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Trying to make sense of why ESPN might meddle in this conference mess in the first place

August 26, 2011 - Austin, TX - University of Texas South Mall: ESPN College Gameday for the Longhorn Network Launch. Anchor Lowell Galindo (l) and Analyst Kevin Dunn. Credit: Joe Faraoni/ESPN

August 26, 2011 - Austin, TX - University of Texas South Mall: ESPN College Gameday for the Longhorn Network Launch. Anchor Lowell Galindo (l) and Analyst Kevin Dunn. Credit: Joe Faraoni/ESPN by Joe Faraoni

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.

ESPN letter to Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby dated July 29, 2021. (Courtesy of espnfrontrow.com)

ESPN letter to Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby dated July 29, 2021. (Courtesy of espnfrontrow.com) by Matt Tait

Reply 14 comments from Jayhawkmarshall Cassadys Rae Bricil Robert  Brock Tony Bandle Brett McCabe Njjayhawk Matt Tait Plasticjhawk David Friend and 4 others

OU and Texas should pay to leave the Big 12, but future financial issues are not theirs alone

The Big 12 Conference logo is shown here in the lane of the north goal at Allen Fieldhouse.

The Big 12 Conference logo is shown here in the lane of the north goal at Allen Fieldhouse. by Matt Tait

Now that Texas and Oklahoma have formally stated their intentions to leave the Big 12 Conference, let’s take a first glance at how the next several months (years?) might play out.

And then we’ll do it again and again and again and again. Because it sure doesn’t feel like this train is slowing down any time soon.

But it could be over sooner than later, and the guess here is that that’s exactly why OU and Texas are playing this the way they are.

On the surface, the two Big 12 defectors are saying all the right things.

“We’re just thinking about the future here.”

“We’re happy to honor our commitment and stay in the Big 12 for the next four years.”

“We want this to work out for all parties involved.”

It sounds good. But who’s buying it?

Does anyone — those at Texas and Oklahoma or people associated with the Big 12 — really want those two to stick around for the next four years, knowing they’ve got one foot out the door already and probably can’t be trusted to do what’s in the best interest of the Big 12 during that time?

I sure wouldn’t.

Big 12 bylaws state that members that plan to leave the conference are required to give 18 months notice and pay an exit fee that is equal to two years of revenue distributions.

Last year, the Big 12’s revenue distribution was around $34.5 million per school and there were signs that it was headed toward $40 million prior to the pandemic. So that means a total of somewhere between $75-80 million EACH for OU and Texas to leave.

I’m not exactly sure how that money is absorbed or distributed from there, but if it is spread out equally among the remaining members, you’re looking at an additional $18-20 million — roughly a 50% one-time bonus — for being loyal.

Not bad.

Getting back to OU and UT’s willingness to stick it out for the remainder of the grant of rights agreement (through the 2024-25 seasons) this whole thing, at least to me, sounds like a play on behalf of the Longhorns and Sooners to try to make their exit from the conference a little less costly.

They say they’ll play nice and fulfill their contract. The Big 12 says to heck with that. And then the two sides settle on a buyout agreement that is less than the $75-80 million they’re currently on the hook for, perhaps by a significant amount.

OU and Texas can then say, “Look, we wanted to stay until the end of the contract but they kicked us out so we’re paying less.”

Or, worse yet, “We’re not paying.”

The 18 months part of that equation makes this a little tricky. If the Big 12 allows/encourages those two to leave sooner than that, they’re essentially undercutting their own bylaws. So there is some logic behind allowing them to stay at least the 18 months.

But even that is going to be rough. For one, it would put us right in the middle of the 2022-23 seasons and, for two, it would create issues with future scheduling and planning and the like.

The best guess here is that this break-up will become official following the 2021-22 seasons. It’s far too tough to make a move now. All sides would likely lose money in that case. And doing it next May allows both conferences the 2022 summer to make a smooth(er) transition.

If that’s the way it plays out, it should be at OU and Texas’ request, though.

The Big 12 — for now, at least — is in a position of power in that it can demand that those two to pay the exit fees that they agreed to when the bylaws were written.

Anything less is an even bigger abomination than the one we’re already witnessing.

The biggest challenge in all of this is the uncertainty associated with what becomes of the Big 12.

If the conference destined to go down, the eight remaining members should absolutely take every penny they can get from OU and UT and take joy in doing it.

But if the plan is for a revamped Big 12 to move forward with new members, then perhaps some kind of settlement so all parties can move forward more quickly is actually in the best interest of the Big 12 Conference.

After all, when the existing grant of rights contract expires and it’s time to negotiate new TV deals, stability will be your friend and uncertainty can cost you millions.

And then there’s the question about what happens if other teams follow OU and UT out the door, seeking to ensure their own survival and stable futures somewhere else?

There likely will be penalties to pay there, too. But only if the Big 12, in some form or another, survives.

All of those factors, and more, are absolute musts for athletic and university officials at Kansas to consider. And I’m not sure any amount of research and strategic planning is going to lead to an outcome without some kind of financial downside.

Reply 3 comments from Dirk Medema Ervin O'Neal Dale Rogers

With OU & UT reportedly eyeing the SEC, are we on the brink of conference realignment 2021?

Oklahoma players take the field before their game Saturday against Texas in Dallas. The Sooners will entertain Kansas on Saturday.

Oklahoma players take the field before their game Saturday against Texas in Dallas. The Sooners will entertain Kansas on Saturday.

Moments after reading a Wednesday story from the Houston Chronicle that reported that Oklahoma and Texas had been in contact about potentially leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, I went out to mow my lawn.

My how things have changed from the conference realignment days of old.

Back then, when schools moved from conference to conference like some strange game of musical chairs, I was afraid to even leave my computer.

Mowing the lawn or going to the grocery store seemed like crazy ideas in those days, because, even in just 5-10 minutes, major news could come out that could affect any one of college athletics’ power conferences.

Wednesday’s report, which indicates that a decision on whether to add the two Big 12 power programs to the SEC could be made in as little as two weeks, certainly qualifies as major news.

Any time programs like OU and Texas — particularly football programs of that nature — are talking about relocating, you have to at least consider the domino effect that such a move would have on all of college athletics.

The reason this type of talk does not seem quite as desperate and panic-inducing this time around has everything to do with what we’ve seen in the past several months and weeks on the college athletics landscape.

Change is coming. Heck, change is already here. And it seems smart to expect in the not-too-distant future that college athletics will look very different than it has in the past.

That’s not to say that losing alliances with power brokers like OU and UT should be considered a good thing for any of the rest of the Big 12. But if you squint just a little, what appears to be on the horizon in the new era of college sports may provide some comfort for those athletic departments that once believed that their only path to survival was to provide Bevo and Boomer with around-the-clock butler service.

Just last year, a longtime college athletics administrator told me that they thought college athletics as we know it today could be virtually unrecognizable within five years.

That was before the name, image and likeness and changes to the transfer rules passed, and before NCAA President Mark Emmert threw up as close to a white flag as we’ve seen by saying recently that it may be time for college athletics to be decentralized.

Hello, free enterprise. Adios, NCAA?

In the end, as was the case last time, this whole thing is again going to come down to the money.

If OU and UT truly are looking to leave and the powers that be in the SEC believe that adding them to the conference would increase their television deals by enough cheddar to make their additions worthwhile, it may very well happen.

Multiple reports this afternoon noted that 75% of the SEC’s 14 members would need to vote yes on the invitations for anything to happen.

What’s more, other reports pointed out that Oklahoma politicians made it awfully clear last time that OU wasn’t going anywhere without Oklahoma State. So while it’s possible to picture 11 of the 14 current SEC schools voting yes to add the power twosome, you have to wonder if the number would remain as high if the SEC schools were voting on adding Oklahoma State, as well.

The OU and Texas side of this thing only further underscores how much this would likely be about money.

With the college football playoff system headed for some kind of expansion, with the six highest-ranked conference champions likely getting an automatic spot in the playoff in the new system, why wouldn’t those two programs want to stay in the Big 12, where their chances at winning a title are exponentially higher year in and year out than they would be in the dog-eat-dog SEC?

Money talks.

All of this certainly bears watching in the rest of the Big 12, which would find itself in a world of hurt if OU and UT were to leave.

While just about everything was on the table in terms of a response the last time this kind of threat hit the conference, I have to think that it would be much more likely that the reaction to such an upheaval this time around would be much different.

Put a different way: Rather than desperately seeking replacements for OU and Texas, it would make more sense to me for the remaining members to go scrambling for the best landing spots they could find.

For Kansas specifically, the ACC and Big Ten come to mind. Beyond that, KU fans should rest easy knowing there were good options out there the last time this all happened that likely would be options again.

You also have to wonder if all of those past rumors about the Big 12 pursuing Arizona and Arizona State would suddenly have some juice behind them, and whether those additions would be enough to keep the Big 12 alive.

The options are out there. The question now is whether any of them will be needed.

Regardless of the answer, the two-week timeline hardly makes any of this worth getting worked up about just yet. There will be plenty of time for that — and other emotions — if this actually happens.

Right now, I’m headed to get the weed eater to finish up outside.

Reply 17 comments from Ted Adams Koolkeithfreeze Glen Steve Hillyer Ppbrittain Barry Weiss Chicagohawkmatt Onlyoneuinkansas Robert  Brock Krohnutz and 8 others