For the first time in years, Rice sports are in the national spotlight. The Big 12 Conference is looking to add two more institutions, and Rice is one of 11 universities being considered for membership.
I can understand why followers of Rice Athletics are excited. The Big 12 is one of the five best college athletic leagues in the nation. Our university has a real chance to join a marquee college athletic conference and compete against the likes of the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas, Austin on a yearly basis. A move would likely ignite fan support and national attention for the athletic program and the university as a whole.
Unfortunately, I’m writing to say that Rice does not belong in the Big 12. It’s not that Rice should not want to be in the Big 12; it’s that the Big 12 should not want Rice.
The Big 12 has stated five main attributes it looks for in a potential member. Those five, according to Board Chair David Boren, are athletic prowess, fan base, media market, integrity and academic standards. There is no doubt that Rice checks off at least two of those items: integrity and academic standards. A strong argument can be made that Rice checks off athletic prowess, given its always-strong baseball program, football bowl appearances, improving basketball program and recent conference championships in sports such as tennis, soccer, golf, cross country, track and swimming. But fan base and media market? Those are far more questionable.
Among Thresher writers, athletes and fans alike, one of the most frequently used words to describe Rice students’ attitude toward sports is “apathetic.” That alone is not a good sign. But couple that with the fact that Rice has only 6,000 students — it is the second smallest Division I school — and it is clear that only a small fraction of a small number of students are actively supporting the athletic program.
The fan base is growing. According to the athletic department, season ticket sales have increased in virtually every sport over the past few years. The Rice Rally Club, reborn in recent years, operates with the goal of increasing student attendance at athletic events. These new developments are encouraging, but a school looking to join a major conference should not need to make such great efforts to expand its fan base.
Market is inherently related to fan base. At first glance, Rice would appear to meet the requirement regarding the media market. Houston is the fourth largest city in the nation and is an untapped market for Power Five conferences. Unfortunately, however, Rice does not bring the Houston market. It brings a small fraction of the city’s supporters. This week, 71,016 fans attended the University of Houston’s 33-23 victory over Oklahoma University at NRG Stadium. Last season, Rice’s most attended home game, a victory over Army, had just over 24,000 fans. The University of Houston’s sports program is vastly more popular than Rice’s.
Even if Rice joins the Big 12, it would take time to establish a city-wide fan base, and that fan base will come only if the teams — mainly the football and basketball teams — succeed.
Immediate success is far from guaranteed. Every major conference has bottom feeders, and Rice would certainly struggle in its first few years in the Big 12.
Earlier this week, Kansas University football fans stormed the field after the Jayhawks earned their first win in two years. Kansas competes in the Big 12 and has a football team that is worse than Rice’s, so merely being a member of the Big 12 does not ensure strong athletic teams. If Rice does not adapt well to the new conference, it could simply be what it was for most of its time in the Southwest Conference: a major conference school with a lower-tier athletic program.
This is not to say, however, that Rice should not want to join the Big 12. Being in the league increases national exposure and floods revenue to the school thanks to television deals, ticket sales and sponsorships. Rice, however, is not good enough for the Big 12. The best route for the school is to move up toward a major conference gradually. Rice could potentially join the Mountain West Conference or American Athletic Conference depending on the results of Big 12 expansion. It would be a good fit in either of these leagues, both of which would be steps up in competition and prestige compared to Conference USA. But the Big 12? Sorry Rice, not yet.