In what has come as a shock to many, including myself, Rice finds itself as one of the final 11 universities under consideration for Big 12 expansion.
The Big 12 Conference, which ironically has 10 teams, has expressed interest in expanding to 12 or 14 teams, and Rice could be one of the newest members of the conference.
I have heard arguments as to why we should not join, and the concerns are legitimate: We do not have the fan support, we will have to deal with losing seasons, et cetera. Although Rice may not be immediately ready to compete in the Big 12 for most sports, we, as a student body, should hope to receive an offer to rejoin our former Southwest Conference counterparts.
When considering conference realignment, it is important to remember that it all comes down to one thing: money. The Big 12 currently has a 13-year television deal worth $2.6 billion, equivalent to $200 million per year. Conference USA, on the other hand, will receive $2.8 million in television money this year. That is an obvious incentive for Rice to join. There is no doubt that Rice would earn even more revenue from ticket sales when we host perennial powerhouses like University of Texas, Austin and the University of Oklahoma. Furthermore, joining the Big 12 would increase Rice’s name recognition nation-wide in both athletic and academic circles, welcome news for students and the administration alike.
Yes, Rice’s sports teams would struggle for the first few years as they adjust to the heightened level of competition. But joining a superior conference will bring name recognition, which will bring fan support, which will bring in new recruits, which will in turn produce wins. It would be a lengthy, turbulent process, but it would be worth it.
But should the Big 12 want Rice?
At the surface, it may appear Rice does not have much to offer the Big 12. If we joined, we would be the smallest school in the conference by a significant margin. Our football games rarely have more than 20,000 fans in attendance, and we have a relatively apathetic student body regarding sports. However, we do have a good deal of attributes that the Big 12 should find attractive.
First, we would have the second-largest endowment in the Big 12, second only to the University of Texas, Austin. While endowment isn’t necessarily a perfect indicator of a school’s wealth, it should demonstrate to the Big 12 that we have the financial ability to sustain programs in the conference.
Further, we have appropriate facilities. We have a recently renovated football stadium capable of holding huge Big 12 caliber crowds, a beautiful baseball stadium that would be the third-largest in the Big 12, a new soccer stadium and a recently renovated basketball arena. The infrastructure is already in place.
Our academic reputation should be another draw. The other so-called “Power Five” conferences — the Big 10, Southeastern Conference, Pac 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference — each have a top-tier private research university as a member institution. The Big 12 does not. If invited to the Big 12, Rice would bring a level of academic prestige that the conference should find attractive. Whether or not an athletic conference truly cares about academics is debateable, but they do claim to care. In fact, the Big 12 claims on their website that “performance in the classroom is just as important as accolades on the field when looking at the student-athlete.”
Lastly, we would bring the Houston market to the conference. When Texas A&M University left for the SEC a few years ago, the Big 12 lost its grip on the nation’s fourth-largest city. By adding Rice, the Big 12 could claim purview over the city and establish bases of operation here. Other schools in the conference could improve their recruiting ground in Houston as a result, and money from the television deal would increase in turn. With the success of the University of Houston’s football program in recent years, however, the Big 12 may find the nearby Cougars a more attractive option to corner the Houston market.
Regardless, the Big 12 should seriously consider adding Rice, and Rice should jump at the chance to accept an offer should it be given. The benefits of joining the Big 12 far outweigh the negatives from Rice’s perspective, and adding Rice would only bring positive value to the Big 12 conference.