TAMPA — After allowing the expansion issue to drag for more than a year, Big 12 executives finally appear poised to set out some place settings at their figurative table.
And based on comments made Tuesday by the league's commissioner and board chairman, USF's shot at landing a seat now seems more bona fide than bleak.
The league's board of directors, meeting Tuesday during the Big 12 media days in Irving, Texas, unanimously agreed to authorize commissioner Bob Bowlsby to explore candidates for expansion. Expansion by two or even four schools is on the table, board chairman (and Oklahoma president) Dr. David Boren indicated.
"We very seldom take votes, but on this one we did take a vote and everyone was supportive of it," Bowlsby said on a media teleconference Tuesday evening.
"I think what that means is, they're supportive in concept and there's a lot of work left to do. … It's possible this could extend to our October board meeting, but it's also possible that we could have a special meeting sometime between now and then."
Boren stopped short of saying the expansion issue was resuscitated with Monday's news that the ACC will launch its own network (in partnership with ESPN) in 2019, but he added "it does indicate to us that we are continuing to operate in an environment that is filled with change."
CBSSports.com's Dennis Dodd reported that, per the Big 12 contract with ESPN and Fox, any new teams are guaranteed the existing annual revenue, which currently is $30 million per school (including College Football Playoff and NCAA Tournament distribution).
"We intend to exercise the full prerogative of what we negotiated," Bowlsby said. "I don't think we have to make apologies for stipulations we both agreed to."
While a handful of schools (Houston, Cincinnati, Memphis) have made no secret of their desire to join the Big 12, others such as USF have taken a more covert approach with their lobbying efforts. Bulls administrators are believed to be diligently working their Big 12 contacts behind the scenes.
"We have been contacted by a number of institutions," Bowlsby said, "and my guess is after this news breaks we'll be contacted by them again."
Based on the criteria stated Tuesday by Boren, USF's odds appear viable.
USF currently resides in the nation's 11th-largest media market, according to Nielsen. Academically, it recently earned a major accolade — not to mention $5 million from the state — when it was awarded "emerging preeminence" status by the Florida Board of Governors Strategic Planning Committee.
It also ranks 25th nationally among public universities — 41st when counting private universities — in research dollars, according to the National Science Foundation.
On the downside, the Bulls are coming off their first winning season in a half-decade, and their average announced attendance for six home football games in 2015 (26,578) ranked ninth in the American Athletic Conference. Kansas, which had the Big 12's worst attendance last season, drew an average of 27,282.
"We're not looking at any one factor," Boren said.
"We're looking at the strength of the athletic program, competitiveness. We're looking at fan base, we're looking at access to media markets, and also we're very much looking at the reputations of these institutions for integrity. We're looking at the academic standards of these universities, the level of research and teaching at these institutions."
Bowlsby concurred, adding that the league will seek schools that "will grow over time as we grow."
"They're going to join a family," he said, "and it's important that they strengthen the family and we strengthen them."
Contact Joey Knight at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.