June 15, 2010
Even before news of the Pac-10's plan to cannibalize his conference broke nationally on June 3, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe was feeling the pressure to hold the league together. In a white paper circulated among Big 12 schools on June 1, Beebe appealed to his membership's sense of solidarity, to geography, to the "traditions and championships that have been carefully put together" and the "significant connection for people from the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River and from nearly Canada to Mexico" that the Big 12 provides. He went on the offensive against other conferences, pointing out the population shift out of Big Ten states to the Sun Belt over the last 25 years while taking a direct shot at the passion and commitment of the Pac-10:
For those considering possible membership in the Pac 10, I hope that full consideration is given to the student-athlete and fan experience. I grew up in Pac 10 territory and although there are outstanding institutions in the conference, the facilities and fair weather fans are a disappointment. I suggest that the fan support for their regular season game and championships, and the accompanying image that projects, should be carefully examined.
The Big 12 commissioner wrote that. He also warned against the "devastating" effects that Heartland schools' bolting for the more urbane centers of the Pac-10 and Big Ten could have for "the pride of this region ... effectively disenfranchising the citizens and truly creating a 'fly-over' zone."
The membership was not touched by the sentiment. In fact, judging from the subsequent turmoil in the two weeks since that paper went out, the prospect of being caught in a "fly-over" conference is precisely what motivated the vast majority of the conference to put its various exit plans into motion: In the past 10 days, two schools (Colorado and Nebraska) bolted the Big 12 outright, five others were fully prepared to leave as of Monday morning and two of those left behind (Missouri and Baylor) had made it abundantly clear that they wanted to be a part of whatever outgoing wagon party would have them. Given the chance to replace Texas A&M in the mass exodus to the West Coast, Kansas seemed poised to jump at the lifeline. The only teams that never wavered from their commitment to the Big 12 at all were Kansas State and Iowa State, and that's only because nobody was asking them.
Obviously, it wasn't geography or pride or the connection of people on the slopes of the Rockies that staved off Big 12 extinction Monday afternoon: It was money. It was crazy money. Beebe was somehow able to promise $17 million per year per team – on par with the SEC's record payout last year – thanks to an astounding commitment from Fox to increase its annual bid for Big 12 games from $19.5 million to as much as $140 million, according to the Sports Business Journal. That's more than a 600-percent increase for a league that just lost one of its biggest national television draws (Nebraska) and plans to scuttle the conference championship game with only ten teams going forward. And Fox is reportedly willing to sign on for the next 18 years. Combined with a commitment by ESPN/ABC to stand by its $60 million-per-year deal through 2015-16, the conference's entire pie stands to increase from $78 million annually to $200 million.
It's hard to exaggerate what miraculous numbers those are, especially to emerge as the death knell is ringing. If they were being tossed around by less reputable outlets, they would probably be regarded as utter fabrications. But anything less wouldn't have been enough to keep the conference intact.
Actually, that's not true: On top of the incredible TV deal, certain incentives were required. Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M – the three remaining teams with realignment options that weren't directly tied to the decisions of other schools – are set to increase the disparity between the top earners and the rabble, coming in for promises of $20 million per year; the other seven schools will each take home between $14 million and $17 million on less lucrative "tiers," still managing to double their current takes. The Longhorns, Sooners and Aggies may also divvy up the substantial Nebraska/Colorado buyout fees among themselves. (The destination of those funds has not been finalized.) And Texas will have an opportunity to pursue the all-Longhorn network that reportedly submarined negotiations with the Pac-10.
If that doesn't exactly sound like an alliance held together by regional pride or "traditions and championships," it shouldn't. Texas Tech is symbolically dragging its feet in committing to the new order; Oklahoma State sugar daddy T. Boone Pickens remains openly disdainful of Missouri, which was pretty clearly ready to pounce on an offer from the Big Ten when it looked like one would be forthcoming last week; every team in the conference must reconcile itself to the fact that, more than ever, Texas calls the shots.
Today, this is a conference held together by naked self-interest, with the Longhorns as the lucrative sun around which the rest of the league revolves. From Beebe's perspective, that's better than a conference that doesn't exist at all, or is scrambling to survive in some drastically diminished form. As soon as the landscape looks like it's beginning to shift again, though, or the Fox money starts to look a little less spectacular next to the ever-escalating figures in other conferences (over the next 18 years? Bet on it), he or his successor could find himself right back in the same situation he faced over the last week, trying to hold together self-interested factions that don't seem to have any interest in hanging together for anything less than top dollar. And miracles don't happen every day.
- - -
Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.