CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the wake of the bombshell news drop that Texas and Oklahoma are exploring joining the SEC, the billion-dollar college sports industry is bracing for the potential fallout.
Interviews with athletics directors, politicians and industry sources reveal myriad ramifications from such a move. From the political fallout in the Midwest to the massive ripples in television with three major conferences seeking new deals to NCAA governance ramifications, it’s not an overstatement to say that the potential of Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC will shape the next generation of college athletics.
“I think it’s going to happen, and it’s the beginning of a lot of dominoes,” said a high-ranking college official.
One industry source predicted that this could be remembered as a seminal moment, much like the Supreme Court case in 1984 that opened up free market television for college football by breaking it away from the NCAA.
“When you look back on the impact of realignment a decade ago, it really was marginal,” said another high-ranking college official. “This is different. It impacts how college athletics is going to be governed and what college athletics is going to be.”
What’s next and what’s the fallout? We examine all the major issues.
When could Oklahoma, Texas jump to SEC happen?
Yahoo Sports got different answers from different people on this issue. The Big 12's current television contract ends after the 2024 football season. It’s highly unlikely Texas and Oklahoma would want to slog through four seasons, as it’s a miserable experience for everyone when teams leave leagues.
A break-up like this is much like a divorce – nasty, expensive and endlessly complicated. Big 12 rules say that for a school to leave, the buyout is two years of television revenue. That would mean nearly $150 million combined for both schools. Do they pay that or broker a deal? Expect an agreement of some kind, as SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s comment on focusing on the 2021 season has been interpreted that this could happen soon after that. As usual, the lawyers will be the big winners.
The timeline for Texas and Oklahoma to inform the Big 12 of their intentions could be as soon as a week from now. The longer things linger, the more obstacles could get in the way.
What's the biggest obstacle for OU, UT to leave the Big 12?
As usual in realignment, it’s politics.
Texas A&M’s best hope for blocking the SEC is the political savvy of Chancellor John Sharp. The overt media leak is widely believed to have come from Texas A&M as the first mechanism to stop this move from happening. Sharp’s focus then went immediately to rallying his SEC allies. Could he convince Arkansas, LSU, Missouri or others to join him? He needs three more “no” votes, and the early feel around the SEC was that 13 of the 14 schools were on board with the move.
“He’s got his political machine in motion,” said one industry source of Sharp.
The politics at the University of Texas center on Kevin Eltife, the chairman of the board of regents. Eltife is politically wired around the state and has been the key figure behind the scenes in maneuvering this. Who has the political muscle: Sharp in the SEC or Eltife in the state? We should know in the near future.
Oklahoma politics are different. Texas shouldn’t have the same problem in the legislature that Oklahoma could have. In the last round of realignment, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were a package deal. This time, longtime Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder and president Burns Hargis are gone. Oklahoma State has a new president, Kayse Shrum, and a new AD, Chad Weiberg. They lack the clout of their predecessors, as Hargis brought a political background. The possibility of Oklahoma politics getting in the way of this has quieted since the story broke.
What's next for the Big 12?
The league is beginning to discuss contingencies Thursday, as it’s obvious that this would be a devastating blow.
Expect the Big 12 to be aggressive in adding schools. It'll knock on doors at Arizona and Arizona State. Perhaps it'll try and lure Colorado back and pry Utah. The Pac-12 is weak now, but the core of USC, Oregon, UCLA and Washington are all more attractive to be aligned with than any of the Big 12 schools.
From there, the Big 12 will decide how big it wants to get. It has to decide whether to add two, four or six schools. Four seems like the most reasonable number, with Cincinnati, UCF, USF, BYU and Boise State the most likely candidates from outside the state of Texas. The potential addition of Houston and SMU becomes complicated, as Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech wouldn’t have much interest in more in-state competition.
Remember, it’s streaming subscriptions, not cable boxes, that matter most. BYU would appear to have the best option for that, with its national following. But BYU is always complicated, which prevented the Big 12 from adding it in 2016 when the Cougars' complicated LGBTQ history became a factor.
UCF and USF have great markets, but would the Big 12 want two Florida footholds? Cincinnati is a preseason Top 10 team that has been working hard behind the scenes to build for this moment. It also brings a big market and fertile recruiting area.
This is all sub-optimal for the American Athletic Conference, as it'll be a familiar trickle-down. In a similar food chain fallout that followed the ACC cannibalizing the Big East a decade ago, the Big 12 will go after the most attractive AAC candidates. The AAC will do its best to hold on to its top programs but a reconstructed Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma should offer a more attractive financial landing spot than the current AAC.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby is one of the most respected leaders in the space. But it’d be a surprise if Bowlsby, 69, is around for more than a few years. One thing that could help the Big 12 recalibrate is that the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten wouldn’t have much interest in any of the remaining schools. Oklahoma State isn’t a cultural fit anywhere, Kansas football is an abomination thanks to Les Miles and Jeff Long, and TCU is in an attractive market but lacks national cache. Baylor is hurt by its market.
What's next for college athletics?
This is where things get really interesting. Conference commissioners Kevin Warren of the Big Ten, Jim Phillips of the ACC and George Kliavkoff of the Pac-12 all are about to endure a baptism by blowtorch.
All are new enough to their jobs where they haven’t done a college sports television contract. The Big Ten’s contract runs through 2022-23. The Pac-12’s goes through 2023-24. The ACC is buried by the untenable deal with ESPN that keeps it frozen in what’s already a second-tier deal until 2036.
This impacts all of those leagues in significant ways. ESPN is going all in on the SEC, as it's expected to pay enough to get Oklahoma and Texas whole with the rest of the SEC, which is north of $60 million annually after 2023. That eats up money, inventory and the best television time slots for the SEC. The SEC wouldn’t be adding this without the extra $120 million a year for OU and Texas, and it’s reasonable to think there’d have to be a bit more sweetener to help the other SEC schools feel good.
“What happens if all of a sudden ESPN isn’t a bidder and Fox has less competition,” said an industry source. “The ripple effects are ... PHEW!”
The ACC is in a difficult spot because it ate a bad deal from ESPN to get a linear network. Now it is frozen for two decades in an antiquated agreement, as the ACC gives schools more than $32 million per year.
Phillips needs to do something dynamic to blow up that deal and get back to the bargaining table. Those options are limited, and ESPN isn’t going to be eager to give up a sweetheart deal on its end.
The loss of Texas as an option is a huge blow to the ACC’s ambitions, as multiple sources indicated that the ACC was caught by surprise Wednesday. The ACC’s other big play was Notre Dame, but the league failed to use any leverage it had on Notre Dame as a quasi-member the past few years. The new College Football Playoff proposal doubles as a security blanket for Notre Dame’s independence, which means little incentive for it to find a league home. Especially with its own lucrative TV deal coming.
The best remaining option for the ACC will be some type of scheduling arrangement or merger with the Pac-12. And that hints at another potential ripple from this move – is this going to be remembered as the pivot point toward super conferences?
There has long been a notion in college athletics that the Big Ten and SEC were pulling away from all the other leagues because of the financial success of their networks and the corresponding success on the field. Now, the Big Ten will go to market without the adrenaline jolt that the SEC got in its deal. The only corresponding move the Big Ten could make would be a play for Notre Dame, but that remains unlikely because of how secure Notre Dame’s future is in the new football playoff.
The issue for the Big Ten would be that Ohio State is isolated as the league's power. Could the Big Ten leverage the potential of its next deal with a move to answer, adding Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson to cover the league’s Eastern flank and fortify the Interstate 95 corridor? There will be pressure on Warren to be bold. But the ACC is protected by a grant of rights through the length of its TV deal.
“It’s about combining forces now,” said a high-ranking college official. “Who teams up with who? Do we end up with four leagues? Do we end up with three? Or do we go to a 32-team NFL model. This is going to be earth-shattering.”
Kliavkoff joked on Twitter about his active first month as commissioner getting more interesting. The Pac-12 is last in line to go to market, and there’s a feeling that it needs to do something creative. There’s still great value in the West Coast, even if the football has been subpar for the past five years. But this move, the Big Ten deal and an upcoming deal for Notre Dame potentially put the Pac-12 in a position of weakness thanks to a lack of suitors.
The ripples of this potential SEC deal will be felt from coast to coast. And it’s not good news for any of the other leagues because of how much ESPN oxygen this sucks up. As one industry source put it: “The current schools in the SEC wouldn’t agree to this if all of a sudden their games are relegated to ESPNU. It’s not just money, it’s exposure.”
What does this mean for the NCAA?
As much as this move is a football flex, the reality is that it’s also a power move by SEC commissioner Greg Sankey that will help dictate what the next iteration of government structure looks like in college athletics.
The NCAA has been weakened to the point where president Mark Emmert is publicly strategizing around the NCAA’s irrelevance. How much say do the conferences have in the future? Well, Sankey is the ultimate policy and process wonk. He couldn’t have thought through this without a full understanding of how this would help the SEC wrestle some of the decision-making under its own umbrella. The stronger the SEC gets, the more likely it is to envision some type of break from the NCAA. Sankey has been frustrated with Emmert and the NCAA for years, and that all plays into this type of move.
Sankey was already the most powerful person in college sports. This move would only amplify that, and the SEC would have an even a bigger voice in figuring out how the next generation of college sports are governed. Emmert’s general weakness as a leader began revealing itself around realignment a decade ago, as the NCAA has no control over what happens.
The ultimate conference power grab would only lead to more power in the conference offices, as the SEC would become, in many ways, the axis of college athletics.
Does this change the college football playoff?
It’s not expected to change the 12-team playoff model, but we may see the first big reverberation from the expanded field. The attraction of the SEC with a four-team playoff would mean a much more difficult path to the CFP.
With a 12-team model and the multitude of opportunities for marquee wins, it’s likely that the SEC became a lot more attractive to Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 12 would offer an easier path for both, but there’s still a path available in the SEC with CFP expansion.
What about basketball?
This is not a good day for Bill Self and Scott Drew. Those two national championship-winning coaches should be worried. As we’ve been reminded in the past, college basketball gets little consideration in the grand scheme of realignment.
The Big 12 in some reinvented form would still be a good basketball league. But this is an example that the fortunes of basketball programs, even elite ones, are an afterthought in the big picture. The billions of football money dictates these decisions.
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