Emails detail Cincinnati’s effort to join Big 12

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It’s no secret that if there was an obvious choice for expansion, the Big 12 would have expanded by now. But, in spite of that, Cincinnati is working to convince the 10 member schools — or, perhaps, the remaining five or six it needs to win over — that it is the obvious candidate.

The Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday published emails detailing Cincinnati’s ground-roots, back-room campaign to join the Big 12, far led  by UC president Santa Ono with some strategic help along the way. The emails show Ono and UC have an ally in Oklahoma president David Boren, who wrote after meeting Ono at a Washington, D.C., function nearly a year ago today, “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.” Boren is joined by West Virginia president Gordon Gee, a known hawk on expansion, and Baylor president Ken Starr on the Big 12’s expansion committee.

Ono also met privately with former Kansas State president Jon Wefald, who provided the UC president with bad information. “The only way I see to get Cincinnati into the Big 12 is this: that UC and the 2nd school would have to volunteer to take the financial haircut yourselves. Why? Because the three major networks will never add enough monies to allow the next two schools to have the same revenues as the 10 to (sic) now,” he wrote. “The emphasis of UC right now should be this: Get into the Big 12 and worry about equal revenues later. So get in now and tell the other 10 universities that you and the second school will take the haircut.”

This is incorrect, which turns out to be a bullet point in Cincinnati’s favor.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby confirmed last summer the league’s contracts with ESPN and FOX would expand with the conference’s membership.

Jason Kirk of SB Nation did a back-of-the-envelope estimation that concluded adding two schools would cost the remaining 10 schools between $1.5 and $2 million annually in College Football Playoff, NCAA and bowl payouts, but that’s before adding in the likelihoods of additional bowl and NCAA payouts that come with an expanded roster, plus the fact that the Big 12 would now have a conference championship game to sell to TV networks. In short, Cincinnati and another school likely wouldn’t cost the Big 12 much of a “haircut” at all.

In addition to his trip to Manhattan, Ono also visited with then-Texas president Bill Powers in Austin on company dime, but minutes from a UC Foundation board meeting indicate Ono “personally visited every Big 12 president regarding the merits of the University of Cincinnati and its academic and athletic programs,” indicating Bearcats boosters may have funded much of Ono’s campaign.

Cincinnati also enlisted help of executives with UC ties from Cincinnati-based Kroger and Macy’s while also soliciting Pacey Economics to compare the Bearcats with current Big 12 schools:

In a splashy brochure dated November 2014, UC shows how it compares to the Big 12 schools in 10 categories – including annual giving, National Merit Scholars, total research expenditures, enrollment and endowment assets. Cincinnati would rank in the conference’s top 5 in each category listed, except the U.S. News & World Report rankings, which would put UC seventh.

Pacey’s research, completed in late 2014, looked at athletic budgets, football and basketball success, academics and TV market size. UC’s annual athletics budget ($27.7 million in 2015) would be the lowest in the Big 12, but Pacey pointed out that would be expected to increase in a conference where the athletic department could make more money.

The Big 12 won’t meet to discuss expansion again until May, but Ono told the Enquirer he believes his jet-setting and hand-shaking will pay off. “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 paper in a statement.

In January, the Big 12 won the right through an NCAA vote to hold a title game without expanding, but expansion remains a target for some in the league because it would help the conference’s cause to launch a coveted TV network. Big 12 presidents and athletics directors met at league offices in Las Colinas, Texas, in February to discuss the matters without voting on issues at hand, though Bowlsby indicated afterward the schools continue to inch ever-closer to a resolution, calling the talks “high-level discussions.”