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Big XII remains “open” to more expansion

Maybe they’ll eventually call themselves the Big XVI.

The Big 12 is open to further expansion, commissioner Brett Yormark said Friday, as the league prepares to welcome four new members, including the University of Houston, on July 1.

Expansion was among the topics during the Big 12’s three-day business meetings that wrapped up Friday at The Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.

“We have a plan,” Yormark said on a video conference call with reporters. “As I’ve said all along, we have an appetite to be a national conference in our makeup from coast to coast.

“That being said, we love our current composition and the four new schools that are joining next month. However, if the opportunity presents itself to create value, we will pursue it.”

The Big 12 has shown interest in adding more members with the departures of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC in 2024. The league will expand to 14 schools in July with the addition of UH, BYU, Central Florida and Cincinnati.

There continues to be instability with conference realignment with UCLA and USC set to leave for the Big Ten and the Pac-12’s ongoing media rights negotiations casting an uncertain future for that league. The Big 12 has been linked as a possible destination for Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah.

The Big 12 could also consider basketball-only schools Gonzaga and UConn, adding to its cache that is already regarded as the strongest men’s basketball conference in the nation.

“We do believe in the upside of basketball moving forward as a collective group,” Yormark said. “We think it’s undervalued. There’s a chance for us to double down as the No. 1 basketball conference in America, but football is the driver and we all know that. We’re going to consider all options.”

Yormark said the Big 12 will take “guiding principles” into consideration when looking at possible expansion candidates, among them academic alignment, leadership, cultural fit, geography, and athletic performance.

Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec, chair of the Big 12’s board of directors, said the conference’s presidents and chancellors are taking “a very open attitude” to expansion.

See here for the previous update. Nothing really new here other than the mention of UConn as a basketball addition, but the passage of time and Colorado’s open interest in exploring its options make this timely. Remember when there was a couple of years in between major conference reshufflings, which provided the veneer or temporary calm? Yeah, we’re over that. Hold onto your butts.

The fentanyl vaccine

This is not actually new, but this story just came out and I hadn’t noticed the coverage before, so I’m catching up.

To combat the fentanyl epidemic in the United States, researchers at the University of Houston have created a fentanyl vaccine that could help prevent overdoses. They aim to test the vaccine in a human trial within the next year.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid drug that kills hundreds of Texans every year, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The vaccine will need FDA approval before people can use it. According to Johns Hopkins University, that process can take five to 15 years, and sometimes longer. The process can be sped up during a public health emergency where no alternate treatments exist. The first COVID-19 vaccines were created, tested and given emergency use authorization by the FDA in under a year.

In a study published last year in the journal Pharmaceutics, the Houston researchers reported that their vaccine triggered production of antibodies against fentanyl in rats and decreased the amount of fentanyl in rats’ brains. The researchers’ vaccine received praise from Governor Greg Abbott, who visited the University of Houston last year to congratulate the team.

[…]

Doctors can prescribe maintenance medications like methadone and buprenorphine for those recovering from opioid addiction. These drugs are opioids, but they can reduce opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

The effectiveness of these medications depends on how they’re made, the opioid being misused and access to the medications. Recovering patients can relapse after they leave treatment and are especially vulnerable to overdose deaths, said Colin Haile, a research associate professor at the University of Houston.

“Clearly, the medications that we have to address opioid use disorder and overdose are not working,” said Haile, who led the team that created the vaccine.

Haile’s team created a vaccine that could tell the human body to produce antibodies against fentanyl. If a vaccinated person consumes fentanyl, the antibodies could attach to the drug, preventing it from getting to the brain and inducing a “high” or potential overdose. The fentanyl would remain in the blood, eventually passing through the kidneys and out the body.

In the published study, Haile’s team said the vaccine successfully produced antibodies against fentanyl in rats. The vaccine also blocked one of the effects of fentanyl: pain relief. Compared to unvaccinated rats, vaccinated rats also had decreased fentanyl levels in their brains when fentanyl was administered 20 weeks after their first vaccination.

“The effect was pretty incredible,” Haile said. “I’ve never seen anything like this, ever.”

The vaccine produced antibodies that attached to fentanyl but not to methadone or buprenorphine, meaning that vaccinated people could potentially still take those medications to treat opioid addiction. The antibodies also did not bind to morphine or oxycodone, two other opioids.

Like I said, this isn’t new – UH put out a press release last November to tout the accomplishment. There are other vaccines in the research pipeline – this one wasn’t the first to be discovered, but it has some differences from the others out there. Researchers are going to put it into phase 1 human trials soon, with the goal of making the vaccine available to the public in the hopefully not-too-distant future. It sure has the potential to do a lot of good when it’s ready. Kudos to all for the work.

Actually, UT and OU will join the SEC in 2024

Reports of their not-early departure were greatly exaggerated.

Texas and Oklahoma have reached an agreement in principle to leave the Big 12 after the 2023-24 athletic year, the league announced Thursday, allowing the schools to join the Southeastern Conference one full season ahead of schedule.

The agreement is subject to final approval by the UT and OU governing boards, a formality that will pave the way for the two flagship schools to join the SEC on July 1, 2024.

As part of the agreement, UT and OU will owe combined $100 million in “foregone distributable revenues” which the two schools “will be able to partially offset with future revenues,” according to the Big 12.

“The conference would only agree to an early withdrawalif it was in our best interest for Oklahoma and Texas to depart prior to June 30, 2025,” Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark said. “By reaching this agreement, we are now able to accelerate our new beginning as a 12-team league and move forward in earnest with our initiatives and future planning.”

Yormark, who has been on the job seven months, added that he looks forward to “bright days ahead for the Big 12 Conference.”

The Big 12 is set to add four new schools — the University of Houston, UCF, Cincinnati and BYU — on July 1. With an exit date set, the Big 12 could look at future expansion; there’s reportedly interest in adding Gonzaga in men’s basketball, along with talks regarding four Pac-12 schools: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah.

[…]

Texas, Oklahoma, the Big 12 and its two media partners reportedly hit a snag in their ongoing negotiations as the parties quarreled over how Fox would offset the expected financial hit it would take from losing as many as eight football games featuring the Longhorns and Sooners, two perennial ratings juggernauts.

In the end, the parties were able to iron out an exit agreement for that would distribute money to the Big 12’s remaining programs and keep Fox and ESPN executives (and their advertising partners) satisfied.

See here for the previous and now totally wrong entry. ESPN, which had reported the likelihood of UT and OU sticking around in the Big XII until the end of the current TV deal in 2025, adds this bit of context:

On July 1, the Big 12 will officially add BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston and it will compete as a 14-team league for the upcoming season. Sources told ESPN recently that both parties were interested in finding a way for the schools to leave early, but when the athletic directors and presidents met last week in Dallas, there was no resolution. It was a quick change that even surprised some leadership within the league on Thursday afternoon.

Surprise, indeed. In the end, the solution was the same as the obstacle, which is to say money. The current Big XII schools that are not leaving will all reap a nice bounty out of this, and as we see there may be more shuffling about to happen with the PAC 12 in shaky condition as USC and UCLA prepare to depart. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure. CBS Sports has more.

Abbott tells state agencies and universities to hire more white people

I mean, let’s be honest, that’s what this is about.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s office is warning state agency and public university leaders this week that the use of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives — policies that support groups who have been historically underrepresented or discriminated against — is illegal in hiring.

In a memo written Monday and obtained by The Texas Tribune, Abbott’s chief of staff Gardner Pate told agency leaders that using DEI policies violates federal and state employment laws, and hiring cannot be based on factors “other than merit.”

Pate said DEI initiatives illegally discriminate against certain demographic groups — though he did not specify which ones he was talking about.

“The innocuous sounding notion of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) has been manipulated to push policies that expressly favor some demographic groups to the detriment of others,” Pate wrote.

Diversity, equity and inclusion is a moniker used for policies developed to provide guidance in workplaces, government offices and college campuses intended to increase representation and foster an environment that emphasizes fair treatment to groups that have historically faced discrimination. DEI policies can include resources for underrepresented groups, which can include people with disabilities, LGBTQ people and veterans. In hiring, it can include setting diversity goals or setting thresholds to ensure that a certain number of diverse candidates are interviewed. At universities, DEI offices are often focused on helping students of color or nontraditional students stay in school and graduate.

[…]

Andrew Eckhous, an Austin-based lawyer for Kaplan Law Firm, which specializes in employment and civil rights litigation, said the governor’s office is “completely mischaracterizing DEI’s role in employment decisions” in an apparent attempt to block initiatives that improve diversity.

“Anti-discrimination laws protect all Americans by ensuring that employers do not make hiring decisions based on race, religion, or gender, while DEI initiatives work in tandem with those laws to encourage companies to solicit applications from a wide range of applicants, which is legal and beneficial,” Eckhous said in an email.

“The only piece of news in this letter is that Governor Abbott is trying to stop diversity initiatives for the apparent benefit of some unnamed demographic that he refuses to disclose,” he added.

The letter cites federal and state anti-discrimination laws as the underpinning for why Pate says DEI initiatives are illegal. Those laws notably have come about as a response to discrimination over several decades.

President Lyndon B. Johnson prohibited employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion and national origin as part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, during a time when people of color, especially Black Americans, were excluded from higher-wage jobs based on race.

The Chron adds some details.

The letter is setting up a major clash with nearly every public university in Texas, where the benefits of diversity have been championed. The University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston have made DEI programs central to their missions.

[…]

On its website, Texas A&M’s Office of Diversity declares its responsibility to help academic units “embed diversity, equity, and inclusion in academic and institutional excellence.”

The University of Texas at San Antonio, through its business school, offers a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Certificate Program.

At UT, each college, school and unit has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer as well as a website to highlight the importance of those efforts, a change made after campuswide student protests in 2017 led to the removal of statues of Confederate soldiers like Robert E. Lee.

In the warning letter, first reported on by the Texas Tribune, Abbott’s chief of staff Gardner Pate claims such efforts backfire:

“Indeed, rather than increasing diversity in the workplace, these DEI initiatives are having the opposite effect and are being advanced in ways that proactively encourage discrimination in the workplace,” he wrote.

Pate’s letter comes after a high-profile lawsuit last year aimed at Texas A&M University’s hiring practices for college faculty.

A University of Texas at Austin associate professor, who is white, sued the Texas A&M University System on behalf of white and Asian faculty candidates, alleging racial discrimination in a fellowship program intended to improve diversity on the College Station campus. The program sought to hire mid-career and senior tenure-track professors from “underrepresented minority groups.”

The UT associate professor’s lawsuit is being led by American First Legal, a group created by Stephen Miller, former President Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I know that there’s a case before SCOTUS that’s aimed at gutting affirmative action. It still seems to me that claiming that DEI efforts are “illegal” is at best a wild overstatement. Maybe a claim that they’re not required could be plausible. I expect you could defend that in court. But illegal? Not today, at least, and maybe not even after whatever atrocity SCOTUS commits on the affirmative action case. The idea here is to make people think it’s illegal, and that it’s not worth the risk of incurring Abbott’s wrath, and voila, you get the outcome you want without actually having to change anything. We’ll see how these universities respond, but especially with the Lege in session and the budget being constructed, I don’t like the odds.

UPDATE: Texas Tech is already folding, though UH doesn’t appear to be taking the bait. Could be worse, I guess.

Looking like no early entry into the SEC for UT and OU

It’s always about the money. Which, to be fair, is pretty substantial in this case.

The negotiations for Oklahoma and Texas to leave the Big 12 a year early and join the SEC in 2024 have stalled and a deal is not expected to come to fruition, sources told ESPN on Friday morning.

After weeks of negotiations, Texas and Oklahoma are still slated to join the SEC in 2025. Sources said the parties couldn’t come to terms amid a complex negotiation involving two schools, two networks (ESPN and Fox) and the Big 12.

Sources said the sides couldn’t agree on how to create equitable value for what Fox would lose in 2024 — the equivalent of seven football games featuring Oklahoma and Texas that command premium advertising.

The negotiations heated up over the past few days, with the Big 12 meetings late this week doubling as an unofficial deadline to get a deal done.

The timeline in play — the 2024 season — leaves some ambiguity and small potential for a Hail Mary revival, but the strong expectation remains that Oklahoma and Texas will play in the 14-team Big 12 in 2023 and 2024.

“There’s no formal timeline or brink from which you can’t come back,” an industry source said. “But this is where things are right now — a deal is unlikely.”

To be fair, UT and OU were insisting they would remain in the Big XII through 2025, despite the obvious reasons why they’d want to get out earlier than that. I certainly thought that they would find a way to make that happen. The fall of 2024 is still a ways off so anything could happen, but it’s not looking too likely. For the Coog fans out there, that means you’ll get two shots at them on the football field before they buzz off. Better make the most of it while you can.

More on the collegiate TikTok bans

An interesting perspective from a professor in Texas.

The bans have come in states where governors, like Texas’s Greg Abbott, have blocked TikTok from state-issued computers and phones. Employers can generally exercise control over how employees use the equipment they issue to them. The move to block TikTok on public university networks, however, crosses a line. It represents a different type of government regulation, one that hinders these institutions’ missions.

The bans limit university researchers’ abilities to learn more about TikTok’s powerful algorithm and data-collection efforts, the very problems officials have cited. Professors will struggle to find ways to educate students about the app as well.

Many, as my students suggested, will simply shift from the campus Wi-Fi to their data plans and resume using TikTok on campus. In this regard, the network bans create inequality, allowing those who can afford better data plans more free expression protections, while failing to address the original problem.

Crucially, TikTok isn’t just a place to learn how to do the griddy. It has more than 200 million users in the U.S., and many of them are exercising free-speech rights to protest and communicate ideas about matters of public concern. When the government singles out one app and blocks it on public university networks, it is picking and choosing who can speak and how they do so. The esteem and perceived value of the speech tool should not factor into whether the government can limit access to it.

The Supreme Court has generally found these types of restrictions unconstitutional. Justices struck down a North Carolina law in 2017 that banned registered sex offenders from using social media. They reasoned, “The Court must exercise extreme caution before suggesting that the First Amendment provides scant protection for access to vast networks in that medium.” Years earlier, the court struck down a law that criminalized digital child pornography. It reasoned lawmakers “may not suppress lawful speech as the means to suppress unlawful speech.”

Nearly a century ago, the first instance in which the Supreme Court struck down a law because it conflicted with the First Amendment came in a case that involved a blanket ban by government officials on a single newspaper. The newspaper was a scourge to its community. It printed falsehoods and damaged people’s reputations. Still, justices reasoned the First Amendment generally does not allow the government to block an information outlet because it threatens the “morals, peace, and good order” of the community.

Each of these laws, while put in place by well-meaning government officials, limited protected expression in their efforts to halt dangerous content. The First Amendment, however, generally doesn’t allow government officials to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Any limitation on expression must only address a clearly stated government interest and nothing else.

So, what is the government interest in blocking TikTok? Perhaps the most coherent statement of TikTok’s perceived national-security threat came from FBI Director Chris Wray in December. He emphasized, because of China’s practice of maintaining influence in the workings of private firms who do business in the country, Chinese officials might manipulate the app’s powerful recommendation algorithm in ways that distort the ideas Americans encounter. American TikTok users might see pro-China messages, for example, while negative information might be blocked. He also averred to TikTok’s ability to collect data on users and create access to information on users’ phones.

The University of Texas’s news release from earlier this week parroted these concerns, noting, “TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices—including when, where and how they conduct internet activity—and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

These are valid concerns, but apps such as Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube also harvest vast amounts of data about users. Their algorithms do far more than simply supply information. Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms, for example, have both been found to encourage right-wing extremism. They are, as Wray and Texas’ news release lamented regarding TikTok, distorting the ideas Americans encounter. Why aren’t we blocking them, too? The obvious answer is that none of these companies are owned by a Chinese firm. But can’t firms such as Meta, Twitter, and Google execute the same harms officials have listed from within the U.S.?

See here and here for the background. The author didn’t say where he teaches, but Google suggests he’s a journalism prof at SMU, which has no compunction to follow suit as it’s a private school. The main thing I took away from this is the possibility that someone at one of these schools, or multiple someones aiming for a class action, could file a First Amendment lawsuit to overturn the bans. The distinction between enacting a workplace ban on (basically) company-owned devices and a more general ban at a university seems clear to me. Whether anyone will take this up or not I couldn’t say – filing a federal lawsuit is no small thing. But it could happen, so we’ll keep an eye out for that.

UT bans TikTok on campus WiFi

This feels like a bit of an overreaction to me, but we’ll see if others follow suit.

The University of Texas at Austin has blocked access to the video-sharing app TikTok on its Wi-Fi and wired networks in response to Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent directive requiring all state agencies to remove the app from government-issued devices, according to an email sent to students Tuesday.

“The university is taking these important steps to eliminate risks to information contained in the university’s network and to our critical infrastructure,” UT-Austin technology adviser Jeff Neyland wrote in the email. “As outlined in the governor’s directive, TikTok harvests vast amounts of data from its users’ devices — including when, where and how they conduct internet activity — and offers this trove of potentially sensitive information to the Chinese government.”

[…]

Abbott’s Dec. 7 directive stated that all state agencies must ban employees from downloading or using the app on government-issued devices, including cellphones, laptops and desktops, with exceptions for law enforcement agencies. He also directed the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Information Resources to create a plan to guide state agencies on how to handle the use of TikTok on personal devices, including those that have access to a state employee’s email account or connect to a state agency network. That plan was to be distributed to state agencies by Jan. 15.

Each state agency is expected to create its own policy regarding the use of TikTok on personal devices by Feb. 15.

The ban could have broad impacts particularly at universities serving college-age students, a key demographic that uses the app. University admissions departments have used it to connect with prospective students, and many athletics departments have used TikTok to promote sporting events and teams. It’s also unclear how the ban will impact faculty who research the app or professors who teach in areas such as communications or public relations, in which TikTok is a heavily used medium.

See here for the background. As the Chron notes, students will still be able to access TikTok off campus, but I’m sure this will cause a whole lot of complaining. It’s not clear to me that this is necessary to comply with Abbott’s previous directive, but I presume UT’s lawyers have given the matter some consideration and I’d take their conclusions over mine. Other big public universities have not yet announced anything, though on my earlier post a commenter who works at a Texas public university said that their school has done something similar. This will be very interesting to see.

There are a couple of big questions here. One is whether the TEA will weigh in on the matter for Texas public schools, or if it will be left up to individual districts. Far as I know, HISD has not taken any such action, and as it happens they have their own TikTok account. The other thing is how this might affect the ability of athletes to make NIL (name, image, likeness) money for themselves. NCAA athletes with a significant social media presence can earn a ton of money for themselves. If this starts to affect recruiting, you can be sure that people will hear about it. Even if the TEA takes action in the public schools, it’s not likely to have much effect since the UIL still bans athletes from making NIL money, but if this really does cause a ripple then anything can happen. Like I said, very much worth keeping an eye on this.

UPDATE: As of later in the day, Texas A&M and TSU have followed suit and implemented similar bans. That certainly lends credence to the “no it wasn’t an overreaction” thesis. UH had not taken any action as of this publication.

UPDATE: The University of North Texas joins in, as do all of the other schools in the UT system.

Rice to join AAC in 2023

As expected given prior developments.

Nearly eight months after accepting an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference, Rice on Wednesday announced it has finalized an agreement to officially enter the league in 2023.

Rice — along with UTSA, North Texas, UAB, Florida Atlantic and Charlotte — will jump from Conference USA to the AAC on July 1, 2023.

Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard said the announcement “brings Rice athletics a step closer to its very bright future.”

Left out of the Big 12 following the breakup of the Southwest Conference in the mid-1990s, Rice spent eight years in the Western Athletic Conference and eventually joined C-USA in 2005.

The AAC’s agreements with the six new schools — which were spread out over the last five days — ends the latest round of conference realignment that began last summer with Texas and Oklahoma accepting invitations to join the Southeastern Conference. That set off a wave of moves, with the Big 12 adding the University of Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida from the AAC and independent BYU, and the AAC quickly adding six C-USA schools to form a 14-team football league.

On Friday, the AAC said it reached agreements on $18 million exit fees with its three departing schools — who will join the Big 12 on the same date — to pave the way for Rice to finally set a concrete date to join its new league.

As part of the departure, Rice will forfeit two years of revenue distribution, an amount estimated at $3 million, according to an industry source familiar with the payouts.

The move to the AAC outweighs any short-term loss of revenue, with Rice expected to benefit from an increase in visibility (the AAC has a multimedia rights deal with ESPN) and boost financially. Football-playing schools in the AAC received anywhere from $5.33 million to $9.44 million in revenue distribution, according to tax documents for the 2020-21 fiscal year. C-USA schools receive $500,000.

The AAC’s press release is here. By “prior developments” I mean UH and other officially joining the Big XII in 2023. It just made sense for the AAC to fill out its roster with its new players at the same time. The question still remains about when UT and OU will leave the Big XII for the SEC, but they’re on their own timetable. It’s not a big deal for the most part if those two overlap with the new Big XII members for a season. I hope this conference is more durable and sustainable than previous ones were (I will admit for a fondness for the old and too-short-lived WAC 16, which honestly would have been an awesome conference if certain members hadn’t broken off to form the Mountain West) and that Rice does its part to improve its teams and facilities. It’s been a rough few years for Owl fans. I hope this is the start of something better.

UH will officially join the Big XII in 2023

No use waiting around.

The University of Houston will start play in the Big 12 in 2023 after the school came to an agreement on exit fees with the American Athletic Conference.

The Cougars will pay the AAC $18 million spread over 14 years to leave early and join the Power 5. The school will pay the first $10 million by 2024 with the rest to come in the following 12 years.

The Cougars, Cincinnati and Central Florida, are leaving the AAC and joining the Big 12 along with BYU, which as an indepentend already had announced plans to join in 2023.

The conference shift came after Texas and Oklahoma announced last summer they would leave the Big 12 and move to the SEC. Texas and Oklahoma still say they won’t move until 2025, so the Big 12 could have 14 teams for two seasons unless the schools negotiate an early departure.

The exit of the three schools from the AAC will also impact when Rice will leave Conference-USA to join the AAC along with UTSA, North Texas, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic and UAB.

UTSA announced its intent to join the AAC in 2023, while Rice said it hoped to release more information soon.

See here for some background. We noted this possibility in April. As for the exit fees, UH will be able to afford it.

While the Big XII may temporarily swell to 14 members in 2023 – which will make its name no less accurate than it is now, with ten members – I think there’s a strong chance that UT and OU will make their way to the SEC at the same time. UT is already scheduling games with Texas A&M, so really it’s all just paperwork and contract details at this point. By the same token, I’d expect Rice and its fellow C-USA refugees to be fully in the AAC in 2023. It was always the most likely scenario – every other conference reshuffling happened ahead of the originally announced timelines, because once that cat is out of the bag the incentives are very much in favor of moving things along. I’d expect the rest of those dominoes to fall in the coming weeks. CultureMap has more.

Get ready to start raking in the cash, UH

Money, money, money.

As the athletic director at Texas, Chris Del Conte is the CEO of one of the richest college athletic departments in the nation. He also knows what it’s like to have to make every penny count.

At TCU, Del Conte oversaw the school’s transition from the Mountain West to the Big 12 in 2012. As a member of the Mountain West, part of the so-called Group of Five, TCU never received more than $2 million in annual payout. So, when the Horned Frogs joined the Power Five, a change of address to the high-rent district of college athletes, you can imagine the shock of a few extra zeroes in the bank statement.

And that was before TCU became a fully vested member in its fourth year in the Big 12.

“Not right away, but there was for sure,” Del Conte said of the impact of an increased revenue flow for the Fort Worth private school. “The economics changed completely. There’s a big jump.”

A similar increase in revenue awaits the University of Houston, which along with BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida, could join the Big 12 as early as 2023.

Upon entry, UH won’t see anywhere close to the $42.6 million the Big 12 announced Friday on the final day of its spring meetings, but the not-yet-announced revenue distribution for the incoming schools will be a considerably more than the current setup in the American Athletic Conference.

UH received $8.52 million as part of its annual revenue payout from the AAC, according to tax documents for the 2020-21 fiscal year. That was the second-highest total among AAC schools behind Cincinnati ($9.44 million), according to the Orlando Sentinel. UH’s revenue payout was nearly double the $4.43 million in 2021 and $4.354 million in 2020.

Once UH joins the Big 12, it can expect a similar framework for revenue payouts as TCU and West Virginia, the last two teams to join the league in 2012. The two schools received staggered shares for three years, receiving 50 percent in Year 1, 67 percent in Year 2 and 84 percent in Year 3 before becoming fully vested in the fourth year.

[…]

What could the revenue payout look like for UH? Based on this year’s Big 12 payout of $42.6 million — much of that coming from TV revenue — and again the following two years, which would represent UH’s first in the league. That would translate into at least $20 million in Year 1 and at least $26 million in Year 2. After that is unknown as the Big 12’s TV deal with ESPN and Fox is set to expire in 2025, which coincides with Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the Southeastern Conference.

Last summer, Bowlsby told Texas lawmakers that the remaining eight schools could lose 50 percent, or about $14 million per year, in TV revenue upon Texas and Oklahoma’s departure.

So that’s more than double the revenue early on, with the possibility of a significant drop that would put them close to where they are now. That’s a lot hinging on that next TV contract. I suspect the Big XII will be fine – we’re unlikely to run low on demand for college football and basketball on the tube – but it does suggest a bit of caution before going all in on whatever expensive new toys are out there. Good luck figuring it out, y’all.

Big XII may get temporarily bigger

The dominoes fall when they fall.

Next week, the Big 12 plans to discuss the future of the conference regarding its expansion, per Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger.

Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are expected to join the Big 12 in the 2023–24 academic year, potentially joining the conference before Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC by the ’25 academic year.

Per The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, the American Athletic Conference still has to sign off on the three schools exit. The process so far has been amicable.

“No agreement has been reached to permit the three (UCF, Houston, Cincinnati) to leave early,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told Auerbach. “Our negotiations are continuing.”

Though their joining was already expected, the negotiations are expected to be finalized in the next week, according to Dellenger. BYU will also be joining the Big 12 in all sports, not just football.

There is a possibility that there will be 14 teams in the Big 12 during the 2023 and ’24 seasons. Conference officials will be meeting next week to discuss how a larger team pool could work, examining all possibilities including divisions and whether there should be eight or nine league games.

See here and here for some background. An early exit from the AAC by UH, UCF, and Cincinnati might hasten the arrival of its new members as well. Thing might be slightly less complicated if UT and OU are able to officially join the SEC in time for the 2023 season – which I have always thought would happen – but that’s a different domino. I feel like now that this one is in motion, the rest may follow, but we’ll see.

The UH wildlife cameras

I love stories like this.

A duck waddled between the trees of Glenwood Cemetery, not far from where four University of Houston students tied their camera to a trunk.

If the bird came closer to the lens, the device would detect a change of temperature or motion, and snap — start taking photos and providing the undergraduate research team with data. Their work Thursday marked the start of a monthlong survey of wildlife in Houston’s urban landscape, which is part of an ongoing study that has already yielded surprises for dozens of students and faculty at UH.

For instance: Bobcats live in the city limits. So do otters.

“I wasn’t aware of a lot of the animal populations that existed so close to the city,” UH biology senior Kaleb Barnes said at the cemetery, located just over a mile from downtown. “It’s kind of amazing, knowing how they’re able to inhabit the same space as us.”

Creating that awareness is Ann Cheek’s goal. And as leader of the project since it began in spring 2020, she helps students in three of her courses conduct the research and participate in the scientific method from start to finish, via planning, data collection, data analysis and presentations to local ecologists.

“There are lots of wild things living in the city,” said Cheek, an instructional professor of biology at UH. “It’s not just concrete and people.”

The research project, called “Hidden Life of Houston,” is a partnership between the university and the Memorial Park Conservancy. It feeds into a larger study led by the Urban Wildlife Information Network at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo.

Conservation is the focus, with researchers attempting to discover what species live where and whether their appearances follow seasonal trends. Cheek’s teams share that information with Houston environmental groups and give their findings to the Urban Wildlife network, which seeks to determine whether certain species are inherently more common in cities or whether their locations are more isolated.

You can see more about the project here and their photos here. I hope they find a way to set up some cameras in some bayous as well, because I know there will be some spectacular finds there. Whatever the case, this is super cool and I hope they make a ton of discoveries.

Caught between a mandate and a madman

I have sympathy for the schools.

Many Texas universities — which collectively hold billions of dollars in federal contracts — are wrestling with how to navigate the Biden administration’s mandate that all federal contractors be vaccinated by Dec. 8 in a state that bans vaccine mandates.

While more public universities across the country are announcing that all employees must be vaccinated to comply with the federal requirement, several Texas public universities — all managed by Gov. Greg Abbott appointees — told The Texas Tribune they are still evaluating the executive order, which applies to new federal contracts of $250,000 or greater and awarded as of Nov. 14 or existing contracts that have been renewed as of Oct. 15.

“This is unprecedented,” said Michael LeRoy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois College of Law. “There have been conflicts between the state and federal government, but not at this magnitude with this kind of money on the line.”

LeRoy believes the issue will be resolved in the courts because of the two conflicting issues at the center. State universities receive funding from the state and federal level but they are run by a board of regents appointed by the Texas governor.

While LeRoy said it’s unlikely the federal government will immediately terminate a grant if universities don’t comply, he said a university’s actions could impact future bids for federal grants. The federal government could begin to give notice to rescind a grant, he speculated, but that is a lengthy process. For now, universities are awaiting guidance from their own lawyers.

“… [T]he White House has been clear that noncompliance will not be excused, even in situations where state law contradicts the federal directive,” University of Houston spokesperson Shawn Lindsey told the Tribune in a statement. “It’s an extremely complicated situation that requires further analysis.”

Texas Tech University is working with its lawyers to determine if there are contracts that would trigger the vaccination requirement, school officials said in a statement. Texas Tech is also requesting guidance from the Texas attorney general’s office.

A Texas A&M University System spokesperson said they are also still evaluating the order. The A&M system has about 500 contracts with the federal government worth $2 billion, most of which are tied to the flagship university in College Station.

A statement from the University of Texas System revealed how universities are trying to appease both federal and state leaders.

“We will endeavor to comply with federal vaccine requirements for specific, covered individuals to protect these investments in our state,” spokesperson Karen Adler said in a statement. She then went on to say the system would provide exemptions for those with religious beliefs and “we will make every effort to accommodate employees’ personal situations.”

I think we can all guess what the AG’s office will say to Texas Tech, but the ritual must be observed. We’re all awaiting final guidance from OSHA, which is writing the rule that will implement that executive order. After that is when the lawsuits will fly. Not much else to say at this point, other than I do not envy any of these university officials the task they have before them.

American Athletic Conference to expand

Time for some more dominoes to fall.

The American Athletic Conference is set to consider expansion this week after six Conference USA programs applied for membership on Wednesday. If all six teams are added to the AAC, it would expand to become a 14-team league once realignment shakes out.

The six potential institutions looking to join the American from Conference USA include FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB, sources told CBS Sports on Monday. It’s expected that all six programs will be approved as new AAC members. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel first reported the movement.

Adding North Texas, UTSA and Rice would allow the AAC to retain a strong geographical foothold in Texas, while FAU would join South Florida in the conference, Charlotte and UAB would have regional partners in East Carolina and Memphis, respectively.

The potential moves comes months after AAC members Cincinnati, Houston and UCF opted to depart for the Big 12, leaving the league with just eight football-playing members. The AAC previously looked to the West by courting Mountain West institutions Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State. However, all four schools declined the possibility of moving conferences.

“We do want to get back to either 10 or 12 [schools],” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Orlando Sentinel in September. “We have some good candidates and we’re only dealing with candidates who have approached us — who have expressed an interest in us. It’s proceeding and I’m reasonably confident we’re going to end up as a strong conference and our goal is to be even stronger than before.”

The AAC is banking on safety in numbers. At 14 teams with many important geographic footprints under its belt, the American would stand with the Mountain West as the two strongest non-Power Five conferences. The move would also gouge Conference USA, which may now seek teams from the Sun Belt or a partnership with that conference after itself being reduced to eight members.

This round of realignment would leave Conference USA with just eight remaining members, which is one reason why it recently sought but failed to convince the AAC and Sun Belt to regroup along geographical lines. It is believed that there will remain 10 FBS conferences following this round of realignment.

[…]

The group puts an emphasis on big markets, featuring teams in Houston, San Antonio, Birmingham, Charlotte and on the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Other schools that will compete in the hypothetical AAC include SMU, Memphis, East Carolina, Temple, Tulsa, South Florida, Navy and Tulane.

It’s not clear what a 14-team AAC would be worth in media rights revenue. Conference USA schools get about $500,000 annually in their current TV deal. The AAC, as it currently exists, averages $7 million per team. That figure is expected to decline significantly after the loss of three schools to the Big 12.

Something like this was highly likely after UH and others left for the Big XII. As the story notes, it could have been the Mountain West adding members, but they decided it was better financially to stand pat. The AAC isn’t as strong as it was before the departures, but some of these schools look like up-and-comers, in particular UTSA, a large public school with a big city market all to itself in college sports. It’s a great move for Rice, which has had far more success in women’s sports in recent years (the women’s basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams all went to the NCAA tournament last year) than the men’s, but the step up in competition is a double-edged sword, to say the least.

The timing of this all hinges on when UT and Oklahoma make their actual move to the SEC, as everything else will follow that. I continue to believe that UT and OU will suit up for the SEC no later than the spring of 2023, and it won’t surprise me at all if they’re there for football in 2022. I guarantee, there’s plenty of talk going on about that right now. ESPN and the Chron have more.

UH officially joins the Big XII

Long time coming.

Hello, Big 12.

In a historic day, the University of Houston has accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference.

The Big 12’s presidents voted unanimously Friday to formally invite Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida to form a 14-team league.

UH will begin play in the Big 12 as early as fall 2023.

“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” UH chancellor Renu Khator said in a statement. “Our expectations for our University remain high, our aspirations continue to be bold, and we embrace this new opportunity to compete at the highest levels in all we do.”

[…]

As members of the American Athletic Conference, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF must give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league and pay a $10 million exit fee.

BYU is an independent in football and could join sooner.

What the Big 12 will resemble in a few years remains uncertain. Texas and Oklahoma said they will honor current contracts until 2025 when television rights with ESPN and Fox run out. Both schools would have to pay a buyout of $80 million to leave early.

See here for the background. Scheduling could be a little chaotic over the next season or two until everyone gets where they’re going. I’d bet a nickel on all the moving parts settling into their new places in time for next fall, but there’s a lot that could cause delays. I assume the AAC will now go trawling for some new members, so there’s still more to this story. In the meantime, congrats to the Coogs for finally catching the car they’ve been chasing since 1996.

The Big XII is finally ready for UH

Hope it was worth the wait.

Five years after a potential match fizzled, the University of Houston and Big 12 Conference are on the verge of uniting after all.

UH has emerged as a leading contender to join a reconfigured 12-team Big 12 with a formal vote planned for next week, two people with knowledge of the talks said Thursday.

The shift comes just over a month after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, starting another round of conference realignment that could eventually fulfill UH’s longtime desire to join one of the major conferences in college athletics.

Earlier reports Thursday by ESPN, The Athletic and the Dallas Morning News said the Big 12 has targeted UH, BYU, Central Florida and Cincinnati as expansion candidates to join the league’s eight remaining schools. Long the powerbrokers of the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma have accepted invitations to join the SEC in 2025.

The Big 12 requires eight of its current 10 members to approve candidates before expansion can occur. A person with knowledge of the process said UH is expected to receive unanimous approval.

The Morning News said the expansion timetable “remains very fluid,” with one source saying, “it can move as fast as everyone wants it to.”

[…]

By adding UH, UCF and Cincinnati, the Big 12 would raid the American Athletic Conference, which has long been considered the best league outside of the so-called Power Five that includes the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. The addition of the three schools would allow the Big 12 to remain involved in the Houston television market, extend its reach to Florida and add a Cincinnati program that begins this season in the football top 10.

BYU, which is independent in football, brings a strong national brand, large fan base due to its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and rich football tradition. All of BYU’s athletic programs except football currently play in the West Coast Conference.

See here for some background on the last time UH was on the Big XII dance card. As you know, this is all the result of UT and OU saying good-bye to the Big XII for greener pastures. Cincinnati and UCF make sense as additions and BYU is a nice get, probably the biggest non-Notre Dame free agent out there, but it’s going to make for some geographic challenges – Utah is a long way away from the next closest school in the conference. The PAC 12 probably makes more sense logistically for BYU, but they decided to stand pat for whatever the reason. BYU is now the center of another political and religious fight, which may bring some negative attention to their future conference and conference-mates, but that’s more or less the cost of doing business these days. The UH Board of Regents is having a special meeting today to discuss their Big XII prospects, and I think we can expect that they will go along with any plan to join up. So congrats, Coogs, you finally made it.

UPDATE: UH’s Board of Regents has officially approved pursuing Big XII membership.

The A&M and AAC responses to UT and OU and the SEC

Moving from denial to bluster.

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork has a message for any newcomers to the Southeastern Conference: “We’re ready.”

Texas and Oklahoma are preparing to exit the Big 12 and join the SEC, just as A&M did nearly a decade ago. The Longhorns and Sooners are expected to inform the Big 12 this coming week and begin preparing for their pending exits — and how soon they join the SEC (whether by 2022 or as late as 2025) is to be determined.

“We believe that throughout our time in the SEC, Texas A&M has become stronger than ever,” Bjork told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. “We’re the largest university in Texas and in the SEC. We have 550,000 former students. We’re knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, and our women’s basketball team is the reigning SEC champion. We’ve got so many Olympians. There are so many great things and strengths about our program.

“As you look at all of this and our landscape, our position is, ‘Who wouldn’t want to join?’ The SEC is in the best position to lead in this transformative time in college athletics, and obviously there are others wanting to join us in that journey. Here in Texas, we’ve paved that way, and we’ve been leading that way over the last 10 years.”

A&M and other SEC programs apparently were largely kept out of the loop on informal discussions among UT, OU and the SEC in recent months, and Bjork said A&M is addressing that with the league.

“Those conversations are being had … there are definitely procedural matters that need to come forward, and those things are being discussed,” Bjork said.

A&M is pivoting from its early stance when the Chronicle broke the news on Wednesday at SEC Media Days that UT and OU intended to join the powerful conference.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t blame A&M for feeling blindsided by this, but their first mistake was in thinking that anyone outside Aggie Nation cared. It’s all about the money, y’all.

I also found this amusing.

Back in summer 2016, schools from the so-called Group of Five lined up to make elaborate pitches to join the Big 12.

For three months, the University of Houston was among the reported favorites, along with Cincinnati, to join the Big 12. It would have been a monumental moment for Houston, which has long desired a seat at college football’s table of power brokers — and the exposure and lucrative payout that come with it.

It all turned out to be a three-month charade. The Big 12 eventually decided against expansion. Tilman Fertitta, UH’s deep-pocket board of regent chairman, blasted the process, calling it “a total sham” … “PR play” … “biggest ramrod, railroad, ever.”

Five years later, conference realignment is back on the table. This time it’s not just talk. As early as this week, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to declare their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

That once desirable Big 12 destination that had schools tripping over each other for admission like a sold-out concert. Not so desirable anymore.

And once on the verge of being raided, the AAC could open its doors to some, if not all, of the eight remaining teams from the Big 12, a group that includes Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU.

The AAC will not take a wait-and-see approach and instead will be aggressive in pursuit of the Big 12’s leftovers, an industry source confirmed Saturday. The Athletic was the first to report the AAC’s intentions.

For what it’s worth, in my previous update I linked to a Yahoo News story that suggested it would be the diminished Big XII that would be aggressive in courting AAC schools to join them. That has been the normal flow of events in the conference-hopping game, though one must admit that “Big XII minus UT and OU” is a lot less formidable, and maybe not so much bigger or grander than the AAC or the Mountain West. I just enjoyed the Mouse That Roared energy from this story. Maybe it plays that way and maybe it doesn’t, but I suppose there’s no harm in assuming one is now on equal terms with a former big boy. Where it stops, nobody knows.

Coronavirus and college sports update

What life is like for Texas’ college football teams.

In the world of COVID-19-era college football, Sunday is a day not for resting but for testing.

Each Sunday this fall brings a new set of checklists and guideposts that players and staff members must negotiate before they can think about playing, let alone winning, on any given Saturday.

It has not been a uniformly smooth road for Texas’ 12 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Nine of the 12 have had at least one game on their revised schedules affected by their own positive COVID tests or those of an opponent.

This weekend alone, Texas A&M and Rice were idle because their games against Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, respectively, were postponed as college football enters the final month of its truncated, delayed regular season. Nationally, 15 games were postponed or canceled this weekend.

But with the exception of Rice, which delayed its season opener into October, each of the 12 Texas schools will exit this weekend having played at least a half-dozen games, which speaks to their success in maintaining the discipline required for success and health.

“We’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds in the most social time of their lives to be more mature than many adults are being,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “They’re doing a pretty darn good job of following the rules and being disciplined.”

A month remains, though, in which things can go awry quickly.

“We can’t let our guard down,” said Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork. “We can’t get too comfortable, especially with our communities surging right now. But everyone has done a great job.”

While each of the five conferences represented by the 12 Texas schools — the American Athletic, Big 12, Conference USA, Southeastern and Sun Belt — have their own weekly procedures, all are on the same approximate schedule.

You can read on for the details, but basically it’s testing on Sunday and at least one other day, contact tracing and quarantining anyone who was in contact with someone who tested positive, coordinating with the visiting teams, and so on. With the exception of Texas State, every school that is playing football has had at least one game postponed, with those that had scheduled non-conference games having them mostly or all canceled. I’ll be honest, this has gone better than I expected in terms of getting the games played – the effect of the outbreak in the towns that have these universities is another story, but that’s about more than just the games – though the wisdom of doing this at all seems to have been accepted regardless of the outcome. I think we’re going to be debating that for a long time.

Meanwhile, this is the time of year when college basketball normally gets underway. Suffice it to say, there are challenges. At least football is played outdoors, where some of the COVID risks can be minimized. If there’s going to be basketball of any kind before a vaccine is fully rolled out, I don’t see how it can be done with fans in the stands. We’ll know what they’re up to soon.

UH-Hobby: Trump 50, Biden 45

Here’s a poll result that stands in contrast to the others we have seen lately.

President Donald Trump is leading Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden by more than five points among likely voters in Texas, according to a poll released Monday by the Hobby School for Public Affairs at the University of Houston.

The poll, conducted between Oct. 13 and Oct. 20, found 50% of voters said they already had or will vote for Trump, while 44.7% said they had or will vote for Biden.

Trump and running mate Mike Pence carried Texas by nine points in 2016.

The Republican edge held for statewide contests down the ballot, including for U.S. Senate, Texas Railroad Commission and three statewide judicial races covered by the poll.

“Record turnout in early voting clearly shows the state’s Democrats are energized, but at least at the top of the ticket, that enthusiasm appears unlikely to overcome the Republican advantage among men, Anglos and older voters,” said Renée Cross, senior director of the Hobby School. “In fact, we found the Republican candidate leading by wider margins in statewide races farther down the ballot.”

Among the findings:

  • More than 40% had already voted at the time of the poll. Biden held a substantial edge among those voters, leading Trump 59% to 39%. Almost two-thirds of those who plan to vote on Election Day said they will vote for Trump.
  • Incumbent U.S. Sen. John Cornyn leads Democratic challenger MJ Hegar 48.9% to 41.6%.
  • Republican Jim Wright is leading in the race for an open seat on the Texas Railroad Commission, with 46.8% of the vote; Democrat Chrysta Castañeda has 38.4%.
  • Biden holds a slight edge among women, 49.5% to 46%. Trump is preferred among men by a notably larger margin, 54.3% to 39.5%.
  • While 63% of Anglos support Trump, and 87% of African-American voters back Biden, the gap is narrower among Latino voters: 56% support Biden, and 38% back Trump.
  • Republican Nathan Hecht leads Democrat Amy Clark Meachum 47.5% to 40% for Texas Supreme Court chief justice. For Supreme Court Justice Place 6, Republican Jane Bland leads Democrat Kathy Cheng 49.2% to 40.1%.
  • Republican Bert Richardson leads Democrat Elizabeth Davis Frizell 48.2% to 38.3% for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Place 3.

The full report is available on the Hobby School website.

The Hobby School did a primary poll in February and one Trump-Clinton poll around this time in 2016; they also did a couple of polls of Harris County in 2016. As noted in their introduction, this was a YouGov poll, so similar in nature to the UT/Texas Tribune polls. As I alluded to in the headline, this is the first poll we’ve had in awhile that was this positive for Trump, and it especially stands in contrast with that UT-Tyler poll that came out over the weekend. What does one make of this?

You can peruse the poll data as you wish. I’m going to note one thing that really stood out to me. The following is a list of how Independent voters went in each of the last nine polls over the past month for which that data was available (in other words, skipping the Morning Consult polls). See if you can see what I saw:


Poll      Biden   Trump
=======================
UH-Hobby     34      51
UTT/DMN      51      29
Q'piac Oct   50      39
DFP          40      36
PPP          60      35
UT-Trib      45      37
UML          43      39
NYT/Siena    41      37
Q'piac Sep   51      43

Yeah, that’s a very different result for independent voters than for basically every other poll we’ve seen. Note that the UT-Trib poll had Trump up by five, as did the Quinnipiac poll from September (both were 50-45 for Trump, in fact), and that UMass-Lowell poll had Trump up 49-46. As the song goes, one of these things is not like the others.

There are other things that can be said about this poll – I appreciate the “who has voted” versus “who has yet to vote” distinction, and I appreciate the inclusion of downballot races though I tend to discount those results because of the increase in “don’t know” responses – but this is the main thing I wanted to cover.

Links to the cited polls, and their data or crosstabs page where the numbers I included can be found:

UT-Tyler/DMNdata
Quinnipiacdata
Data for Progressdata
PPPdata
UT-Trib (data about indies in quoted excerpt)
UMass-Lowelldata
NYT/Sienadata
Quinnipiacdata

I will also note that Jim Henson and Joshua Blank have observed a shift in independents’ preferences in Texas towards indies this cycle. And now I will stop beating this horse.

The Big XII will play football

That’s their plan, anyway.

The start of the Big 12 Conference’s college football season will move forward as scheduled, conference officials said Wednesday, meaning four major Texas football programs are one step closer to playing this fall.

“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a statement. The season will kick off Sept. 26, with the conference championship pegged for Dec. 12.

Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin are Big 12 members. The conference presidents’ decision to allow football during the coronavirus pandemic was made official Wednesday morning, a day after the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced their seasons would be postponed until the spring semester.

Bowlsby said member schools have committed to enhanced COVID-19 testing, with three tests per week in high contact sports. Non-conference football opponents must also adhere to testing protocols that match conference standards.

Texas A&M University is part of the Southeastern Conference, which has also signaled its intent to allow teams to play this fall.

“We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports as we monitor developments around COVID-19 in a continued effort to support, educate and care for our student-athletes every day,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in a statement Tuesday.

So that’s two Power 5 conferences not playing in the fall, two that say they are, and the ACC. Of course, there are a ton of questions that will have to be addressed before this can be taken seriously, such as “how exactly are you going to keep all those people safe”, “what will be the protocol when someone (or several someones) tests positive”, and “do you really think that allowing fans in the stands is a good idea”. You can have all the bravado you want, but you better have some idea of what you’re doing when something inevitably goes wrong. In the meantime, all I can say is that it’s going to be an interesting autumn. Or possibly spring, if things do change. Reform Austin has more.

Optimism abounds in the AAC

Good luck with that.

In the face of a pandemic, the American Athletic Conference will attempt to conduct business as usual this football season.

A plan announced Wednesday will allow AAC schools, including the University of Houston, to play a full 12-game schedule, if they so choose, and begin the season on time, even as COVID-19 continues to grip the U.S.

The AAC will play all eight of its conference games as originally scheduled beginning Sept. 19, and schools can schedule as many as four nonconference opponents, according to the plan unanimously approved by the AAC’s Board of Directors.

“We wanted to keep our eight-game schedule the way it was, not to be too disruptive to the teams,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco said during a phone interview Wednesday. Asked about the uncertainty of playing a full 12-game schedule due to COVID-19, Aresco added: “We’re not sure that our teams can get to 12. There’s a lot that could affect that. This is the most unusual year we’ve ever faced.”

UH is expected to play an 11-game schedule, which begins Sept. 3 against Rice at TDECU Stadium. A 12th game — a nonconference trip to Washington State on Sept. 12 — was canceled with the Pac-12’s decision to play a conference-only schedule and is unlikely to be filled, a person with knowledge of the situation said.

I mean, I’m sure they’d like to do that. Many conferences are greatly restricting or eliminating non-conference games – the Big XII will allow for one non-conference game, others like the PAC 12 are doing none – so the extra games for AAC members may prove challenging to set up. Well, extra games with major-conference schools, anyway.

I remain perplexed by the belief that we’re going to have college football as if it were a normal year. The “bubble” concept seems to be working (or has worked) for basketball and soccer, while MLB baseball has had more than its share of problems with its rollout. I don’t see any reason to think that the players will be safe – never mind the coaches and staff and everyone else – and the idea that there could be fans in the stands is even more bizarre. On the other end of that spectrum, former AAC member UConn will not play football at all this fall. Maybe they’re the forward-thinking ones. The Trib has a more comprehensive roundup of what the various conferences are planning, for now. I’d assume all of that is written on the sand, at low tide. All I can say is, there’s not much time for things to get better before the games, such as they may be, begin.

What kind of college football season will there be?

News item: Governor says to expect half-full stadiums for college football.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told athletic directors from the state’s largest schools to expect 50 percent capacity at football games this fall, USA Today reported, but Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork is remaining optimistic.

With more than 80 days to Texas A&M’s first scheduled game against Abilene Christian at Kyle Field, Bjork said this is no time for absolutes when determining college attendance in the late summer and fall, based on the global pandemic.

“As of today, we still have time on our side,” Bjork said Saturday. “And we will not make decisions based on incomplete information.”

USA Today reported that Abbott met with the dozen athletic directors from the state’s Football Bowl Subdivision programs via teleconference Friday, and “told them not to expect capacity at their stadiums to be above 50 percent this fall.”

“The governor was very gracious with his time and provided us with insights into the current situation,” Bjork responded Saturday. “It’s disappointing that information from the meeting leaked since the discussion was meant to be confidential, and I will not disclose the details of the conversation and violate Gov. Abbott’s trust.”

Bjork, hired by A&M a year ago from the same position at Mississippi, added: “As we’ve learned throughout this unprecedented situation, everything remains fluid, and there are a number of scenarios for attending upcoming pro and college sporting events.”

Bjork has expressed confidence this month that Kyle Field might be near its capacity of more than 100,000 as the fall schedule presses on. The Aggies are scheduled to host ACU on Sept. 5 in coach Jimbo Fisher’s third season.

Emphasis mine, and the Chron has a separate story expanding on Bjork’s rather optimistic hypothesis. Abbott had previously stated that he expected college football to be played, though he didn’t specify at what capacity the stadia might be. I will remind you that at this point, all of the professional sports leagues, from the ones that are now playing to those that are still planning their comebacks, are playing in empty arenas. It’s impossible for me to square that with the likes of Kyle Field at full capacity. They can’t both be right.

And on that note, we have this:

The University of Houston abruptly halted voluntary workouts Friday after six student-athletes tested positive for COVID-19.

In a release, UH said it was suspending workouts – which began June 1 with football and men’s and women’s basketball – “out of an abundance of caution.” The school said the six symptomatic student-athletes had been placed in isolation and contract tracing procedures have been initiated.

The announcement comes nearly two weeks since voluntary workouts began and as the Houston area has seen a recent surge in positive tests for COVID-19.

UH becomes the first school to suspend athletic activities since the NCAA cleared the return of student-athletes back to campus following a nearly three-month shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

UH only tested student-athletes that showed symptoms or came from areas that had a high number of positive cases, a person with knowledge of the protocol told the Houston Chronicle earlier this week. Athletic officials have declined comment.

In other words, there are others they didn’t test that might possibly be positive as well. The story lists fourteen other schools that have reported athletes with positive COVID-19 tests, including three in the SEC. It is very likely that all of these athletes will recover fully – I certainly hope they all do – and now that they have been tested they can be quarantined so as not to pass the virus on to anyone else. UH is the only school in this story that actually stopped its voluntary workouts as a result of this, which is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. My point here is that whatever the likes of Greg Abbott and Ross Bjork may say or do, they ultimately have very little control over this virus. And as I keep saying, they don’t seem to have much of a plan for it, either.

UPDATE: Welp.

Several Texans and Cowboys players have tested positive for COVID-19, including Dallas star running back Ezekiel Elliott, according to the NFL Network.

The players who tested positive reportedly weren’t in attendance at their team facilities, which have remained closed due to NFL restrictions limiting their use only to rehabilitating injured players during this global pandemic. Both teams have followed medical protocols.

[…]

NFL teams, including the Texans, have taken steps to ensure the safety of players, coaches and staff. The Texans created a new position, hiring a facility hygiene coordinator earlier this offseason. The Texans are believed to be the first professional sports team to add this type of specialized position.

The intention is to minimize the risk factor of getting or spreading COVID-19 and supervise the custodial staff, which is provided by Aramark.

I know, that’s NFL, not NCAA. My point is, it’s not just a question of whether or not it’s safe to have fans in the stands. There’s still the little matter of whether it’s actually safe to have the players practice and play together.

Whither college football?

All NCAA spring sports were canceled due to coronavirus, beginning with March Madness and going through baseball and softball and soccer and everything else. Everyone has been looking forward to the fall when things were supposed to be back to “normal” again, but no one knows for sure what might happen.

NCAA Division I college sports in Texas is a billion-dollar business for the 23 participating schools, and athletic directors estimate 75 percent to 85 percent of that revenue is tied directly to football in terms of ticket sales, sponsorships, media rights fees and, for most schools, direct contributions from the students or the university.

All those revenue streams are in jeopardy with 20 weeks to go before the scheduled football season openers in late August, which is why college athletic directors are game-planning every potential scenario that comes to mind.

“The financial repercussions of not playing a football season are so significant there is going to be a way to do it and play it and do it responsibly,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said last week on KBME (790 AM), the school’s sports flagship station.

“If you don’t have that revenue stream that is associated with football, it gets dire very fast. … I am confident we are going to find a way through this and we’ll be able to play the season, whether it’s pushed back a little bit or the idea of playing in the spring.”

At Texas A&M, athletic director Ross Bjork is running through similar scenarios involving the mathematics of time and money.

Regular and postseason football requires four months with the addition of the College Football Playoff, and that must be preceded, Bjork said during a conference call last week, by a 60- to 75-day preparation period for players who have been outside the watchful, demanding eyes of strength coaches for several weeks.

John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said last week October would not be too late to begin a complete 2020 season, which would presume a return of players, based on Bjork’s time model, in mid-July.

However, what flies in Texas might not work in other states.

As an example, the executive officer of Santa Clara County in northern California, which includes Stanford University and Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, said last week he did not expect “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”

A&M, Bjork noted, is scheduled to play Colorado at College Station on Sept. 19. There’s no guarantee, however, Colorado will be in the same stage of recovery as Texas by mid-September.

Accordingly, Bjork said he expects a “layered” approach to football’s return, based on the advice of conference and university leaders and local and state governments.

“There’s not one trigger point,” he said. “We’re all just guessing, really. We don’t know what the data will tell us. We can model, but until you know when you’re starting or when you can have togetherness, it’s kind of hard to predict.”

It’s hard to imagine how sports like Major League Baseball can contemplate their return if the start of the NCAA football season is in jeopardy. Of course, MLB has the “play their games in hermetically sealed stadia in a small number of locations with no fans” option, which college football does not. I don’t doubt the desire or the intent to bring the games back, even if starting the season in December and essentially playing a spring season is a possible way forward. But as with everything else, there’s only so long you can push back one season before you push up against the next one, and there’s no way to know what the effects will be on fans, who may not be ready to tailgate and pack into venues just yet. It’s good for the leagues to prepare for all possibilities. You never know, things might go better than expected. It’s just all so massively weird right now.

Sen. Kirk Watson to retire

Well, this was unexpected.

Sen. Kirk Watson

State Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, is retiring from the Texas Senate.

His resignation is effective at midnight on April 30, the Austin American-Statesman first reported Tuesday. Watson is leaving office to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs.

“This is a chance to build a world-class public affairs and policy school essentially from the ground up,” Watson said in a statement. “It is transformative work at a creative and ambitious university, located in one of the country’s largest and most diverse cities. … Only a unique opportunity to serve this state — and a compelling platform for that service — would cause me to leave.”

Watson, an attorney and former mayor of the city of Austin, represents Senate District 14, a historically Democratic seat. It covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County. He was first elected to the seat in 2006, taking office in early 2007.

Watson’s early departure will set off a special election to serve the rest of the term, which will end in 2023. Watson delivered his resignation letter this morning to Gov. Greg Abbott, who will later set the date for a special election.

The race to replace Watson is likely to be a crowded one and could include multiple members of the Texas House’s Austin delegation.

Here’s Watson announcing his departure on Twitter:

Watson was re-elected in 2018 with 72% of the vote, so this is a safe Democratic seat. The special election, which will be for the remainder of this term ending in 2021, will almost certainly be in November, so it won’t be a low-turnout affair, either. I will be shocked if we don’t see at least a couple of current members of the Lege from Travis County take a shot at this. For one, it’s a freebie – you’ll still be on the ballot for your current seat, and won’t need to step down unless you win. For another, opportunities like this don’t come along very often – Watson was first elected in 2006, after all, following the departure of Gonzalo Barrientos. Every State Rep in SD14 should be giving this serious thought.

And if one of the current State Reps eventually wins this, we’ll be in for another round of Special Legislative Elections Happening During A Legislative Session. Assuming no one wins the SD14 special in November, there would be a December runoff. That would mean a special State House election in mid-to-late January, and a runoff if needed in late February or early March. Is it wrong that I’m just a tiny bit giddy about that?

Anyway. Watson was a terrific Senator, and he will be missed. I look forward to seeing him around Houston. Chuck Lindell has a thread with reactions from various potental candidates, and the Statesman and the Chron have more.

A wrapup for early voting

Here’s the Chron story on the end of early voting.

Early voting ended Friday with a late surge in turnout among Harris County voters, surpassing voter participation in some prior mayoral election years but falling short of totals seen during the last city election in 2015.

Through 12 days of early voting, more than 152,000 voters cast ballots ahead of the Tuesday election, with about 137,000 voting in person and some 15,000 returning mail ballots. The total represents about 6.5 percent of Harris County’s more than 2.3 million registered voters, far less than the 9.4 percent early voting turnout in 2015 but slightly more than the 5.6 percent turnout in 2013.

Harris County was on track to fall slightly short of 2013 turnout before Friday’s influx of more than 34,000 voters. The final day turnout was roughly double this year’s prior single-day high and accounted for more than one-fifth of overall early voting turnout.

The overall standard turnout rate comes despite a Houston mayoral race that has seen a record $16 million spent between the 12 candidates, according to Rice University political scientist Mark Jones, and several months of vigorous campaigning by Tony Buzbee and Bill King, the top two challengers to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

“For all the money spent, all the bluster, all the hype — that has done nothing to increase turnout,” said Houston Democratic strategist Keir Murray. “We’re seeing a very typical, low-interest municipal election with the great majority of voters being people who always vote.”

[…]

Harris County’s unremarkable turnout reflects the same relatively low voter participation seen in mayoral elections earlier this year in Dallas and San Antonio, Aiyer added. In Bexar County, which includes San Antonio, just 11.5 percent of registered voters turned out for the May election, which included a mayoral contest.

“I think there was a faulty assumption coming off of 2018 that we would have really high turnout,” Aiyer said. “And I think that’s just not borne out by the data at the municipal level statewide.”

The underlying early voting data also show that candidates are drawing few new voters to the polls. Through Thursday, 93 percent of Houston voters in Harris County had participated in at least two of the last three general elections, with 75 percent voting in all three, according to data from the Texas Democratic Party shared by Murray. Just 2 percent did not vote in any of the last three elections.

See here for the final data, and here for Keir’s Saturday Twitter thread on who did the voting. At this point, I think the odds are in favor of betting the under on my 200K to 220K projection for Houston. The 2009 Mayor’s race (178K in Harris County) and 2013 Mayor’s race (174K in Harris County) are looking like better comps. It’s possible that Election Day turnout will be higher than expected – the four-year cycle may be altering previous patterns, and the Astros’ playoff run may have distracted people – but probably not. I’ll run through some scenarios tomorrow and come up with concrete numbers to throw around.

In the meantime, the new college campus EV locations got positive reviews.

The University of Houston’s Student Center was bustling over the weekend with pre-Halloween festivities, at least one lively pep rally, sorority and fraternity events, and, for the first time, early voting.

“It’s been a fair turnout, and people who have voted are very appreciative that the voting is happening here,” Bruce Davis, an alternative election judge for Harris County, said Monday.

Numbers at UH’s polling station — like those at two other new early-voting locations in the county — were modest, and Davis said there were still kinks to be worked out.

This year, the Harris County Clerk’s Office introduced three new early polling locations — at UH, Texas Southern University and Houston Community College’s West Loop campus — in hopes of reaching at least 50,000 more voters, mostly students, according to Michael Winn, administrator of elections for the Harris County Clerk’s office, which oversees elections. The target includes 40,000 new voters at UH alone. The office is now led by Democrat Diane Trautman, who unseated Republican incumbent Stan Stanart last year and has backed countywide election centers to encourage higher turnout.

As of Wednesday evening, the early-voting totals were 750 at UH, 452 at TSU and 796 at HCC’s West Loop campus. But officials were not worried. According to Winn, it’s all a part of the process as people adjust to their new polling locations. In the meantime, officials are keeping a watchful eye ahead of next year’s primary and presidential elections.

“We just want to begin to lay the foundation for those locations to already be in place so people will be accustomed to going to those locations and utilizing the facilities,” Winn said.

In the end, the HCC location got 1,262 early votes, UH got 1,125, and TSU got 750. It’s a decent start for brand new locations. I agree that 2020 is both the priority and the bigger test.

Boosting student turnout at UT

Cool story.

Between 2013 and 2016, Texas eliminated more than 400 polling locations, the largest drop in any state during that time. In 2013, after years of litigation, it implemented a strict voter ID law. The law, which lists seven kinds of acceptable IDs, became infamous for its brazenly partisan implications—handgun licenses are okay, for example, while student IDs are not.

All of which makes the following statistic so surprising: at the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship university, undergraduate turnout increased from almost 39 percent to 53 percent between 2012 and 2016. Over that same time period, national youth turnout stayed roughly constant. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University, which calculates campus voting rates, has not yet released numbers for last year’s midterms. But at UT Austin’s on-campus polling locations, the number of early ballots cast was more than three times higher than it was in 2014. (Travis County only provides polling site specific data for early voting.)

[…]

On August 5, 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. The state’s attorney general vowed to enforce it anyway.

Later that month, a friendly and fast-talking former journalist named Kassie Phebillo arrived in Austin to begin a PhD in political communications at the University of Texas. To support herself financially, she took a job overseeing TX Votes, the nonpartisan organization charged by the university with increasing turnout. At the time, the group barely existed. It had just one returning member, and both of Phebillo’s would-be supervisors had left the school before she even showed up.

Still, Phebillo was drawn to the opportunity to learn more about her field and to mentor students. “I’m a first-gen college student,” she said. “Having those relationships changed my life, and so I try to do that for others.” She sat down with the sole returning TX Votes member—then senior Zach Foust—and began discussing how to restructure the group. They studied how other schools worked to get out the vote and found themselves particularly interested in colleges where students partnered with diverse groups to boost registration and turnout. The two decided to establish a civic engagement alliance and began recruiting a host of student clubs, political and nonpolitical alike, to come on board. By the end of the 2015–16 school year, a small but eclectic group of campus organizations had joined—from the Longhorn League of United Latin American Citizens to the chess club.

Phebillo and Foust asked that clubs in the alliance have one member become a volunteer deputy registrar, part of a broader strategy to create a network of students who could register voters across campus. To accomplish that, Phebillo brought county officials to campus to hold registrar training sessions and asked TX Votes members to bring their friends. Like any good college event planner, they provided free pizza to attract a bigger audience. The events were popular. Between September 2015 and the 2016 election, TX Votes helped train well over 100 volunteer deputy registrars. Together, they registered more than 17,000 voters.

I met Phebillo at UT Austin in early July 2019, in the middle of one of the university’s many freshman orientation sessions. She gave me a partial tour of campus. Inside the offices of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, she showed me a shelf stocked with national turnout awards and trophies won by TX Votes. One award was for having the most improved undergraduate turnout rate of any college in the country.

Later, I joined Phebillo at the student activities fair, where representatives of TX Votes were trying to recruit new members. Rising sophomore Janae Steggall was especially busy, hustling for the attention of what seemed like every incoming freshman who passed by. “What’s your major?” she would shout. Whatever the reply, Steggall would motion the student closer and deliver her pitch: “Awesome! We’re TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization on campus focused on voter registration and education.”

As I chatted with Phebillo and her team, it became clear that TX Votes has developed a sizable footprint on campus. Phebillo told me that during the 2016–17 school year, TX Votes deepened its involvement in the network of national organizations that help universities bolster turnout. It participated in both the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Voter Friendly Campus program, drawing up a detailed plan that both created new initiatives and evaluated past work. After the 2016 election, the group further expanded its civic engagement alliance, which now has more than 100 organizational members. In March 2017, Phebillo became certified to train volunteer deputy registrars herself, allowing TX Votes to increase its training output.

One year later, in March 2018, several TX Votes members successfully campaigned to get the county to open a second polling place on campus. The group also devised a new strategy for registering students: visiting classrooms. Class, they reasoned, is where college students go (or, at least, are supposed to go), and students might be more tempted to register if everyone around them were registering as well. But to take advantage of this, TX Votes first needed permission from the university’s faculty.

“We emailed every single professor teaching a course at this university in fall 2018,” Anthony Zhang, the group’s incoming president, told me. “We had to manually compile that list, starting with accounting and going all the way down to Yiddish.”

I asked how long it took to get contact information for the school’s roughly 3,000 faculty. Zhang shook his head. “I honestly don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

There’s more, so go read the rest. As the story notes, TX Votes was helped by having a great working relationship with Travis County elected officials, in particular the two that are directly involved with elections, the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor. Thanks to the 2018 election, we now have a County Clerk in Harris County that is invested in helping people vote – the recent announcement about early voting centers coming to the UH and TSU campuses being a prime example of this – so now we also have an opportunity to follow TX Votes’ example. Let’s see if we can get those two added to the Best Colleges for Student Voting list next year. In the meantime, you can follow TX Votes on Facebook and Twitter.

Early voting locations coming to UH and TSU

Nice.

Students at the University of Houston and Texas Southern University will be able to cast ballots on campus in this November’s general election, the Harris County Clerk’s office announced Monday.

For the first time, the two schools will host early voting sites. In the past, students could only vote on campus on Election Day.

“It’s so important for young people to be involved in the election process,” said Diane Trautman, the county clerk.

Administrators at both schools, which combined have more than 50,000 students, praised the move.

“Hosting a polling station will allow convenient access for our thousands of students, faculty, staff and members of the community to exercise their civic right to vote,” said Jason Smith, vice chancellor at the University of Houston.

Here’s the County Clerk’s statement about this. This serves a number of needs – among other things, there has long been room for more EV locations inside the Loop – and it is consistent with the campaign Diane Trautman ran for County Clerk in 2018. Elections have consequences.

Houston to get XFL 2.0 team

For those of you that need more football.

TDECU Stadium at the University of Houston will be the home field for Houston’s team in the XFL, the spring football league owned by WWE chairman Vince McMahon that will begin play in 2020, the league announced Wednesday.

Joining Houston among the eight XFL charter cities are teams in Dallas-Fort Worth, playing at Arlington’s Globe Life Stadium, plus Los Angeles (StubHub Center), New York-New Jersey (MetLife Stadium), St. Louis (The Dome at America’s Center), Seattle (CenturyLink Field), Tampa (Raymond James Stadium) and Washington, D.C. (Audi Field).

Houston’s team has yet to be named, but the announcement signals a return to the city’s football heyday of the 1980s, when the upstart USFL’s Houston Gamblers shared the pro football landscape with the established Oilers, much as the XFL now will do with the Texans.

Coincidentally, the announcement of Houston’s XFL selection came from the league’s president, Oliver Luck, who was a quarterback for the Oilers during the Gamblers’ 1984-85 run at the Astrodome.

“We believe the Houston-Harris County area is a fantastic place for one of our franchises, given the deep love and passion that people here have for football at all levels,” Luck said in an interview prior to Wednesday’s announcement.

“It was a pretty easy decision to place a franchise in Houston.”

[…]

Houston will be in the XFL’s Western Division with Dallas-Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Seattle. New York, Tampa, St. Louis and Washington will comprise the Eastern Division. Teams will play a 10-game regular season, followed by two semifinals and a championship game.

Teams will have 45-man rosters with seven-member practice squads. A centralized “Team Nine” of players under contract to the league will be available to replenish rosters as needed.

While Luck did not offer details, he said the XFL continues with what he described as a “reimagining” of football as it awaits its 2020 debut.

“We’re looking at some of the administrative rules of the game – time outs and other things – and at what technology can do to improve and enhance the game,” he said.

“Our goal is to have a fast-paced, high-octane game with less down time – less stall and more ball. It will be a rock-’em, sock-’em, 11-on-11 game.”

See here and here for some background. All this sounds good, but in an earlier version of this story, there was this:

The new XFL, league officials have said, aims to offer an alternative to fans disenchanted with the increased length of NFL games and the social activism of some of its players. Games will last under three hours, and the league has said that anthem protests will not be allowed.

Yeah, I’m not going to support that. If you want a different option, there’s yet another league in the pipeline, and San Antonio is a charter member. There will be more than one way to get your extra football fix.

Next B-Cycle expansion approved

Good.

Expansion of Houston’s bike sharing system is pretty much in high gear after City Council on Wednesday signed off on a $4.1 million plan to roughly triple the number of bikes and kiosks.

With the agreement in place, local B-Cycle operators can proceed with their plan to purchase 568 bikes and install 71 new kiosks where people can check out a bike.

By 2018, Houston is slated to have roughly 100 stations and 800 bicycles spread across the central business district, Midtown, Texas Medical Center, Montrose, Rice Village and around the University of Houston and Texas Southern University campuses.

Seventeen of the stations in the medical center and Museum District should be operational by March, said Carter Stern, executive director of Houston’s bike sharing system.

Stern said new stations will pop up in Midtown and the Montrose area in the summer, with stations on the college campuses expected to open in the fall.

“The rest of the allocated stations will occur piecemeal as we finalize locations and secure the matching funding,” Stern said last month.

This expansion was announced in August, with funding coming from a TxDOT grant and the nonprofit Houston Bike Share. Usage continues to grow as well, and in the parts of town where B-Cycle exists and will exist getting around on a bike often makes more sense than driving and parking. I look forward to further growth, and eventual further expansion.

Big XII declines to expand

Sorry, UH.

The University of Houston’s campaign to join the Big 12 Conference was crushed Monday by the league’s presidents, who ruled out expansion without discussing the merits of any individual applicants, including the confident, fast-rising Cougars.

Bob Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, and University of Oklahoma President David Boren, president of the league’s board of directors, said league CEOs decided unanimously against expansion and agreed to remove the topic as an active agenda item.

They said individual candidates, including UH and Rice University among 11 finalists, were never discussed during meetings Sunday night and a six-hour session Monday.

“We all came to a unanimous decision that this was not the right time (for expansion),” Boren said. “All the information generated was not wasted effort. They (candidate schools) presented themselves in a very fine light, and we appreciate them.”

Those compliments, however, came as cold comfort to schools such as UH that have invested tens of millions of dollars in facility upgrades and coaching salaries in the hopes of joining one of the “Power Five” conferences that hold the financial upper hand in the billion-dollar college sports industry.

So while UH stands among the nation’s elite on the field, ranked No. 11 in the most recent Associated Press football poll and the defending football champion in the American Athletic Conference, it remains on the outside looking in when it comes to the millions in financial spoils that fall to established leagues like the Big 12.

Here’s the official press release about the non-announcement. The Big XII last invited new members in 2011 when TCU and West Virginia joined. UH had been angling for an invitation back then – they’ve been at this for longer than that – but wound up going to the conference formerly known as the Big East instead. I’m not a UH partisan so I don’t have an emotional investment in this; I find the whole neverending game of musical conferences to be amusing and enervating at the same time. It may be that this is a wise decision for the Big XII and it may be that they’re putting short-term and self-interested considerations ahead of their long-term viability. Who knows? The one thing I’m sure of is that this settles nothing. We’ll be back on this rollercoaster before you know it. SB Nation, the Press, and the DMN’s SportsDay have more.

Next B-Cycle expansion announced

From the inbox:

Houston’s bike share system, Houston B-cycle, will more than triple in size over the next two years, adding 71 stations with 568 bikes. The expansion will be paid for with federal grant dollars.

“The expansion of the B-cycle system will bring bike sharing into new neighborhoods and to new users,” said Mayor Turner. “As I’ve said, we need a paradigm shift in transportation away from single-occupancy motor vehicles. Making cycling more accessible by building a strong bike sharing system is a critical component of that change.”

The City’s Planning and Development Department sponsored an application for a grant from the Federal Highway Administration. The grant will reimburse the City for $3.5 million of the cost of expanding the system. Houston Bike Share, a local nonprofit that administers Houston B-cycle, will provide the remaining $880,000.

Currently, the system has 31 stations with 225 bikes. The expansion will bring the total to 102 stations and 793 bikes. The grant will also pay for two new transportation vehicles.

Houston B-cycle is a membership-driven bike share system. Memberships are available by day, week or year. All members have unlimited access to the bikes for up to 60 minutes per trip. There is a charge of $2 for every additional half hour.

The expansion brings bike sharing into the Texas Medical Center with 14 stations and 107 bikes. The new stations will also serve Houston’s students, with 21 new stations and 248 bikes at the University of Houston Main Campus, Texas Southern University, UH-Downtown and Rice University.

Since January 1, cyclists have made 73,577 trips and traveled 508,044 miles. Houston Bike Share CEO Carter Stern estimates Houstonians are on track to exceed 100,000 trips by the end of 2016.

“We could not be more grateful for the Mayor and City Council’s unflagging support of the Houston B-Cycle program and our efforts to expand the program,” Stern said. “The expansion approved today will allow us to build on the immense success that B-Cycle has had in just 4 short years and bring this affordable, healthy, sustainable mobility option to more Houstonians than ever before.”

Sounds good to me. There isn’t an updated system map yet, but this does a lot to expand B-Cycle outside the borders of downtown/Midtown, in areas that are dense and proximate to light rail lines. You know how I feel about using the bike network to extend transit reach, and B-Cycle is a great fit for the rail stations because trains are often too crowded to bring a bike onto them. I can’t wait to see what the new map looks like. The Press has more.

KUHA sale completed

Say goodbye to classical music on your terrestrial radio.

Houston Public Media’s classical musical station transitions to an all-digital format starting at 9 a.m. Friday, July 15.

It’s a result of Christian radio station KSBJ agreeing to purchase the KUHA 91.7 FM signal from the University of Houston — which holds the license — in February 2016.

“We are happy that the ownership of KUHA will stay in local hands and we are excited about the future,” Houston Public Media Associate Vice President and General Manager Lisa Shumate said in a statement. “Houston Public Media’s commitment to multi-platform arts and culture content, in addition to classical music, is stronger than ever.”

[…]

KUHA 91.7 FM was purchased from Rice University for $9.5 million in 2010. Most of the classical music and arts programming produced by Houston Public Media moved to the new station, along with live broadcasts with the Houston Symphony, the Houston Grand Opera and local performing artists and groups. KUHF then adopted a 24-hour all news and information format.

See here for the background. KUHA continues to exist as an HD station, and of course there’s always streaming. But if you like to listen to classical music in your car, and you don’t have an HD receiver, you’re out of luck. And so it goes.

Former KTRU to become Christian station

Well, that’s different.

KSBJ Educational Foundation, which owns and programs noncommercial Christian music radio stations, acquired the 50,000-watt KUHA (91.7 FM). Subject to Federal Communications Commission approval, the station could switch from its current classical format to NGEN by late May or early June.

UH in 2010 acquired the station for $9.5 million from Rice University, where it was known for years as KTRU, and aired classical music on the signal before deciding last year to put the station on the market and move its classical programming to digital formats.

“It’s a good result for Houston because classical service continues and the station stays in the hands of local owners and experienced broadcasters,” said Lisa Shumate, general manager of Houston Public Media. “It enables us to continue to provide multi-platform arts and culture coverage and use our resources for continued focus in news and other local content initiatives.”

[…]

Classical music will continue on 91.7 FM until the sale is approved and also can be heard at KUHF (88.7 FM HD-2), the Houston Public Media mobile app, at HoustonPublicMedia.org, on over the air television at Channel 8.5 and through iHeartRadio and TuneIn and other free mobile applications.

We first heard about this last August. Whatever you think of the whole KTRU situation – and for what it’s worth, KTRU is back on the air, if you can find it – this now means there will no longer be a non-HD FM station devoted to classical music in Houston. That just feels wrong, but then no one asked me.

B-Cycle expansion coming

Good.

Houston area officials are investing hundreds of millions of dollars into widening Interstate 45, and they could be paying much more for even larger upcoming projects along the corridor.

But a comparatively-paltry sum is about to boost bike sharing in Houston in a big way.

The same transportation improvement plan aiming $140 million at I-45 includes $4.7 million meant to expand the B-Cycle program in the city. The plan is set for discussion Friday by the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Council.

The money, including a 21 percent match from B-Cycle, will add stations in the Texas Medical Center and Rice Village in one phase, increase density in the downtown and Midtown area from the Med Center in another, before expanding east and southeast to EaDo and the University of Houston and Texas Southern University area.

“By the time this is finished, our goal is to go from 29 stations and 210 bikes to 100 stations with 800 bikes,” said Will Rub, director of Houston B-Cycle.

[…]

Having 800 bikes at Houston kiosks would build on what supporters have said is strong use of the bikes by Houston residents and visitors. From January to July, more than 60,000 bike checkouts occurred. The theory, following on similar reaction in Denver, is more stations and bikes exponentially increase use, provided the stations are where people want to go.

See here, here, and here for some background. According to the Mayor’s press release, about $3.8 million is coming from H-GAC, and the rest is from B-Cycle, which as he story notes has generally covered most of its operating costs. Having more stations will make B-Cycle a lot more usable; I personally have had a couple of recent occasions where I needed to get somewhere on the edges of downtown from my office, but the nearest B-Cycle station was far enough away from my destination that it wasn’t worth it. Especially now with the rerouted buses and the new rail lines, expanding B-Cycle access will make transit that much more convenient as well. I look forward to seeing where the new kiosks go. The Highwayman has more.