Cincinnati enjoyed about as much success as possible for a Group of Five football program the last five years. The Bearcats were fixtures in the Top 25, won a couple of conference championships and played for a third, and they even made it to a College Football Playoff.
The realization of joining the highest ranks of big-time college sports didn’t hit home until Fox television’s traveling Big Noon Kickoff pregame show arrived on campus for the inaugural Big 12 game against Oklahoma.
“When I first came to school here, I would have never imagined anything like this ever coming to Cincinnati,” 2020 UC graduate Harrison Alt said as he hung out near the show set Saturday. “But to see it here and have it in person, it’s great.”
Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and BYU knew Big 12 membership would have its privileges when they accepted invitations two years ago. As they’ve begun competing in the league, ticket and merchandise sales have soared and donations have set records.
All four football teams are picked to finish in the bottom half of the 14-team Big 12, and they went a combined 0-4 in their conference openers. The first head-to-head meeting of newcomers happens Friday night when Cincinnati visits BYU.
Fueled by facility projects underway or on the drawing board and bolstered by increased revenue from donations and media rights, all four plan to compete for championships soon in a conference that will expand further with the additions of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah in 2024.
For now, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and BYU are soaking in their new environment.
Houston has been waiting for this since it was left out of the 1996 merger of the old Big Eight and Southwest Conference. The Cougars spent 17 years in Conference USA and 10 in the American Athletic Conference and were teased with Big 12 membership in 2016 before the conference decided to put off expansion.
“Our fan base has operated with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder these last 28 years, so I think there’s just general excitement to be back,” said Garrett Klassy, Houston’s chief revenue officer.
Combined attendance for Houston’s opener against UTSA and the Big 12 opener against TCU was over 74,000, the highest for the first two home games of a season in program history.
Houston’s season ticket sales hit 27,000, up almost 8,000 from a year ago, and the athletic department has exceeded 5,000 donor accounts for the first time. Annual giving is up 45% this year and a campaign called Houston Rise has raised nearly $70 million for construction of a $140 million football operations center.
BYU played as an independent for 12 years following decades in the Mountain West and its previous iterations. The school sold all 40,000 of its football season tickets by April, the earliest ever, and the women’s soccer and volleyball teams set single-game attendance records in the first month of their seasons.
“I know Cougar Nation has wanted this for so long,” said David Almodova, BYU’s senior associate athletic director for external relations. “We’ve felt like we should have been a part of it for so long. Now that the opportunity is here, we want to take full advantage of it.”
Sales of BYU gear set records the past three years and are up 9.6% this year, BYU managing director of retail services Mark Clegg said, and was fueled by a promotion offering a fan pack of goodies to customers who spent, appropriately, $112.
UCF’s season-ticket allotment of 27,000 was sold out in May and an unprecedented three Big 12 home games were sold out by June. The average price for a ticket to this week’s game against Baylor is $102 on the secondary market, substantially higher than any game in past seasons, senior associate athletic director for communications John Heisler said.
Officials project the Knights will set a program record for football season attendance, and the school already has sold a record number of men’s basketball tickets.
For fiscal year 2023, private donations from UCF’s major gift-giving group were up 44% and merchandise licensing royalties were up 23%, Heisler said.
Cincinnati vice president for development Steve Rosfeld said philanthropy to UC athletics has quadrupled since 2013. Fiscal years 2022 and ‘23 brought in a combined $65.7 million compared with $37.4 million in 2020 and ‘21, Rosfeld said. A campaign to raise $100 million from January 2020 to June 2024 reached its goal nine months ahead of schedule.
“This is a storied program and our community expects to play at the highest levels, and we have a donor base that has certainly helped build readiness for a very long time,” Rosfeld said. “This conference membership in the Big 12 and competing with really outstanding institutions has elevated our excitement as a community because it’s a long-term investment.”