With OU and Texas nearing Big 12 exit, here's the biggest questions looming over college athletics
The historic and axis-shifting move of Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC is expected to begin next week, sources told Yahoo Sports. While the drama over whether they are leaving has ended, the pettiness, nastiness and clawing over the details of the exit are just beginning.
Around the Big 12, SEC and college sports, the expectation remains that the schools will follow the process necessary to begin unwinding from the Big 12 and applying to the SEC next week. One source indicated that the Big 12 could be informed as early as Monday of Oklahoma and Texas’ intentions, and that the process should play out by the end of the week. Any delay invites interference.
The SEC is expected to vote soon after, and sources maintain to Yahoo Sports that the only significant objection comes from Texas A&M. (One source pointed out that a program like Missouri objecting and getting in the way of the long-term financial interest of Alabama, Florida and Georgia wouldn’t be a prudent move long-term considering the modest value it brings on the football field.)
The only variable remains the historically volatile worlds of Texas and Oklahoma politics, but they’ve been unusually quiet this week. One source indicated that there’s not expected to be significant political interference.
“There’s really no legislative way to prevent this,” a source said. “Despite whatever theatrics may come out in the next few days.”
A different source noted that the Texas Board of Regents chair, Kevin Eltife, who puppeteered this move behind the scenes, is a political animal. There's no way, the source said, Eltife would have done this and then surprised Governor Greg Abbott with the news. With sources telling Yahoo Sports that backchannel conversations have been going on for nearly a year, it's unlikely in the complicated world of Texas politics that anything this significant would have been done without communication at the highest levels.
Here are answers to the biggest questions floating around the Big 12 and beyond today on Friday:
When will Oklahoma, Texas play in the SEC?
The legal counsels involved should take a bow. Their people are saying the right things. Texas and Oklahoma have been aggressive in getting out the word that they're prepared to play the final four years in the Big 12. Well, they have to say this because stating the intention to break a contract is legally foolish. Being a rhetorical good soldier is smart.
The Big 12, like any scorned partner in a relationship, is ready to make things as difficult as possible. The combined buyout for the two schools is nearly $150 million, which is giant cash even for the richest schools. Much like Texas and OU are posturing they are willing to stay, the Big 12 won’t want to give up a nickel.
“I think the Big 12 means it,” said an industry source of the Big 12 forcing Texas and Oklahoma to play out the final four years in the league. “We’ll see whether Texas and OU want to sue to get out or the SEC pays. This time, it doesn’t seem like a stance thing in conversation.”
Texas and Oklahoma obviously have to play the 2021 season. They could be stuck for 2022 as well. It’d be a surprise around the industry if they’re in the Big 12 for the final two years of the league's current TV contract, which expires after the 2024 season, but they’ll still have to pay a significant amount to get out. Texas and Oklahoma are saying the right things. The Big 12 is entrenched. Certainly, the lawyers are drooling at the billable hours to unwind it all.
What's next for the Big 12?
In conversations with sources around the Big 12, there was a resignation in the past 36 hours that Oklahoma and Texas were gone. The focus has shifted to the unwinding and the amount of money it can wring out of OU and Texas.
“Is this a loss for the Big 12, absolutely?” said a high-ranking official “Is it fatal? Absolutely not. We see doors open, and we’ll run right through those doors. I would think that we go big. We have some opportunity for our teams.”
One source put forth a humorous analogy Thursday night: “It’s like a shopping mall lost their two anchor stores, and the rest of the stores are trying to figure out how to stay open.”
How will the Big 12 stay open? Everything will be on the table. One source indicated it could go as large as 16 schools. Could a Western wing with San Diego State, BYU, Boise State and Colorado State be flanked by additions like Houston, Cincinnati, UCF and USF? Those are huge markets and promising programs. The Texas schools in the league – Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU – are expected to try and undercut Houston, but there aren’t many Group of Five programs that have its combination of local population and fertile recruiting ground.
The good news for the Big 12, in a perverse way, is that none of the eight remaining schools in the conference have the market or the cache to emerge as transformative additions for the ACC, Pac-12 or Big Ten. They're certainly not in the same universe that Texas and Oklahoma were for the SEC. Those remaining eight schools don’t have to walk on eggshells anymore around the two alphas, and there’s a feeling that the leadership will be bold and aggressive in re-shaping the league. The league’s best asset is still the state of Texas, perhaps the country’s richest football state. Can they find footholds in others?
What's next in the big-money TV deals with ESPN?
Here’s perhaps the most interesting 30,000-foot takeaway from this week. It’s something that will loom over the Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and the remade Big 12. With ESPN so invested in the SEC, owning all of the ACC until 2036 and on the cusp of a significant investment – perhaps near a billion annually – in the 12-team College Football Playoff, the question lingers about how much it'll invest in upcoming rights.
Using ballpark math, if ESPN has to give an extra $130 million annually to the SEC after 2023 and an extra $500 million to the playoff if it takes advantage of the exclusive negotiating window for the 12-team expansion, how big of a factor will those payouts be in the upcoming negotiations with the Big Ten and Pac-12. Competition drives market and price, and ESPN has only so much bandwidth and so many windows. This isn’t to say ESPN won’t be bidding, but it already has a swath of high-grade inventory and that could prevent it from going all-in on the Pac-12 and Big Ten. (It currently has parts of deals with those schools.)
The OU-Texas move may leave the Pac-12 in the toughest spot. The Big Ten’s deal expires in 2023 and the Pac-12’s in 2024. The Big 12 deal will likely be shotgun remade before that. With the Pac-12 the last one to the table, it’ll be interesting to see how much ESPN money remains to drive interest and price. There remains the hope that streaming services and tech companies can drive up the price, as technology and consumption continue to rapidly change.
Some skeptical observers say ESPN going all-in on the SEC and potentially the playoff could weaken the negotiating position of the other leagues. ESPN values live rights significantly, but is there a feeling with long deals with the ACC and SEC and potentially owning the postseason it may not need as much investment elsewhere?
The ACC desperately needs something dynamic to blow up its television deal. The pressure has only increased on the Big Ten and Pac-12 to be aggressive and creative to make sure they don’t get left behind financially. This move will linger for years over television, and potentially create more disruption or, perhaps, alliances to help the other leagues catch up to the SEC.
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