VOL. 9 | NO. 32 | Saturday, August 6, 2016
So as it turns out, the FedEx St. Jude Classic in June was a missed opportunity. No one in the gallery shouted, “University of Memphis – Big 12!” The tournament’s “Hush Y’all” signs were obeyed and to no good end.
Thus, the university’s campaign to join the Big 12 did not get all sorts of free publicity as part of the news cycle and cable networks’ highlight loop. No one is suggesting Fred Smith himself should have given voice to the pursuit of the Big 12 around the first tee box or the 18th green, but isn’t that what underlings are for – to do what has to be done, if at a distance from the true power source?
By now, you have probably heard that during the recent PGA Championship a man did scream “UConn Big 12!” as Japanese golfer Yuta Ikeda teed off. A Hartford Courant reporter found the man, Mike Paonessa, and received this explanation.
“We’ve got to get UConn into the Big 12 and the Power 5,” Paonessa said. “I’d never yelled anything like that before. Just the normal stuff when I go to the Travelers every year, stuff like ‘Way to go Bubba!’ I just wanted to try to maximize the exposure for UConn on national television.”
So he acted alone? Maybe. One can’t be sure of anything as the Big 12 reportedly moves closer to making a decision on expansion.
A few days ago, word leaked out that the league wanted to have the issue settled before the start of football season. Now there is word their television partners may be wary of expansion for fear it will dilute the league and its ratings, and in turn what the networks can charge advertisers.
Of course, back in early July, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby also had indicated there might be a decision after the July 19 meeting of the league’s board of directors.
“It’s about time we made some decisions one way or another,” Bowlsby said earlier this summer. “We’ll not be served by an ongoing, extended, protracted discussion of this.”
Yet that’s exactly what we have. At times, Big 12 expansion has seemed like the world’s longest horse race with expansion contenders moving up, falling back, or seemingly trapped in the middle of the pack – stuck in the mud of their current non-Power 5 conferences.
If the Big 12 does indeed go ahead with expansion and takes two teams, which would actually make the league’s name accurate, then finishing in the money stops at second place. If the Big 12 takes four teams, the race becomes a lot more competitive and four candidates end up as winners.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, a University of Memphis alumnus and noted Tigers football and basketball fan, has watched the race to the Big 12 from the grandstand, if you will, and it has reminded him of his days practicing law.
“There are 10 teams in the Big 12. Anytime you have 10 different decision-makers – whether it’s a city council or a committee at a church – there are different viewpoints,” Strickland said. “That’s why it’s so difficult to predict. I used to tell clients, ‘There are 12 jurors. Just imagine you had 12 family members together and you’re trying to figure out where to go to dinner.’
“My gut tells me that very few people, if anyone, knows what’s going to happen.”
A BETTER UNIVERSITY, A BETTER MEMPHIS
Last February, University of Memphis president M. David Rudd wrote a letter to Oklahoma president David Boren and other members of the league’s composition committee. Not only did Rudd pledge that Memphis would make a $500 million investment in athletic and academic infrastructure over a five-year period, but he included a letter from Smith.
The FedEx chairman wrote that “Memphis and the Big 12 are a great fit” and said that his company was willing to sponsor a Big 12 championship football game. Since then, of course, Texas politics have entered the fray with the governor and the University of Texas president and chancellor all making public pitches for Houston.
In fact, open records requests from the Associated Press showed that Connecticut, Cincinnati, Central Florida, Memphis, Houston and Colorado State have been lobbying the league for some time. Brigham Young University, because of its strong football tradition, is viewed as a serious contender. And Boise State, South Florida, East Carolina and Tulane are at least considered longer shots for inclusion, and there remain plenty of conspiracy theories that could change the direction of things quickly – such as both Florida schools joining to ease traveling concerns for the non-revenue sports.
Or expansion being delayed because the Big 12 powers that be decide the risk of angering TV partners is too great.
For now, Big 12 contenders Memphis, Houston, Cincinnati, UConn, UCF, South Florida, East Carolina and Tulane all belong to the American Athletic Conference. The fact so many AAC schools are in the mix for Big 12 expansion suggests that the league has run out of ideal new member candidates. But that’s not the U of M’s problem.
Going to the Big 12 would make them colleagues of Texas and Oklahoma in football, Kansas and Oklahoma State in men’s basketball.
“The image of a university is so defined now by the company they keep,” said Steve Ehrhart, executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl. “It goes much further than athletics. It’s academics, the research stuff, competing for grants, faculty and students. It’s reputational.”
But like everything else, it’s first about the money. The Big 12 has a $2.6 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox that runs through 2024-25 and that pays more than $20 million per school each year. When combining TV money and other revenue, the league distributed $30 million per school for the most recently completed school year.
That’s champagne living compared to the beer-budget existence in the AAC, where a long-term TV deal with ESPN and CBS is worth $126 million, or around $2 million per school per year.
Annually, the AutoZone Liberty Bowl generates about $25 million to $30 million in local economic impact. The last game, between Arkansas of the SEC and Kansas State of the Big 12, had the largest economic impact of any sporting event in the city’s history, according to Kevin Kane, president and CEO of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Harold Byrd, president of the Bank of Bartlett and a big Memphis booster, looks at those bowl game numbers, at the possibility of the Longhorns or Sooners coming to Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium for football or the Jayhawks to FedExForum for basketball, and likes the way the numbers tabulate in his head.
He does a similar math for enrollment at the U of M, going so far as to say that membership in the Big 12 could mean a boost from the fall 2015 enrollment of 20,585 up to 25,000 and beyond – or a 20 percent increase as a starting point.
Ehrhart agrees that the impact on attendance could be significant, and it’s here that Memphis is perhaps more in direct competition with the SEC – not on any field or court.
“That’s why you hear, ‘I want to go to an SEC school,’” Ehrhart said of non-athletes in the Memphis area attracted to the big-time atmosphere of a Power 5 school. “You don’t hear anyone saying, ‘I want to go to a Sun Belt school.’ So it will make an impact on enrollment. Down the road, it changes the profile of alumni.”
Byrd does not mince words about what joining the Big 12 could mean.
“It could be one of the single most dynamic occurrences to happen in Memphis, to propel the city and university to another level,” he said. “And the school helps set the tone of discussion in a community, whether that discussion is about health care or business development.”
SPORTS A POTENTIAL MAGNET FOR BUSINESS, MILLENNIALS
Memphis has the NBA’s Grizzlies. Oklahoma City has the NBA’s Thunder. But OKC also is less than an hour away from Oklahoma State in Stillwater, and less than a half-hour away from the University of Oklahoma in Norman. Those schools are not just longtime members of the Big 12; they were in the old Big 8, too.
So this premier athletic conference was part of the local landscape long before Kevin Durant came and went.
“The Thunder and the Big 12 seem to complement one another,” said Sue Hollenbeck, director of sports business at the Oklahoma City Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Ehrhart recalls the Longhorns’ trip to Oxford to play Ole Miss in football a few years ago. Orange was everywhere in Memphis that weekend, only it was burnt orange and not Tennessee orange.
“They were all over Beale Street,” Ehrhart said. “They took over the Peabody for a night.”
Hollenbeck says they see the effect of OU and Oklahoma State football games, sure, but even other events such as soccer and wrestling bring hotel visitors to town. She believes all sports, from the city’s Triple-A baseball team to those nonrevenue events almost an hour away in Stillwater, “add value.”
Even higher stakes may be in play with the long-term business impact. Byrd is excited about the growth in metro Memphis the last 15 years – “sometimes despite political leadership and, to be fair, business leadership” – and is bullish on the local economy.
“We’re popping,” he said, noting strong housing and auto sales.
Strickland says getting the university into the Big 12 would be another selling point for businesses eyeing the city and also for prospective employees of existing businesses. The big-time college sports vibe might be especially appealing to young people considering Memphis as their next career stop.
“My two sons went through it,” Ehrhart said. “One came back to Memphis and one is in Denver. Young people look at a place and start counting what there is to do.”
All of this has the potential to work together for the greater good. It’s true in OKC in duplicate.
“Having two major universities in a major conference is a boon,” Hollenbeck said. “You want to keep graduates in the city and in the state. And having things to do, having those sports events nearby helps.”
Rudd has publicly used the word “transformational” to describe the effect of the university getting to the Big 12 and carrying the city with it.
Strickland does not find that a stretch.
“In my mind,” the mayor said, “the two most important entities in the city of Memphis are FedEx and the University of Memphis.”