Last week, the Big 12 finally made its decision regarding expansion. And no, Rice was not invited to join the conference. In fact, neither was the University of Houston. Or anyone. After months of speculation, presentations from at least 11 different schools and weeks of deliberation among the current conference members, the Big 12 ultimately decided not to expand.
Earlier this year, I wrote that Rice was not a good fit for the Big 12 because our school does not have a large enough fanbase to fully support a Power Five athletic program. The Big 12’s decision not to add a single school, however, was the worst possible outcome for Rice.
Months ago, when the league publicly declared its desire to expand, the reasons were clear. This summer, the Atlantic Coast Conference announced it was launching its own television network. That left the Big 12 as the only Power Five conference without a television network. In the landscape of college sports, where television money is growing seemingly without bound, this left the league behind. The Big 12 appeared to recognize these deficiencies when it voted to explore expansion options over the summer.
Within a month, approximately 20 schools voiced their desire to join the conference. These schools were hoping to pursue the immense financial gain associated with moving to a Power Five conference. They presented their strengths to the Big 12 over the next couple of months, hoping that the conference would accept them and invite them to college athletics’ promised land. In the end, however, it was all for naught. After the pageantry of the application process, no school was deemed good enough to join the elite.
The outcome is a bad one for every applicant. Each school had a chance to increase athletic revenue by tens of millions of dollars and was denied. The athletic teams of the rejected schools lost chances to compete against some of the most talented teams in the nation.
Rice, however, is in a uniquely unfortunate situation. Had the Big 12 expanded, the strongest applicant appeared to be the University of Houston, Rice’s crosstown rival. The University of Houston currently competes in the American Athletic Conference, which is generally regarded as the strongest of the non-Power Five football conferences. Had the Cougars moved up to the Big 12, the AAC would have had a vacancy.
Rice would have almost certainly applied to join the league. It would have had a strong case to pitch to the conference. The university’s academic reputation is always a selling point, and over the past few years, Rice has had a strong enough athletic program to compete among the schools in the AAC. Although it would have struggled in marquee sports such as football and basketball at first, the athletic department has shown a commitment to improving each of its programs in the past few years and the elevated conference standing would have only accelerated that process. Rice’s strongest case, however, would have been the media market.
If it lost the University of Houston, the AAC would have been looking to replace its fanbase. There would have been few better options than Rice, a school that would attract casual fans in the city of Houston even after the Cougars departed for the Big 12. The AAC would have been able to endure the loss of the University of Houston without losing the entire Houston market.
There would have been little to discourage Rice from joining the conference. It is no secret that Conference USA is one of the weakest Division I conferences, and its miniscule television revenue (just $200,000 per school, second smallest in Division I) does little to inspire confidence in the league’s vitality. The AAC would have provided Rice with an increase in athletic revenue and a step up in athletic competition compared to its current conference.
Unfortunately for Rice, however, this scenario never played out. When the Big 12 announced its plans to explore expansion, Rice appeared to have a strong chance at moving up in the landscape of college sports. Instead, it will remain stuck in its current situation. For the foreseeable future, Rice athletics have no upward mobility.