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PROVO — BYU's place at the center of future Big 12 expansion remains constant, but the center is reportedly growing.
The Athletic reported Thursday that the Cougars remain among the focus of the conference's future expansion possibilities, but league athletic directors have added three schools to that focus during recent meetings to discuss the future of the conference: Cincinnati, Houston and UCF.
The Big 12 recently confirmed that it held two days of meetings to discuss the future of the conference but did not elaborate as to the nature of those meetings in a hastily worded statement provided Wednesday evening.
"Following two days of consultation with the athletics directors of the continuing members of the Big 12 Conference," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement. "The eight ADs remain committed to furthering the Big 12 as one of the nation's premier athletic conferences, and look forward to working with our presidents and chancellors to strengthen the league. Future exploration by the group will continue to center on options that best position the long-term strength of the Conference."
A day later, the Athletic's Max Olson confirmed that those plans include significant talks about the four schools, including three from the American Athletic Conference to join with BYU in what would be a return to a mathematically-adequate 12-team league following the departures of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC by 2025.
The conference had recently been left out of a handshake agreement of an "alliance" between the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC, which prompted discussions to turn toward expansion. In those discussions, BYU was immediately at the forefront. Cincinnati and UCF's inclusion in those expansion talks is not a surprise, but Houston's addition might be.
The Cougars from east Texas haven't always played well with the Big 12's Texas contingent of Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech. But inclusion in expansion discussions suggests that the two sides are more willing to bury old politics for the better addition of the league.
The American requires teams to give 27 months' notice and pay a $10 million exit fee of all departing members, though the conference did recently agree to expedite UConn's recent departure for the Big East for an increased $17 million settlement.
As an FBS independent in football, BYU would not be required to give notice or pay a fee to join a conference, though the Cougars' exclusive broadcast agreement with ESPN may require some notification with the Worldwide Leader in Sports, which also owns part of the Big 12's media rights.
BYU's affiliation with the West Coast Conference in men's basketball and most other sports is not believed to hold any exit parameters. Even so, the Cougars could be brought in as a football-only member as soon as the university and the Big 12 agree to it.
As an independent, the Cougars have been on par with the "Remaining 8" members of the Big 12 during the most recent television cycle of 2015-19. That has certainly caught the attention of the Big 12's subcommittee for expansion, which is composed of Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades, Iowa State president Wendy Wintersteen and Kansas chancellor Douglas Giroud, Hocutt told local media recently.
"Right now, our complete focus is to make the Big 12 as strong as it can possibly be," Hocutt told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. "And I expect that Texas Tech will play a leadership role in that. We're going to continue to be part of the Power Five structure in college athletics. We're going to continue to be proactive."
The Cougars' averaged 1.64 million television viewers across 16 games on ABC, FOX and ESPN from 2015-19, compared to 1.786 million in 36 broadcasts involving Big 12 schools not named Texas and Oklahoma. Most of BYU's games were also placed in the 10 p.m. EST window by ESPN, while the Big 12 has played in a variety of time slots — including early afternoon and primetime.
In games broadcast on secondary channels such as ESPN2 and Fox Sports 1, the Cougars out-drew Big 12 viewership with a median audience of 682,000 viewers compared to 482,000, suggesting that BYU has a unique fanbase that will search out its games — an element that could prove pivotal in future discussions of subscription streaming services, for example.
The Cougars also recently added two years to head coach Kalani Sitake's tenure, keeping the former BYU fullback under contract with the university through the end of the 2025 season.