Big 12 commissioner talks big game at media days in Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS – Big 12 Conference commissioner Brett Yormark took the stage here Tuesday at Allegiant Stadium and delivered his vision for the future of his reimagined band of 16 schools, including the possibility of changing the league’s name, adding investment from private equity and even playing more football games on days other than Saturday.

He said the Big 12 is “more relevant than ever before” despite losing its top two marquee football programs this year to the Southeastern Conference – Texas and Oklahoma.

He also said the Big 12 is one of the top three conferences in America, along with the SEC and Big Ten.

“We will be the deepest conference in America, and every week will matter,” Yormark said at the start of the Big 12’s two-day football media days event.

Welcome to the new Big 12, which Yormark describes as a “mature startup” company entering his third football season on the job. It now has members in 10 states from Orlando to Phoenix, including four new schools joining in August – Colorado, Utah, Arizona State and Arizona.

But in some ways, it’s still like the old Big 12, still fighting for respect nationally and challenged by issues that led those teams to flee for the SEC.

Yormark has a plan for that, too.

What are the issues faced by the Big 12?

They can be boiled down to two categories – a revenue gap and rising expenses. The Big Ten and SEC distributed about $60 million and $51 million per school on average in fiscal year 2023, compared to about $44 million per school in the Big 12. That money largely comes from television companies that pay to show the biggest brands and best rivalries in college football.

Yet the Big 12 just lost its biggest rivalry and two biggest football brands to the SEC, starting on July 1.

So how does the league keep that gap from growing while also coming up with more money to pay players for the first time in the future under terms of a proposed legal settlement?

“We will not stumble into this new era following settlement,” said Yormark, 57, a former sports and entertainment executive. “In fact, we will be aggressive and very proactive.”

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy on Tuesday called Yormark the “best commissioner in all of sports,” citing his innovation.

What are some examples of that?

Yormark said the future might include:

∎ Possibly changing the league’s name by adding a naming-rights partner for revenue. The “Allstate Big 12” could be a thing. Or will the number 12 even be part of the name anymore since there are 16 members?

Yormark said the Big 12 has gotten to mean “more than how many members.”

“Can we find the right strategic and financial partner that is going to support this conference in all the right ways?” he said. “Nothing is imminent.”

∎ Private equity. A private equity company could buy an ownership stake in the league to provide a big cash infusion to be shared with league members. The question is what the terms of that deal would be, including the risks.

“Having a capital resource as a partner makes a ton of sense,” Yormark said. He said he is exploring what that might look like.

“A structure and model of what that looks like is going to be critically important so that we’re not compromising the long-term future of the conference,” he said.

∎ Creating value for TV partners Fox and ESPN, possibly by playing on days other than crowded Saturdays.

“There’s … a lot of competition (on Saturday), so the question is, are there new TV windows we can explore?’ Yormark said.

∎ Pushing the NCAA to allow commercial patches on the jerseys of game officials, much like in the NBA.

∎ Possibly expanding the league’s market into Mexico in women’s soccer and baseball.

∎ On Tuesday, the league also announced a deal with Microsoft to provide tablet computers for use in games by football players and coaches, similar to those seen in the NFL. It is Microsoft’s first-ever partnership in college athletics, according to the Big 12.

What’s changing with the Big 12 and when?

The league now has 16 schools after surviving the latest pangs of college football realignment with the addition of eight schools since July 2023.

On Aug. 2, the Big 12 officially adds four teams from the Pac-12 Conference: Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State, all of whom fled the crumbling Pac-12 for more stability and more exposure on linear television in the Big 12.

Last year, the Big 12 added Cincinnati, Brigham Young, Central Florida and Houston.

Only seven schools remain from the original Big 12, which began play in 1996. That includes Colorado, which is returning to the league this year after departing for the Pac-12 in 2011. Other previous defections from the Big 12 since 2010 include Nebraska (to the Big Ten), Missouri (SEC) and Texas A&M (SEC).

“Think about where we were just 24 months ago and think about where we are today,” Yormark said. “So I will not stop until we’re the No. 1 conference in America. That’s my ambition.”

How good will the Big 12 be in football this year?

It could surprise despite being perceived as inferior to the SEC and Big Ten. This year, the College Football Playoff expands from four teams to 12, giving the league a much better chance to answer that question when it matters in the postseason.

“It’s so hard to predict how any order of finish could be with all the new teams that are coming in,” Kansas State head coach Chris Klieman said at the same event Tuesday.

Utah still is the favorite to win the Big 12 this year, according to a poll of media who cover the league. The Utes are led by a 25-year-old quarterback, Cam Rising, who is entering his seventh season of college football after joining Texas in 2018 and then missing the 2023 season with a knee injury.

Then there’s Colorado, which is picked to finish 11th in the league even though the Buffaloes might have the league’s best all-around player and quarterback: two-way star Travis Hunter and Shedeur Sanders, son of head coach Deion Sanders.

“What makes the Big 12 unique is parity,” TCU head coach Sonny Dykes said Tuesday at the same event.

He predicted it would be “the most competitive league in college football,’ echoing Yormark’s praise of the league’s star power and parity.

The regular season begins in late August.

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

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