ESPN Powers SEC Shakeup as Realignment 2.0 Appears on Horizon

While the lawyers will be doing much of the talking as Oklahoma and Texas plot their defection from the Big 12, the loudest voice in the virtual room belongs to ESPN.

The two schools on Monday notified the conference that they will not be renewing their grants of media rights upon their expiration on June 30, 2025, although the language in which this formality was carried out doesn’t rule out an early escape to the SEC.

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“The universities intend to honor their existing agreements,” the Sooners and Longhorns declared in a joint statement. “However, both universities will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving collegiate athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletics programs for the future.”

Defection from the ranks of the Big 12 won’t be without its attendant hardships, as conference bylaws stipulate that there’s a price to pay for breaking the huddle—as much as $80 million, based on the current grant-of-rights agreement. And unless ESPN ponies up for the buyout fee, or the schools manage to negotiate a reduced rate, everyone involved may have to learn to live together like an estranged couple who still share a one-bedroom apartment.

However the separation shakes out, the money on the SEC front is too good to pass up. Oklahoma and Texas this year each received $34.5 million from the Big 12, the bulk of which was generated by the conference’s rights deals with ESPN and Fox. (Back in May, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said he expects revenue distribution to rise above the $40 million-per-school mark in 2022.) Meanwhile, SEC schools are in line to rake in some $66.5 million per year as of 2024, which is when ESPN’s new deal with the conference kicks in.

At least one college sports figure with his ear to the ground believes that the departure date will seem immaterial in the fullness of time, as the proposed SEC jump will be only the first in a long line of alignment shake-ups. “This is just starting,” said an AD at a Power 5 school currently unaffected by the interconference turbulence. “As soon as [NCAA president Mark] Emmert threw up his hands and sort of said, ‘The hell with it—let the conferences sort it out,’ it was like someone rang a dinner bell at the pig pen.”

That ESPN has been in the thick of the Oklahoma/Texas discussions from the jump should come as little surprise to anyone who’s watched Bristol stamp its brand all over the sport over the course of the last decade or so. (The ESPN family of networks in 2021 is expected to carry more than 1,000 regular season games, or more than 10 times as many games as its closest competitor, Fox.) Along with the tens of billions of dollars it has pumped into the sport by way of its rights deals, ESPN holds the reins to all but three bowl games—more than a dozen of which it owns outright—and has a stranglehold on the soon-to-be-expanded College Football Playoff.

The benefits of having full control of a 16-school conference that’s been enhanced by two massive football programs—fan contributions and licensing alone generated a staggering $60.2 million for the Texas football program in 2019—are impossible to overstate. “This is the cleanest value-creation exercise I can imagine,” sports media consultant Patrick Crakes said in a phone interview, adding that a rival Power 5 conference may look to issue a counteroffer to the two schools before they officially make an overture to the SEC.

Were it to pick up Texas and Oklahoma, the Pac-12 could go a long way toward settling its not-insignificant time-zone conundrum. The addition of two high-impact football programs in the Central time zone would allow for multiple noon kickoffs throughout the season, and while Crakes notes that this is a fix that someone probably should have put into motion years ago, the Pac-12’s relationship with ESPN may prevent the conference from trying to undermine the seemingly inevitable SEC move. “The problem is, ESPN wants this to happen,” Crakes notes. “Is the Pac-12 really going to get in the way of that?”

Probably not.

While some have marveled at ESPN’s eagerness to play college football kingmaker, there is a bit of a precedent for this sort of thing. ESPN effectively kicked off the conference realignment crisis of 2011, when it struck the $300 million Longhorn Network deal with Texas, which in turn so enraged Texas A&M that it decamped to the SEC. While a subsequent scheme that would have sent Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech to the Pac-12 didn’t play out—the ‘Horns refused to fold its new cable channel into the conference’s extant media apparatus—Texas’s earlier botched flirtation with the ACC in a sense helped pave the way for Syracuse and Pittsburgh’s departure from the Big East.

If Oklahoma and Texas manage to make the move to the SEC, the Big 12 may be living on borrowed time. The conference’s rights deals with ESPN and Fox expire in 2025, and neither media company is likely to re-up if the two most valuable assets have flown the coop. For Fox’s part, the money that would normally go toward extending its contract with the Big 12 could be put to better use in paying for a renewal of its Big Ten deal, which runs out in 2023. And lest anyone forget that basketball also contributes to the college sports bounty, the Big Ten may want to have a look at enriching itself with the likes of Kansas and Oklahoma State.

In the long term, ESPN’s machinations seem to have been made with an eye toward the streaming future, and its in-house direct-to-consumer product gives it a massive advantage over its linear TV rivals. In a sense, the much-maligned Longhorn Network may provide a clue as to how Bristol packages the SEC once it assumes full control of the media rights, as ESPN+ could carve out dedicated “channels” for each team, thereby creating a must-buy opt-in service for diehards, one that would serve as a sidecar (and eventual successor) to Disney’s traditional TV telecasts.

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