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The Case For Kansas To Join The Big East

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It increasingly seems that the Jayhawks are going to get left out in the cold. Why not warm themselves by the fire of the best basketball-focused conference in the country?

Northeastern v Kansas Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Have you seen this? Have you heard about this?

The University of Texas and The University of Oklahoma are on their way out of the Big 12 Conference and headed to the SEC. Sure, it’s not happening until 2025, but it is happening, signed, sealed, and delivered already.

That leaves the Big 12, a conference that only had 10 members in it anyway for reasons that defy mathematics, down to just eight members: Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia. Eight members, all of whom take college basketball fairly seriously. Only seven members, though, that can reasonably called serious figures in the world of college football. That’s the world that’s making the decisions that are drawing UT and OU to the SEC, and Kansas, perhaps for a variety of reasons, hasn’t had anything resembling success in college football arguably ever. Right now, they’re a long way away from anything resembling success in the future, too.

With their conference crumbling around them and no sign of the Big 12 being able to restore itself to the financial success it had been seeing the last few years, it’s becoming rapidly apparent that the remaining eight athletic programs in the league need to make the best decision for themselves going forward. Given the particulars of the University of Kansas, I believe that their best decision would be to join the Big East.


THE FOOTBALL

Let’s just get straight to the heart of the issue here, shall we? The Big East is a conference with 11 members, only one of which plays Bowl Championship Subdivision college football, and that’s UConn. The Big East has UConn over a barrel in terms of how their football program operates, as they have five years left on their $30 million exit fee timeframe if they want to leave at all, and four more years after that of $15 million worth of reasons not to go anywhere. While the Huskies are a member of the Big East, they are forbidden by contract with the league to park their football team in a Power 5 conference. The point here is that the Big East has already made one deal with FBS football in order to improve the conference in terms of basketball, and making a second identical one with Kansas isn’t a leap of faith on any level.

That’s the Big East’s angle on it. This is the other angle: Kansas football stinks, and it stinks out loud and it’s been stinking out loud for a long time. Here are some numbers on KU football, which has been in operation since 1890, courtesy of Winsipedia:

#106 of 131 programs in all-time winning percentage

#92 in number of conference championships

#90 in total bowl game appearances

#67 in total wins

#64 in total number of weeks in the Associated Press poll

Five All-Americans in program history

In all-time matchups where Kansas has played a team more than once, they have a winning record against just 22 of 131 FBS programs.

Kansas football is currently riding an active 13 game losing streak, and they have lost 17 of their last 18 games.

And one from Wikipedia: Kansas football has not had a winning season since 2008, which was also, not coincidentally, the last time they were in a bowl game.

You get the idea.

Kansas football is also underwater in terms of competitive ability. Back in 2019, then-Kansas athletic director Jeff Long pitched his fellow ADs in the Big 12 on an idea: Change the rule that limits FBS teams to 25 new scholarship players every year. Why? Well, when David Beaty was hired to coach the Jayhawks in 2015, Kansas had just 28 players on scholarship, well short of the NCAA limit of 85. When Long fired Beaty and hired Les Miles, he estimated it would take four years before Kansas was even within shouting distance of that 85 player maximum. For those of you counting at home, Les Miles was hired in 2019, so we’re only halfway to that four year estimate..... and Miles was fired by Kansas in March of this year for misconduct that transpired while he was the head coach at LSU. I’m going to go ahead and guess that dumping Miles might have set that timeline back a step or 47.

The point of all of this is that 1) not only has Kansas football been bad for a very long time, 2) they’re extra bad right now, and 3) they’re going to be extra bad for a while because 4) they aren’t even fielding a real FBS caliber roster and aren’t close to it, either.

If there has ever been an FBS program that has ever been closer to saying “y’know what, screw it, let’s drop to the Football Championship Subdivision, because we’re basically playing with an FCS roster anyway,” I’d like to see it. If we’re being honest about it — and why wouldn’t I be, I have no stake in KU football — Kansas loping along after football success that has virtually no chance of happening has, more so now than ever, a chance to damage the thing that Kansas fans actually care about......

THE BASKETBALL

Kansas men’s basketball is, in a word, great. Three NCAA championships. Six more title game appearances. 15 Final Fours. 22 Elite Eights. 15 conference tournament championships, and please keep in mind that their conference only started having a tournament in 1977. 62 regular season conference championships, including an absolutely insane modern era streak of 14 straight under their current head coach at one point. Whatever definition you want to attach to the term “blue blood,” Kansas Jayhawks men’s basketball qualifies for it, and then some. They have the tradition, they have the history, they have the insert-whatever-you-want-here.

Any conference in the country should be attempting to break their own arm in order to get Kansas basketball into their league. It’s basically free money for you between the guaranteed NCAA tournament money that will come in to the league as a result of the Jayhawks winning games in the national championship and the ticket sales that everyone else in the league gets when nationally ranked Kansas comes to town.

The only catch for most conferences that aren’t the Big 12 right now? If you take Jayhawk basketball, you have to take Jayhawk football. No one wants that because it benefits absolutely no one in any way, shape, or form. Not even the near-guaranteed win every year for the eight or so teams that play the Jayhawks is helpful. The Big East, though? They don’t care about that at all because they don’t have a football league. Kansas can join the Big East, do whatever they feel is right and/or necessary with football (FBS independent? FCS?), and go about their basketball business in their new basketball-focused home with nothing to worry about.

THE MONEY AND THE MEMBERSHIP

And so with the facts of the matter on the table, we turn our attention to Kansas’ financial problems with remaining in the Big 12 going forward past 2025.

In testimony given to the Texas state senate, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby stated that the value of the league’s television contract would take a 50% hit as a result of the departures of Texas and Oklahoma. ESPN was happy to provide numerical context to that, pointing out that the league handed out $34.5 million to the members of the league in its most recent distribution, and that number was down from previous years due to impact from the COVID-19 pandemic. A 50% haircut to that number is $17.3 million, give or take, and hey, since that was a COVID number, we’ll give Kansas a break here and round up to $18 million in the future without the Longhorns and the Sooners. Remember, that’s a TV contract that includes paying for college football games. I’m not trying to tell you that $18 million is pocket change.... but when everyone else playing Power 5 football is up north of $30 million a year per team, you’re so far behind the eight ball that you’re on an entirely different billiards table.

I want to pivot on that 50% number for a minute, though, and turn towards a tweet from Stewart Mandel from The Athletic, who was trying to make a point about the benefit of Kansas going to the Big Ten, I believe. I think it ends up making a different point, though.

There’s a discrepancy on money here, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the Big 12 is finding $10 million worth of other non-TV contract money — NCAA tournament shares, bowl game shares, etc. — to hand out to the league’s members. So, let’s accept everything from Mandel at face value here.

The eight remaining members of the Big 12 are generating roughly $25 million a year on their TV contract as a group for men’s basketball. $25 million split eight ways is $3.125 million per school. Depending on what you consider to be the location of the Big 12’s operating costs, maybe that’s $3 million even.

The Big East’s current contract with Fox Sports was signed when the league reformed into its current 10 non-UConn school membership. 12 years, $500 million with an elevator clause that bumped it to $600 million if the league expanded to 12 members. Either way, that number works out to $4.167 million year per school. Round that down to an even $4 million per school because the Big East office needs to buy printer toner and so forth.

You don’t have to be a calculus wizard to see that Big East basketball is more valuable to their television partners than Big 12 basketball is to theirs. It is currently in Kansas basketball’s best financial interest to jump from whatever remains of the Big 12 to the Big East. In fact, Kansas making that move would actually improve the value of the Big East when it’s time for a new contract. Coincidentally, the Jayhawks departing the Big 12 would hurt the value of the Big 12, which also happens to have a contract with Fox Sports just like the Big East. Lower Big 12 value + higher Big East value + less Fox interest in a lower value Big 12 = A bigger stage for Kansas basketball in the Big East.

The catch, of course, when it comes to TV money is what if the Big 12 figures out a way to replenish their membership and thus boost that contract back upwards after Texas and Oklahoma wander off with 50% of the value.

This is, of course, insane. It’s not happening. There are absolutely zero athletic departments or even combinations of athletic departments out there in Division 1 that 1) provide the Big 12 with equal value to what they are losing in UT and OU and 2) are actually interested in leaving their current home. Is Ohio State going to the Big 12 going to solve a lot of problems for the Big 12? Yes! Is that happening? Never in a million years! We’re talking about adding the Cincinnatis and BYUs and Central Floridas and Boise States of the FBS universe to the equation here. Those are the programs that would have a financial benefit to making a move, and even if the Big 12 rounds up four athletic departments to go from their current projected eight team membership to 12 members to match the number in their name, they’re not matching the lost value of Texas and Oklahoma. No way, no how. It might even not replenish the value of Big 12 basketball to the point where the TV contract pays the programs more than the $4 million that the Big East is passing around. Think about it this way: Is Kansas vs Boise State basketball worth $250,000 a year to you? To Fox Sports? To ESPN?

Even if you thought there was a chance that the Big 12 could try to pick off some of the lower end programs in the Big 10, ACC, and Pac 12, those leagues are already heading that move off at the pass. Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic is reporting as of Friday, August 20th, that those three conferences “are expected to make a formal announcement about their alignment soon, perhaps as early as next week.” While it remains up in the air as to exactly what all of this means, there are two obvious facts apparent in this impending announcement. #1 — None of the members of those conference have any intention of departing for the Big 12. #2, and perhaps more importantly for our matter at hand — Whatever the Big 12 is going to turn into between now and 2025 is getting left out of this alliance. There’s a third thing that I don’t want to call a fact here, but it certainly seems like it might be true and it’s worth mentioning here for the point we’re trying to make. In short? The nature of this alliance might mean that none of those three conferences have any interest in bringing in any of the remaining eight Big 12 teams. It’s hard to say that for certain, but it’s definitely possible that the structure of the alliance may prevent the Big Ten, the ACC, and the Pac 12 from making any future changes to their memberships...... and they might not have wanted to add any of the Big 12 teams in the first place.


In summary: The University of Kansas finds themselves in a crumbling athletic conference with no obvious path back to their current level of financial success by way of a television contract. Said crumbling conference and said television contract is largely dependent on college football, a sport that KU has almost never shown any aptitude for in the past and is currently a nearly unchartable distance away from success in the future. All of this uncertainty, both in membership and by way of finances, has a chance to threaten the success of Kansas men’s basketball, the true pride and joy of their athletic department.

It certainly looks like a path forward to success can be found by Kansas moving all of their non-football sports to the Big East and either going independent in FBS football or dropping to the FCS level. I don’t really care which option they like there, that’s up to them. The option of seeing Kansas play Marquette every year? That sounds like fun to me, and the Big East is definitely going to be a better basketball conference going forward than whatever the Big 12 turns into down the road.

Kansas Chancellor Douglas Girod and Kansas Director of Athletics Travis Goff, if you’re reading this? Call Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman. Immediately, if not sooner.