Just days ago, the college football world was rattled by a Houston Chronicle report indicating that Texas and Oklahoma — two of the sport’s biggest brand names — had reached out about joining the SEC, the most successful and richest conference.
In the days since, we’ve learned that these conversations have been going on for some time, and that Texas and Oklahoma fully intend to publicly inform the Big 12 Conference of their intentions to leave in the very near future. There are some hurdles there, including potential qualms from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Big 12 exit fees that could escalate above $100 million per school, and current SEC member Texas A&M being staunchly against the move. But it does seem increasingly likely that the Longhorns and Sooners are heading to the SEC.
Since this is a TV-focused audience, we’ll put emphasis on the repercussions for television here, rather than the institutional issues and potentially catastrophic outcomes this creates for the long-term health of the sport. Here are the biggest considerations right off the bat:
ESPN and SEC’s relationship grows
Just a few years ago, it seemed like FOX could be a serious contender to start picking off rights deals from ESPN as they expired. The network (and Fox Sports 1) already have pieces of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 deals that are split with Disney, plus the Big East rights that they also sublease to CBS. Meanwhile, ESPN has exclusive rights to the ACC (and the same will be true of the SEC in 2024), along with partial rights to numerous other college conferences, and the Texas-focused Longhorn Network.
If Texas joins the SEC, it’s now a perfect opportunity to fold the network, that’s never succeeded as intended, and expand ESPN’s relationship with the SEC even further. Disney signed a $3 billion, 10-year deal with the SEC in December 2020. The value of that contract would seemingly skyrocket with Oklahoma and Texas in the fold as well, and ESPN would happily pay up to make sure it was the sole owner of all games for those two.
Shot across FOX’s bow
As mentioned above, FOX has parts of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 TV contracts. If you remove the two marquee names from the Big 12, though, that certainly makes the Big 12 deal far less appealing. There’s still a fan base for the remaining eight schools, sure. But teams like Baylor, TCU, Iowa State, Kansas, etc. are not pulling in the same audience — especially without an affiliation with the likes of Texas and Oklahoma.
Now, the Big 12 could opt to make additions, but there’s no college sports brand(s) out there that even come close to the impact of Oklahoma and Texas. Top replacement candidates would include Boise State, BYU, Cincinnati, USF and UCF, among others. None of those teams can touch the sort of ratings and persistent interest that Texas or Oklahoma generates. That inherently makes the Big 12 deal less appealing, diluting FOX’s value to the landscape of college football. And that’s before considering…
The Big 12 may also dissolve
There’s a real chance that the Big 12 simply doesn’t exist anymore following the defection of its two most lucrative members. The league’s been through upheaval before. Texas A&M, Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri all separately left back in 2010-11, and those spots were filled by TCU and West Virginia. Down to eight teams again, and with no surefire replacements, other Big 12 members could start jumping ship as well, for the safest landing spots.
Kansas, which is miserable in football but among the top men’s basketball programs of all-time, would be a perfect fit for the Big Ten. West Virginia has always been an odd pairing with the Big 12, and would seemingly have a soft landing spot in the ACC. Once additional dominoes start falling, the Big 12’s schools may just all jump ship to various other conferences.
Or, depending on the timing of Texas and Oklahoma’s withdrawal, teams could also opt to try and absorb as many teams as possible to retain TV money due to Oklahoma and Texas. Under the grant of rights deal in place until the end of the current media deal, the conference controls all TV rights (and resulting revenues) through 2025. Even if the membership changes under the Big 12 umbrella, there’s reason to keep the business entity intact just to cash in on Sooner and Longhorn games unless a settlement is reached.
Conference realignment chaos
This was alluded to above, but there’s quite a bit that can occur here, and all of it impacts the current (and future) TV rights deals in place between these conferences and the networks. A move like this to 16 teams means the SEC is the sport’s lone “superconference” — a subjective definition that came about a decade ago — but it’s unlikely to be the last.
The Big Ten’s already talking to Kansas, apparently, and would likely add one of Kansas State or Iowa State (both current Big 12 members) to get to 16. On the ACC side, they’re at 14 plus they have an arrangement with (independent) Notre Dame that prevents the Fighting Irish from joining any league through 2035. If Notre Dame feels like they have to join a league due to what’s happening here, they could wind up in the ACC along with West Virginia to get that conference to 16 members as well.
The Big Ten adding those schools will result in some increased value for the league and FOX, but likely more on the basketball front. For the ACC, adding Notre Dame full-time along with West Virginia would be a big positive in terms of payouts for the conference — at least an extra $20 million or more per year — but also the value of the inventory for ESPN.
Things get more questionable everywhere else, though. There are no easy adds for the Pac-12, so it’s either move to 16 just because or hope you can contend as a 12-team conference. We discussed the Big 12 above, and that has a lot of reverberations not just for FOX and the conference, but the other leagues around the country. Rights for many of those are held by either ESPN or CBS, and the trickle down certainly hurts the value of what those leagues can put on TV. For ESPN, you probably take the trade-off since you’re holding more valuable inventory now from the SEC — and potentially the ACC and part of the Big Ten, too. But if you’re CBS, you’re losing the SEC in a few years. Holding diluted MAC, AAC and C-USA rights doesn’t sound overly appealing.
For FOX, you can still survive on half of the Big Ten and Pac-12, plus whatever’s left of the Big 12 because NFL and MLB rights are what drive things for the network. Some of the non-power leagues are probably concerned about what the influx of higher-tier inventory does to their future deals, and rightfully so. Widespread realignment probably hastens the push to streaming for every conference save the SEC, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12.
In the short-term, maybe that’s not ideal. But with pay TV losing fans to streaming anyway, and solutions like StreamLayer showcasing how streaming provides new opportunities to engage with fans, this may ultimately be the push the rest of the conferences need to approach airing games a bit differently.