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USF looks to the past in bid for Big 12 expansion

The 2007 season was a good one for USF, which averaged 53,170 fans for six home games. (Times file)
Published Aug. 2, 2016

NEWPORT, R.I. — Contrary to what many have presumed, USF officials aren't using the 2016 football season — and all of its conference title potential — as some type of short-term collateral in their bid for a new conference home.

Instead, their stealth pursuit of a Big 12 invitation is based heavily on credit history.

The Bulls believe they have a strong one.

Though athletic director Mark Harlan and school president Dr. Judy Genshaft remain surreptitious in their efforts to launch USF from the Group of Five to the Power Five, it is believed the school is pointing to its Big East heyday as evidence the Bulls are a viable expansion candidate.

Their case comes with a formidable Exhibit A — for attendance.

Over the past 11 years, dating to when USF began Big East play in 2005, USF has averaged 40,545 fans. The zenith during that stretch was reached in 2007, when the Bulls — who climbed to No. 2 in the BCS standings that year — averaged 53,170 for six home games.

That's virtually double USF's average attendance of 2015 (26,578), its lowest in a dozen years. But based on the bigger picture, USF stacks up well against other expansion aspirants.

UCF has averaged 36,381 during that same 11-year span, with Cincinnati (30,288) and Houston (25,630) owning even smaller figures. BYU, widely mentioned as a leading contender to join the Big 12, averaged 61,024 over those 11 years.

That brief history of strong attendance, combined with the potential for it to re-occur, seems to fit the general criteria laid out last month by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who said "we are looking for members that will grow over time as we grow, that will bring stability to the conference, and that have a high top end."

The Big 12 board of directors voted unanimously two weeks ago to authorize Bowlsby to explore expansion candidates, with the possibility of adding as many as four teams.

CBS Sports reported last week that conference officials would like to finalize their decision on expansion before the 2016 season starts.

However, the Sports Business Journal reported Monday that the Big 12's two TV partners — ESPN and Fox — aren't thrilled with the expansion idea, which could force them to dole out a combined $80 million annually for the addition of four teams.

Amid that newest subplot in this evolving made-for-TV-partners drama, Harlan and Genshaft press on with a sales pitch steeped in enrollment figures, academic sturdiness, media-market size and of course, recent history.

While Harlan could address reporters at today's American Athletic Conference media day in Newport, it's unlikely he'll expound on that strategy.

"How do I feel about (expansion)? I want to have a football team that's so good that it would be hard for anyone not to want our football team," Bulls coach Willie Taggart, whose team is a trendy pick to win the AAC East Division, said Monday morning on ESPN's SportsCenter.

"Our goal has always been to win our conference and what we want is to win the (AAC) this year. … And I know our AD and our president is going to do whatever within their power to make it right for the University of South Florida. But from my point of view, I'm going to make sure we have a pretty good football team."

In addition to past attendance, it's believed USF will point to the 26 weeks it has spent in the Associated Press Top 25 poll in the past 11 years, a figure competitive with Cincinnati (36) and Houston (32), and significantly greater than UCF (11), Connecticut (six) and Memphis (four).

Of those Bulls' poll appearances, 22 occurred from 2007-09, when USF competed in the Big East and averaged more than eight wins a season. Its overall average home attendance during that span: 51,804.

Undergraduate enrollment also is expected to be crucial to the Bulls' bid, especially with digital viewership exploding and millennials representing a massive chunk of the digital audience. USF's 2015-16 undergrad enrollment is 31,067 according to U.S. News & World Report.

Of the schools mentioned most prominently with Big 12 expansion, only UCF (52,532) and Houston (32,915) have larger enrollments. Of schools currently in the Big 12, only Texas (39,523) boasts a larger undergrad enrollment than the Bulls, according to U.S. News & World Report figures.

Toss in the size of the bay area media market — the nation's 11th largest according to Nielsen — and the Bulls have parts of the present and past they can count as assets.

At this point, they're banking on them.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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