Bob Bowlsby has announced he will step down as commissioner of US college sports’ Big 12 Conference later this year.

Bowlsby, who has held the role since 2012, has opted to end his tenure early, with three years still remaining on his current contract.

He will stay on until a new commissioner is appointed and, at the request of the Big 12, will then transition to a new interim role with the conference.

The Big 12 said it is “interviewing and engaging an executive search consulting firm to assist it in an extensive national search process for the new commissioner, which will begin in the next few weeks”.

Bowlsby’s decision comes eight months after the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma, the league’s two most prominent members, announced they will be leaving the Big 12 to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC) from 2025.

He was hugely critical of their decision to move to the SEC and claimed ESPN was involved behind the scenes, going as far as to send a letter to the major US broadcaster accusing it of trying to “destabilize” the league.

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The Big 12 quickly moved to replace the schools and last September announced it will expand by adding four new members – Brigham Young University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Cincinnati, and the University of Houston.

The schools will join the league no later than the 2024-25 academic year.

Bowlsby, who turned 70 in January, said: “After more than 40 years of serving in leadership roles in intercollegiate athletics, including the last 10 with the Big 12, and given the major issues that college sports in general and the Big 12 specifically will address in the next several years, I have reached a natural transition point in my tenure as commissioner, as well as in my career.
“The Big 12 will soon bring in our four new members and negotiate a new grant of rights and media rights agreements. I truly believe the Big 12 and our member institutions are in a strong position now and as we look into the future.

“As such, this is an appropriate time for me to step away from the commissioner’s role so that the next leader of the conference can take the reins on these significant matters that will come to the forefront before the end of the term of my employment agreement in 2025 to set the stage for the Big 12’s future ongoing success.”

One of Bowlsby’s first moves as commissioner saw him secure a 13-year media rights agreement with ESPN and national network Fox in 2012.

The long-term deal, worth $2.6 billion, is one of the most lucrative broadcast deals in college sports.

However, Bowlsby last year warned the value of the Big 12’s media rights could drop by 50% once Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC.

During Bowlsby’s tenure, the Big 12 has won 25 NCAA team national championships, including the past two men’s basketball championships by Kansas and Baylor.

The Kansas Jayhawks secured their fourth national title after defeating the University of North Carolina (UNC) on Monday (April 4), which was the most-viewed NCAA men’s championship game ever on cable television.

The team’s 72-69 win was watched by an average of 18.1 million viewers. This was up 4% over last year’s final between Baylor and Gonzaga.

Kansas, the top seed in the tournament, staged the biggest half-time comeback in the history of the NCAA championship game, overturning a 15-point deficit.

CBS Sports and Turner Sports’ coverage across TBS, TNT, and truTV made the Kansas and North Carolina matchup the third most-watched college basketball game in cable TV history.

However, the Jayhawks’ final victory did not attract the biggest audience of this year’s NCAA tournament, as UNC’s semi-final win over Duke on Saturday was watched by 18.5 million.

Overall, this year’s men’s tournament – aired across TBS, CBS, TNT, and truTV – averaged 10.7 million viewers and a 17% audience share across 67 live games.

Both figures are up 13% over last year. The 17% audience share is the best for the entire NCAA men’s tournament since 1994.

Elsewhere, the NCAA Division I women’s championship game on Sunday (April 3) was watched by 4.85 million viewers and became the most-watched women’s title game since 2004 as South Carolina beat Connecticut.

It was the fourth-largest audience to watch a women’s championship game since ESPN began exclusively airing the tournament in 1996.

The viewership peaked at 5.91 million across ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU and was the most-watched cable program of the day. It represented an audience increase of 18% year-over-year and 30% from 2019.