Kuester said, adding that he has "always had skepticism about Texas' level of commitment to this conference."

The roundtable also included GoPowercat.com publisher Tim Fitzgerald, Kansas City Star columnist Vahe Gregorian and Andrew Maness, technical director at Rho AI, a company involved in sports analytics.

Rivalries and the Kansas Jayhawks

The potential loss of historic rivalries could be detrimental to college sports.

"Something's lost in this," Gregorian said. "The feeling of rivalries and things that you understood and saw year in year out, it's just it's not really the same. Things are kind of concocted now. It's not as captivating to me in a lot of ways as it used to be."

For K-State fans, they could be at risk of losing their in-state rival.

Earlier this month, when the Big 12 announced its expansion, University of Kansas athletic director Travis Goff cast doubt on the Jayhawks sticking with the conference long term.

"What's best for Kansas doesn't change, regardless of conference discussion or speculation," Goff said. "It's still what's best for KU and it still puts us in the most positive strength and position we can be in the league we're in most importantly and for all the unknowns that are out there."

More:Kansas remains focused on doing ‘what’s best for Kansas,’ its athletic director says

Gregorian said Goff is leaving the door open to KU making a move.

"It's really every school for themselves," Gregorian said. "I guess maybe that's in a certain sense how it has to be, but I think it can engender a little cynicism when you feel like that's always looming."

"It's not the sentiment that's offensive," Kuester said. "It's the fact you can't even let the ink dry before you're saying look at me and we're not as committed to the Big 12 as you might hope."

"There's nothing wrong with popping open a beer but don't do it at the funeral," Fitzgerald said. "I mean, that's kind of what he did. This is the worst timing in the world. Look, if KU gets a Big 10 invite, they got to go. I mean, the money is so incredible."

Conference realignment isn't over

The panelists suspect there could be moves toward 16-team conferences and pod scheduling in the works, despite geographic distances.

"I think we got another round of this," Fitzgerald said. "I think both the SEC and Big 10 are going after Pac-12 schools, as weird as that sounds. I think geography has been forgotten here. Rivalries have been forgotten. It's all about TV entities."

The SEC could be eying something bigger.

Fitzgerald said there is a "general feeling that the SEC is attempting to build a super conference, so this was just their start and eventually they're gonna invite Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, the best of the ACC — Clemson, Florida State — and build this elite football class that excludes anyone they don't feel as elite."

If that is the goal of SEC leaders, it is unlikely the NCAA would intervene, even if it affects the incomes and athletic performances of other schools.

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"The NCAA has lost court case after court case recently, they're not going to take on, 'This athletic conference can't add teams because we don't want them to,'" Kuester said.

A potential new wave of realignment comes at a crossroads with the prominence of the transfer portal, a 12-team playoff proposal and the implementation of name-image-likeness rules.

"I missed the Big 8 ... when the big money wasn't involved in it as much, and it was just more pure," Kuester said.

Maness said conference realignment typically comes up two to three years before TV contracts expire, but the COVID-19 pandemic likely prompted teams to move faster.

"Economically, there's just a little more incentive to get this through and get this done now," he said.

"No matter how much money you have, COVID exposed how fragile you can be," Fitzgerald said. "Because if you have money, you're spending it, you're not sitting on it. So if you have a drop in that, all of a sudden you've got a financial issue you got to face."

Kuester said he has a hard time sympathizing with Texas and Oklahoma.

"For them to claim poverty is a pretty tough sell," he said.

The professor shared data on money in college athletics.

"I've taught sports econ for 15 years," he said. "K-State had a $30 million budget when I took over; we're currently at $90 million. But there's a reason that the SEC and the Big 10 have the most TV money, and they attracted Oklahoma and Texas, more than just on field success.

"You might say Texas has the biggest budget and college athletics, why don't they stay in the Big 12? It's a reasonable question. They feel like they can be more competitive in the SEC and make more money."

Texas has the largest athletic budget at $223 million. Oklahoma has the eighth-largest at $163 million.

Football and TV drive everything

When the conference was formed from the Big 8, there was a certain level of conflict and disagreement from the get-go, Kuester said.

"I think a lot of us looked at the Big 12 as just, 'Hey we're inviting these four Texas schools to join our conference.' And the Texas schools thought, 'We're taking over a conference' — at least Texas did," Kuester said.

"I would argue particularly Texas kind of harmed the potential growth of the Big 12 throughout this past decade, and possibly even prior to that," he said.

Texas A&M, Missouri, Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12 a decade ago, and West Virginia and Texas Christian joined, amid nationwide conference realignment.

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"I didn't realize until then that actually football drives everything — I think we've seen that with how KU has been perceived in all this — but also that TV drives football," Gregorian said.

The Big 12 considered expanding in 2016, but opted not to.

"It didn't happen didn't have for one reason: Texas had a voting bloc ... and they had enough votes to veto anything they wanted," Fitzgerald said. "... Texas has gotten their way for literally their entire history of post World War II sports, and it's going to be intriguing to watch what happens."