For everyone in college sports outside the Southeastern Conference, this is a moment that demands something must be done – even if nobody can tell you exactly what that is or how they'll do it.
The move of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 to the SEC, executed like a bloodless coup in the middle of the night, has unmoored the veneer of order and stability that governed most of what happened in college sports over the past decade.
Especially now, with three new commissioners at the helm of the Big Ten, Pac 12 and ACC – all of whom are inheriting a unique set of problems – the appearance of moving aggressively and cohesively against the SEC’s perceived interests and potential future actions is far more important than what was contained in a slapped-together news release full of high-minded concepts and yet light on substance. .
Tuesday’s announcement that the three leagues have aligned – though with very few specifics attached besides some potential non-conference scheduling promises – is what comes when something must be done.
But ultimately, this intramural squabble between the SEC and the other big powers of college football is a proxy fight for what has truly driven the sport’s chaos: Television.
Whether you think this is good or bad, it’s simply true that no sport in America has gotten in bed with a single television partner to the degree that college football has with ESPN.
The College Football Playoff is on ESPN along with all the associated programming around the selections. The postseason award shows are on ESPN. There will be 40 bowl games this year broadcast on ESPN or ABC, just three on other networks. Once its contract with CBS expires in 2024, the SEC’s inventory will be owned entirely by ESPN through 2034, which also has all the ACC’s games locked up until 2036 and the American’s until 2032. The Big Ten, Pac 12, Big 12 and others have all sold at least parts of their TV rights to ESPN.
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When word leaked that Texas and Oklahoma were headed to the SEC — which, again, just recently inked a 10-year, $3 billion deal with ABC/ESPN for its premium football package on top of the massive deal it already had for most of its other games — there was suspicion across college sports that ESPN had a hand in facilitating the move.
Though ESPN pushes back strongly against any suggestion that it guides conference realignment, the undeniable benefit to consolidating the most valuable brands from two conferences into one means there are ultimately fewer mouths to feed (sorry, Big 12).
In recent weeks, officials across college sports have come to lament the degree to which ESPN dominates this space — not just because the Big 12 went from power conference to powerless overnight but because there are downstream implications for the Big Ten and Pac 12, which both have media rights negotiations coming up over the next couple years.
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With the SEC poised to distribute perhaps $60 million annually per school, the Big Ten and Pac 12 need to hit the jackpot in their next TV deals to have any hope of keeping up. For that to happen, they need multiple media entities willing to pay huge dollars to broadcast their games, which means they need multiple media entities who don’t just want to dip their toe in college football but want to actually own a significant piece.
But how do you create that kind of motivation when ESPN has a monopoly on all the most valuable property? You play the only card you have: Expanding the playoff, which brings us back to what “the alliance” is really all about.
Prior to Texas and Oklahoma acknowledging their intent to leave the Big 12, there was a pretty good chance that the College Football Playoff’s plans to expand from four to 12 teams were going to be approved next month and that momentum would have been strong enough to implement it as early as 2023.
For that to happen, though, the CFP would have to negotiate exclusively with ESPN, which has the contract for the four-team playoff through 2026.
With SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick driving the bus on playoff expansion – they worked on the 12-team proposal for two years in secret and rolled it out publicly in June – the most likely outcome is that a deal would have gotten done relatively quickly. After all, expanding the playoff as soon as possible – even if all the inventory went to ESPN – would have been to everyone’s benefit.
But in the light of a new day where we now know that Sankey was working on playoff expansion while also engaged with Texas and Oklahoma behind the scenes, the motivations to get this done suddenly look different to a number of key stakeholders. That's particularly true for the three new commissioners who are now sitting at the table, trying to wrestle with the implications of a plan they had no part in putting together.
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been on the job for 1½ years, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips less than a year and Pac 12 commissioner George Kliavkoff just a couple months. The instinct for those three to band together in some form as a reaction to the SEC’s Red Wedding makes sense.
What does it really buy them?
Sure, scheduling some games against each other is a nice benefit. It might even create a little extra revenue, though you don’t really need an alliance to do that.
If there’s reason to be fearful that the SEC or ESPN’s ultimate intent is to create one super league, it makes sense to work together on various issues where they can be aligned and not be worried in the near- or medium-term about mutually assured destruction by poaching schools from each other.
However, the alliance doesn't even go that far. As all three commissioners acknowledged Tuesday, there's no legal documentation formalizing this agreement and no binding enforcement mechanism. Phillips said the 41 schools involved have all "looked each other in the eye" and are relying on trust. There are three decades of conference realignment moves suggesting that's not such a good idea.
So perhaps this isn't as much of an alliance operationally as it is a mission statement that can turn their mutual interest -- primarily stopping the SEC from running roughshod over them -- into something tangible at the negotiating table with television networks.
From the other end of the spectrum , the idea that the SEC is up to something that needs to be combated sounds preposterous. As one SEC athletics director recently suggested, people across college athletics were caught so flat-footed by Texas and Oklahoma that they’re suddenly seeing ghosts that don’t exist and conspiracy theories around every corner.
After all, SEC schools have never been particularly gung-ho about expanding the playoff and that there’s far more incentive to get it done soon for a league like the Pac 12 that has struggled to get teams in the four-team playoff.
Perhaps that’s true. But ultimately, college football has a short window now to regain some stability, which will only come through the Pac 12 and Big Ten securing media deals that will calm its most prominent members. From their perspective, the actions taken by the SEC, Texas and Oklahoma have harmed the potential value of their future television deals.
But with three power leagues standing together against one, they can have a significant hand in guiding what the new playoff looks like – when and where games are played, how teams are selected and perhaps most importantly how the bidding process works for the next television deal.
There’s a reason why NBA playoff games are on ABC/ESPN and TNT, just like in the regular season. There’s a reason why the Super Bowl rotates between CBS, NBC and Fox. If all the best games went to one network, why would the others want to pay top dollar for the rest?
That is the entire ballgame right now in college athletics and why it’s a matter of urgency for the Big Ten and Pac 12 to expand the universe of media companies willing to pour money into college football.
Ultimately, how the playoff expands and who broadcasts it will be the tipping point for whether college football continues consolidating or whether others can prosper.
That is why something must be done about the SEC’s land grab and why the Big Ten, Pac 12 and ACC are coming together in some form, even if the foundation is made of more concept than concrete. All that’s riding on it is the future of college sports.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football: Big Ten-Pac 12-ACC alliance will dictate future