NCAA Football: Big 12 Media Days

LAS VEGAS -- During his introductory press conference upon his hiring, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark told the public that the conference was "open for business." Two years later, that statement is beginning to take shape. 

Now standing amid what he dubbed the "capital of sports and entertainment" at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Yormark touted his business success. The Big 12's sponsorship dollars grew by 79% in 2023-24, while ticket revenue also jumped 23%. Yormark also announced new brand partnerships with TuneIn Radio and Microsoft for sideline and coaching box tablets. A FAST (free ad-supported streaming TV) channel is reportedly on the way. 

"I often refer to our league as a mature startup," Yormark said. "This means our brand can be younger, more progressive and innovative compared to some of our peers."

The startup vibe fits the feel of a league where truly everything is on the table. Over the past two years, half the league's membership has changed. Texas and Oklahoma are out, while four former Pac-12 schools join four former Group of Five schools to make the conference 16 strong for the first time in history. 

Part of the startup vibe was also expanding into four time zones. Conference media days are in Las Vegas for the first time, and Yormark said he wants to target a bowl partnership with the Las Vegas Bowl to expand presence in this particular market. The Big 12 is also pushing for uniform patches on referee jerseys with a blessing from Big 12 officials. That follows the NBA, which recently went the same route. 

"We're going through change, but I would rather call it a necessary reset," Yormark said. "In 10 years, I think we look back at this period as a positive moment in collegiate athletics history." 

While many aspects of revenue generation are popular, others may soon find themselves at odds with Big 12 fans. For one, the Big 12 is exploring alternative time slots for games that may not be in prime position on Saturdays. 

"There's a lot going on on Saturdays, lot of competition," Yormark said. "So the question is, are there new TV windows we can explore where we can highlight and amplify our football programs. We're exploring that." 

CBS Sports reported in June that the Big 12 had entered talks with a private equity firm. Yormark declined to go far into specifics, but acknowledged that the conversations have taken place. 

"I do believe that, given where we are in the industry, having a capital resource as a partner makes a ton of sense," Yormark said. "That's really how you conduct good business, I really believe that. And if you see where private equity is kind of making a path into professional sports, at some point in time, it's going to come here into college athletics." 

Multiple firms have expressed interest in college athletics recently. Some of the deals that have been proposed include selling equity in the conference in exchange for cash infusion. However, there's also clear risk of losing long-term ownership and revenue. There's also no telling how private equity could view non-revenue sports, which have served as a bedrock of college athletics for generations. 

"We are exploring what that might look like and a structure and model of what that looks like is going to be critically important so that we're not compromising the long-term future of the conference," Yormark said. "We have surrounded ourselves with subject matter experts as we vet out of the possibilities. Whatever we do is going to have to benefit the conference, both short term and long term, and provide optionality for schools." 

Perhaps the most fascinating dynamic could be selling naming rights for the conference. Yormark was at NASCAR when the cup title name went from the Winston Cup to the Nextel Cup, and he helped broker naming rights deals for IZOD Center and Barclays Center when he was with the Brooklyn Nets. Of course, it is unprecedented to consider selling the actual name of a college sports conference -- but all of that goes back to the startup vibe. 

"You've got to have someone who will elevate and amplify the conference, that's critically important," Yormark said. "If it's someone who just wants to leverage the brand power of the Big 12, that's of no interest to us. If they can come in and the economics are right and they can provide value creation for us, then it becomes a very interesting opportunity for us." 

With Texas and Oklahoma off to the SEC, the Big 12 is without a tentpole brand. No program in the conference has won a national championship in the past 30 years, and pinpointing one that can become a serious competitor under the new 12-team College Football Playoff format is difficult. 

However, no conference has been more aggressive in finding pathways for non-TV revenue growth than the Big 12. Will it work? That remains to be seen. 

"There's never been a better time than right now to be in the Big 12," Yormark claims. "We are more relevant now than ever before."