DALLAS – Last year at this time, Bob Bowlsby was still trying to figure out where the office coffee machine was as the Big 12's brand new commissioner. Well today, he is much more familiar with the lay of the land and is ready to build on a great year of success in what has now become a stable and thriving conference.
“Last year at this time, I was the brand-new commissioner and we were just coming off two or three years of fairly tumultuous times,” said Bowlsby during the first day of the conference's annual two-day football media gathering
at the Omni Dallas Hotel. “We were working very hard to sell the message of strength, stability and success. I think there were probably some question marks after those three items.
“This year, I think we can look back and say we’ve got exclamation marks after those three items,” he added. “I think it’s been a very productive year for us, and it has been a year that has yielded a growing measure of trust among all of our member institutions. It really feels like we’re beginning to settle down a little bit.”
The conference (as well as the rest of collegiate athletics) may finally be settling down, but the Big 12 is certainly not resting on its laurels. Bowlsby touched on several issues that are on his radar screen heading into the 2013-14 season.
Among the most prominent:
* The Big 12’s TV contract: Bowlsby pointed out that the conference will be making a substantial jump in distributable revenue as some of the Big 12’s biggest contracts now kick in. “At the end of ’14-15, we get to full and equal sharing with our new members and current members, and it really will complete the transition that has been in place over the last 18 months or so,” said Bowlsby.
* Big 12 membership standing pat at 10 institutions: The commissioner believes there are many advantages to remaining at 10 schools at the present time. “Among those advantages are the strength of playing three non-conference games instead of four, and having a full conference round robin,” he noted. “I think it keeps our rivalries strong. I think it keeps our multimedia packages strong to have a good competition every day, every Saturday.”
* Big 12 bowl partnerships will continue to be outstanding: “We have some longstanding relationships with bowls, and we have some brand-new ones,” Bowlsby pointed out. “Some of the ones that we previously had in place in the new day will be structured differently. Two of our bowls will have us as partners in the relationships, which is something that hasn’t ever been done before and certainly not done by us.”
* The Big 12 will continue to be one of the most innovative conferences in collegiate athletics: Bowlsby said Big 12 institutions will be delivering in-game football highlights this season for the first time as a way of combating declining attendance on a national level. “Our schools are 85 percent full,” Bowlsby noted. “We feel like our attendance has remained relatively strong.
“But I think nationwide we’re seeing student numbers declining,” he said. “We’re seeing season ticket numbers declining. College football has experienced declines in overall attendance over the last four or five years, and I think bringing highlights in will take that into account and help one of the things that is really getting to be a challenge for us.
“I really think it’s going to be a terrific thing for our fans, and I think it will be one item that will keep people from staying home in front of their televisions,” he added.
Another innovative concept the Big 12 is introducing this year is an RF chip embedded in the shoulder pads of the players in new a partnership with technology company Sportvision. “It will allow us to track players, their velocity and their path around the football stadium on a real-time basis,” Bowlsby said. “We’re not sure what we will do with the technology, or what Sportvision will do with the technology, but we think it’s a very interesting innovation that developments in other areas outside of sports have accommodated.”
Bowlsby said the Big 12, the SEC and the Pac 12 are the three conferences using the new technology this year.
One other innovation the Big 12 will try this season on an experimental basis is an eighth football official. The commissioner said league institutions used an extra official during scrimmages last spring. “The official will be on the offensive side of the ball in the backfield, roughly the equivalent location but opposite the referee. This will be the person who places the ball in play,” he said.
Bowlsby said the eighth official is in response to the growing issue of pace of play, more than anything else. “We’re excited we’ll be the only league experimenting with the eighth official,” he noted.
* The Big 12 will continue to advocate concussion prevention: “We have developed a conference mission statement that was developed by Ed Stewart and Murphy Grant, in the sports medicine profession at the University of Kansas. It has been unanimously adopted by our administrators and by our football coaches,” said Bowlsby.
“We are working on a partnership with USA Football, which is an NFL undertaking that is intended to teach young people to play the game properly and to play it safely,” Bowlsby said. “The initiative is called Heads Up Football. Player safety is a very important element of what we’re doing.”
* And finally, the conference is undergoing a new branding initiative to redesign the conference logo, which will be put into effect next year. Bowlsby said the conference will mandate that member schools showcase the logo in specific areas in their home venues. “We will also have it on all of our uniforms, which we haven’t had before,” he said. “The reason we chose to roll it out now is it’s going to be around on all the campuses all year because this is a very large project moving from the current logo to the new one.”
The commissioner also touched on some hot-button national topics, including the constant drumbeat of criticism being levied on the NCAA as an organization.
"Right now our national organization is under fire," Bowlsby admitted. "There isn't any question about it. And yet I'm not hearing anyone say we ought to find another organization. I have not heard from a single commissioner or even athletic directors on an individual basis that they believe another organization other than the NCAA is the right approach for us."
"Why are we where we are? It's hard to say. I guess it's the cumulative effect of a long period of time, but I think what we've done essentially is we have tried to accomplish competitive equity through rules and legislative changes, and it's probably not possible to do that.
"I think we've permitted, or even sometimes encouraged institutional social climbing by virtue of their athletics programs, and I think the fact is we've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there."
Bowlsby said he isn't sure how to change things, but change is probably in order.
"I think we need to reengage practitioners, ADs, commissioners and people that work in athletics every day," he said. "I think it's unrealistic to think that people that spend hours a month on athletics can come up with the right agenda and have the time to move it through the system.
"I really think the time has come to think about a federation by size and scope and equity brought to the system," said Bowlsby. "There are about 75 schools that win 90 percent of the championships in the NCAA, and we have a whole bunch of others that don't look much like the people in our league, but yet through rule variation they're trying to compete with us.
"I don't think it may even be time to look at a federation by sport," Bowlsby continued. "It's probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules. I think some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern is in order."
Bowlsby’s remarks kicked off this year’s football media day activities in Dallas. Teams here for today’s session include Oklahoma State, Kansas State, TCU, Kansas and Texas Tech.
Tomorrow, media day will conclude with Iowa State, Baylor, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Texas.
Last week, the conference announced its annual preseason media poll with Oklahoma State receiving the most first place votes, followed by Oklahoma, TCU, Texas and Baylor.
The next five include last year’s champion Kansas State, followed by Texas Tech, West Virginia, Iowa State and Kansas.