Trying to make sense of why ESPN might meddle in this conference mess in the first place
By now, you’ve all surely read the story/stories about Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby accusing ESPN of trying to put an end to the conference via tampering and encouraging another conference to scoop up a few — or perhaps all — of the Big 12’s eight remaining members.
But in case you still don’t quite understand why ESPN, the Big 12’s biggest and most powerful/visible television partner, would do something like that, here’s a quick breakdown of what I believe is happening.
First, we must remember that ESPN darlings Oklahoma and Texas are, in fact, eventually headed to the SEC, where the annual payout per member after the conference’s new television contract is in place is expected to deliver $67 million annually to each institution.
That number, during the 2019-20 season, was around $45 million, meaning the SEC will need to find a way to earn roughly $22 million per member per year following the 2024-25 season.
From all the reports I’ve read about the topic, it sounds like getting there is a mere formality now that the conference can bring the OU and UT brands into the fold.
OK. Now that we’ve provided that reminder, let’s look at what’s going on with the tampering talk and why it might be happening.
ESPN, as a Tier 1 rights holder of the current Big 12, will be (would have been?) on the hook for whatever is deemed to be fair market value in a revamped Big 12. Without Oklahoma and Texas, that obviously won’t be anywhere close to the $35-37 million the conference has been paying its members in recent years.
But, depending on what the new-look Big 12 roster includes, it’s safe to assume the annual TV revenue distribution number could be in the $15-20 million range.
Again, that’s per team and per year.
So that leaves ESPN, which has made news for its own financial issues and recent layoffs of large numbers of its work force, looking for a way to find an extra $20ish million per SEC school while still paying the Big 12 a good chunk of change to exist as a second-rate Power 5 conference.
If your brain just fired and produced that ah-ha moment, you now know how the execs at ESPN may have felt if they were in fact involved in the alleged tampering to destabilize and, ultimately, bring an end to the Big 12 Conference.
The extra money saved by the demise of the Big 12 could then easily be shipped to the SEC to help cover that new TV deal with the nation’s most powerful football conference.
While the money saved would not cover all of the anticipated SEC increase, it would have made the whole thing much more manageable and reduced the amount of “new money” needed to a significantly smaller amount. Also of note is the fact that ESPN, over the life of a new contract with the old Big 12, reportedly would save nearly $1 billion dollars, which also could be used to further strengthen their position in the remaining conferences if the Big 12 were to disappear entirely.
ESPN has gone on record stating that what’s in the cease-and-desist letter sent by Bowlsby and the Big 12 to the network has no merit.
Bowlsby insists that it does and that he has proof that the American Athletic Conference was used as a pawn by ESPN to try to gobble up the eight remaining Big 12 schools — at first it was reported at 3-5, but CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd amended that late Wednesday night to include the potential plucking of all eight schools — in an effort to make the Big 12 simply go away.
Wild stuff. And it just keeps getting wilder.
Regardless of what’s accurate or not at this point, one thing is crystal clear: The Big 12 isn’t going down without a fight. And that fight, no matter how long it lasts or what it entails, could last a long, long time.
What's more, no matter how this thing ends up, it also seems fairly safe to assume that the days of the Big 12 and ESPN as partners will be over following the 2024-25 season. Don't be surprised, though, if the Big 12 makes it as painful as possible for OU, Texas and ESPN until then.
Before this thing is over, OU and Texas may very well have wished they never so much as thought about what life in the SEC might be like.
Then again, this is Oklahoma and Texas we’re talking about. And they do have the self-anointed “worldwide leader in sports” in their corner. So maybe there’s an easy outcome on the horizon that works in their favor.
Either way, neither side comes out looking all that good in this mess at the moment.
And it appears as if things may continue to just get messier.
2:34 p.m. Update:
Thursday afternoon, ESPN fired back at Bowlsby and the Big 12 with its own letter, which stated simply that there was nothing to cease and desist.
Here's a look at that document.