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Aftershocks from Big 12 expansion could yield upward moves for WKU, EKU

Eastern Kentucky’s Jarelle Reischel shot over Western Kentucky’s Justin Johnson during a 2015-16 game. Big 12 expansion could set off a chain reaction of conference changes that could allow both WKU and EKU to move up.
Eastern Kentucky’s Jarelle Reischel shot over Western Kentucky’s Justin Johnson during a 2015-16 game. Big 12 expansion could set off a chain reaction of conference changes that could allow both WKU and EKU to move up. Eastern Kentucky University Athletics Department

The announcement last month that the Big 12 Conference is open to expanding by as many as four teams by 2017-18 has set off fevered jockeying among schools to land a home in the gilded community that is a power-five league.

Citing sources, the Dallas Morning News reported last week that no school currently has the eight votes from among the 10 existing Big 12 universities to gain admission to the league. However, the paper reported the likely expansion candidates can be grouped in tiers from those with the best chance to the worst.

The University of Houston, buoyed by the political support of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and high-ranking officials at the University of Texas, is the leading candidate to join the Big 12. In the next tier are Brigham Young (national following thanks to its affiliation with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) and Cincinnati (in a good TV market and a potential geographical partner for current Big 12 member West Virginia).

Supposedly in the third tier are Connecticut (strong athletics program, bad geography for the Big 12), Memphis (financial backing of Federal Express), Central Florida (would give Big 12 a toehold in recruiting hotbed Florida) and Colorado State (near Denver TV market and set to open new football stadium in 2017).

The DMN didn’t mention South Florida , or long-shot candidates such as East Carolina, SMU, Temple and Tulane.

What has launched this round of Big 12 expansion talk is, as ever, cold cash. Because of a pro rata clause in the Big 12’s contracts with ESPN and FOX, the TV networks are obligated to increase rights fees by some $25 million for each university the Big 12 adds regardless of the newcomers’ appeal.

With its current TV deals set to expire in 2024-25, the Big 12 could reap some $800 million by adding four schools starting in 2017-18. That prospect is said to make ESPN and FOX most unhappy.

Given the nature of college sports conference musical chairs, whatever the Big 12 does will have profound impact on schools and leagues down the “food chain.” Two universities which could be impacted in a big way are in Kentucky.

After a three-decades-plus run in the Sun Belt, Western Kentucky University is soon to begin its third season in Conference-USA. Yet, if Big 12 expansion were to pull multiple schools out of the American Athletic Conference, WKU’s stay in C-USA may prove short.

Members of The American — Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis, UConn, Central Florida and South Florida — are among the schools most linked to Big 12 expansion.

Were the Big 12 to take several, The American would likely have to raid C-USA in search of replacements. Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel listed Western Kentucky, Marshall and Southern Mississippi as possible targets, though he adds those schools “don’t exactly sizzle.” (My two cents: Located in the Norfolk, Va., TV market, Old Dominion may be the most attractive of the current C-USA universities to other leagues).

Todd Stewart, the WKU Athletics Director, says Western has been pleased with C-USA during its brief membership. “But we absolutely are monitoring what the Big 12 is going to do and will be ready to evaluate any opportunities that may arise,” Stewart said.

If WKU got an invitation to join The American, finances would seem to dictate that the school take it. C-USA just concluded a new TV rights deal that will pay its schools $200,000 a year. Currently, members of The American are getting around $2 million each in TV money.

Eastern Kentucky University may soon find itself with an upward-mobility opportunity, too. If Conference-USA loses multiple teams, it would likely again look to the Sun Belt Conference to restock. That could create an opening for EKU to fulfill its goal of moving up from the Football Championship Sub-Division (the old 1-AA) to a Football Bowl Sub-Division league by joining the Sun Belt.

“We are certainly watching with great interest what the Big 12 does,” EKU AD Steve Lochmueller said Friday. “I think it’s an exciting time to see what can happen.”

Last year, Eastern went through the expansion process with the Sun Belt, but lost out to Coastal Carolina. Lochmueller says the Sun Belt provided no formal feedback for why it did not choose EKU. But in going through the process, the Eastern AD said it was apparent that EKU’s baseball and softball facilities were not at the level of the other Sun Belt schools.

“We have made the necessary investment and, by 2017, we will essentially have new facilities in both those sports,” Lochmueller said.

So will the Big 12 add four schools or two? Will it take football-only members or not? Or could all of this be for naught, the Big 12 having a long history as the most dysfunctional of the major conferences?

At EKU, WKU and many other schools hoping to benefit from the ripple effects of Big 12 expansion, all they can do is wait, watch and hope.