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What will BYU’s expected move to the Big 12 mean for the Cougars, the conference, and college football?

Big 12 officials are expected to formally extend an invitation to BYU on Friday

(Kim Raff | AP) BYU fans cheer in the first half during an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, in Provo on Sept. 16, 2017. The Cougars are expected to receive a formal invitation to join the Big 12 Conference on Friday morning.

BYU’s move to the Big 12 is imminent.

The Cougars — along with Cincinnati, UCF and Houston — are expected to receive invitations Friday. According to multiple reports this week, all four schools have officially applied for Big 12 membership. League presidents and chancellors are reportedly set to vote on Friday morning, but that is thought to be a formality.

For BYU, the invitation will be a welcome end to a decade of searching.

For the Big 12, it may be the only chance of surviving.

The expected invitation may technically fall under the terms of college athletics expansion and realignment, but what is happening here is a matter of survival with Texas and Oklahoma declaring their respective intentions to leave for the SEC beginning in 2025.

With its two biggest brands leaving, the Big 12 doesn’t want to go quietly. Instead, it wants to march on as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision hierarchy. To that end, BYU, one of seven FBS independents (while housing the majority of the rest of its sponsored sports in the West Coast Conference) will be, in some ways, both beneficiary and savior.

The move to the Big 12 is multi-layered, but the big benefit, as it always is when college athletics realignment is in play, is tied to money.

Membership in the Big 12 would mean a colossal windfall for the Provo school. For the last fiscal year, the league distributed roughly $37.7 million in media rights revenue to each of its 10 members. That figure was actually down about $1.1 million compared to the previous year due to the COVID-fueled cancelation of the NCAA Tournament and conference tournaments.

The Big 12′s 13-year agreements with ESPN and FOX expire after the 2024-25 academic year.

By comparison, BYU’s current seven-year broadcast deal with ESPN, which expires in 2026, is thought to pay the school upwards of $8 million annually. Verifying those contracts is difficult. BYU is not a public school, and is therefore not subject to open records laws.

With that amount of TV money in play, there are plenty of questions ahead of Friday’s expected announcement.

When could BYU join the Big 12?

It’s possible BYU will begin competing in the Big 12 as soon as 2022. As a football independent, it would not have to pay the huge conference exit fees that could keep Texas and Oklahoma in the league through 2025.

The Cougars would, however, still need to settle up with the West Coast Conference. According to one report, BYU would have to give 24 months’ notice to exit without financial penalty. The Cougars have to pay the WCC $1 million if they give less than 12 months’ notice, or $500,000 if the notice is between 12-24 months.

What about the Cougars’ scheduled games?

As a football independent responsible for cobbling together its own 12-game schedule, the Cougars have 11 games scheduled for 2022 and a full 12 for 2023. Will they have to pony up buyout fees for any number of those games, plus others moving forward? BYU has at least three games scheduled in every season through the end of the decade.

How does BYU compare to other Big 12 schools?

Since the first wave of major conference realignment in 2010, the Big 12 has passed on BYU at least twice. In 2012, in the wake of losing Colorado (Pac-12), Nebraska (Big Ten), and Texas A&M (SEC), the league added TCU and West Virginia to get to 10 members.

In 2016, the Big 12 flirted with a bevy of potential new members, including BYU, but ultimately did nothing.

The Cougars were “very close” to receiving a Power Five invite in 2016, athletics director Tom Holmoe said.

“We would have loved to have been [invited] to a Power Five conference,” Holmoe said at the time. “That’s where the best games are played. That’s where the best championships are played. They advance to the best bowl games. There is no question that is the ultimate for college football. … We made a venture to go independent to get to that point. We were very close, but it just didn’t happen.”

Still, if BYU were to ascend to a Power Five league, the Big 12 always made the most sense.

A private research institution sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the fact BYU is faith-based is not a deal-breaker for the Big 12 given that TCU (Disciples of Christ) and Baylor (Baptist General Convention of Texas) are in the same boat.

BYU’s endowment, which is hovering around $2 billion, is higher than the remaining eight members of the league, but not significantly so.

LaVell Edwards Stadium, the 63,470-seat, 57-year-old home of Cougars football, is larger than all the stadiums of the eight remaining members. When factoring in Cincinnati, UCF and Houston, BYU is still set to have the largest stadium in the new 12-team Big 12 once all the dust settles.

What does BYU bring to the Big 12?

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy was one voice publicly supporting BYU in recent days.

“Coast to coast, people see BYU as a Power Five team. That logo. You would, too, right?” Gundy said earlier this week. “If you see that logo, people don’t really know that they’re an independent. People think they’re tied into a Power Five conference.”

The fact BYU has a national fan base thanks in large part to LDS roots will be a positive in terms of future TV ratings.

According to multiple outlets that specifically track data connected to ratings, BYU football averaged 875,000 viewers per game in 2020, when the Cougars went 11-1, rose to No. 8 in both national polls, and featured No. 2 overall NFL draft selection Zach Wilson at quarterback.

How that figure might translate to Big 12 football (or the impacts should the next media rights deal be heavy on streaming) is difficult to answer. But 2020 reaffirmed that when BYU football is having a good season, it will draw eyeballs.

Is the Big 12 still a Power Five conference?

Is there even a Power Five anymore? Some national pundits have begun to reference the Power Four, with the SEC poaching Texas and Oklahoma, and the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 forming an “alliance” of like-minded institutions that are unwilling to be bullied by the SEC.

That leaves the Big 12, which is going to survive in some form or fashion, in part because the Pac-12 acted quickly in opting not to expand beyond its current 12 for two reasons.

“... One of the reasons why we moved so swiftly was that we thought it would give some immediate balance to the Big 12 to proceed with whatever they needed to do,” Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said during a visit to Salt Lake City this week. “Because we thought that the vibration that was going through college athletics after it was announced that Texas and Oklahoma were leaving the Big 12 to go to the SEC was not good for college athletics.”

Now that vibration is going to trickle down to the lower regions of the FBS. The SEC poached the Big 12, the Big 12 is set to poach the AAC, plus BYU, so who is the AAC going to poach?

The answer isn’t quite clear, but it could wind up being a matter of survival for whichever conference(s) wind up affected.

Will this move impact Utah?

Directly? Beyond Saturday night’s matchup in Provo, the teams are slated to play six more times through 2030, which brings the conversation back to how BYU might handle its non-conference scheduling now that it will have nine conference games locked in. Tangentially? The Utes will no longer be the only Power Five game in the state, and will have to share some of the highly coveted, highly valuable attention around these parts as far as major college football goes.

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