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Brett Yormark is good. There’s no denying that.
In less than eight months on the job, the Big 12 commissioner has taken a league best known for its defensiveness and pursuit of Great Plains comity and turned it into an aggressor and agitator.
Long threatened by college athletic realignment forces that could cause it to split — and seemingly on the brink when Oklahoma and Texas announced they were bolting to the SEC — the Big 12 has become an unlikely harbor of solidarity that revels in poking its finger in the face of everyone else, in ways big or small.
Before arriving in college sports, Yormark was CEO of Business and Strategy at JayZ’s RocNation, and he brings that sensibility to the job.
Thursday he announced the Big 12 would stage exhibition basketball games and coaching clinics at Harlem’s famed Rucker Park, a clever and rather cool chance to plant the Big 12 flag deep into Manhattan (New York, not Kansas).
The league should expand the program and head to the Venice Beach Courts in L.A. or 16th and Susquenhanna in North Philly or St. Cecilia’s in Detroit or Mosswood Park in Oakland. Raise some awareness, raise some money for community initiatives and make some local conferences a little nervous.
This is a small thing, a small idea, but part of a relentless onslaught for the Big 12 that has made the once weakest of the so-called Power 5 impossible to ignore. The league has partnered with Endeavor — the Hollywood-based talent and brand agency — to create a lot of attention.
That, most notably, includes the Big 12 constantly clamoring about raiding the Pac-12 for expansion members. In the past, those roles were reversed.
“I think Brett is a heck of a salesman, and Endeavor is a good PR firm, and they’re working it,” University of Arizona president Robert C. Robbins told The Athletic last week. “And [the media is] buying what they’re selling.”
Fair enough, but the buzz of speculation has been enough that Robbins, and other Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors, have been forced to publicly address the league’s “solidarity” as its television negotiations drag on without bell cows USC and UCLA (headed to the Big Ten in 2024).
That mostly centers on the so-called “corner schools” — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah — that Yormark and his crew have made clear they desire to form a revamped, nearly coast-to-coast 16-team Big 12.
And no matter the denials — which in college sports history mean nothing — there has to be some desire to consider the innovative, or simply loud, league based in Texas.
The Pac-12 currently has 10 members — Arizona, ASU, Cal, CU, Oregon, Oregon State, Utah, Stanford, Washington and Washington State. Right now, all of the public (and perhaps private) discussion speaks to the remaining Pac-12 sticking together. Well, at least if the media deal is competitive enough financially with the Big 12’s average payout of $31.6 million.
Even if it is less money, the Pac-12 schools would be smart to ignore the temptation of greener grass. While money is always the biggest consideration in conference affiliation, it shouldn’t be the only one.
Utah’s athletic department is running at near full throttle, but the thing plaguing Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado is a lack of fan engagement. These programs need excitement, which draws in ticket sales, donations and sponsorships.
New ASU football coach Kenny Dillingham says his first priority in rebuilding the Sun Devils is to “Ignite the Valley” — or get the Phoenix area to care, or even pay attention, to the team. It’s the same story in Boulder, where the hope is Deion Sanders’ arrival will galvanize the region behind the Buffaloes.
The best way to do that, however, is to win games and compete for championships, which by 2024 would include an automatic bid to the expanded college football playoff.
All of these schools have a better chance of doing that — and turning on the spigot of money — in a 10-team (or even 12-team) Pac-12 that retains some geographic sense rather than joining a far-flung 16-team Big 12. Few programs that have joined leagues outside their traditional footprint have found success. Ask Boston College. Ask Nebraska. Ask West Virginia.
There may be more television revenue, but little else works out. As cool as it is that the Big 12 is hosting exhibition games in New York City, what real value does that bring to, say, Washington State? And what do road games in Orlando or Cincinnati do for anyone?
The Pac-12 plays all over the West. Yes, it needs to get back into Southern California, but there are ways to make that happen. Its football and basketball tournaments are in Las Vegas. There is a sense of belonging, of commonality. And with USC out of the way, the competitiveness of the football race will be significant.
Staying put may seem boring or even naive. It may not yield every last dollar of media rights. It may not link you with this innovative conference that refuses to be ignored.
The Pac-12 still has a purpose though, still has a future. An automatic bid to the college football playoff makes that more true now than ever.
So let Brett Yormark keep selling his league. He’s really good at it. It doesn’t mean the Pac-12 schools need to buy in. At least not yet.