The Skunk at the Garden Party
Oklahoma and Texas Drop Nuclear Realignment Bomb – What Now?
By now you’ve probably heard that two of the biggest and historically most successful brands in college football – the Texas Longhorns and the Oklahoma Sooners – have notified the Big 12 that they will be leaving at the end of their contract in 2025 (if not sooner – it’s likely legal action and buyouts will ensue). Their destination? The mighty SEC – which seems only too happy to have them and grow to 16 teams.
It’s likely that clandestine discussions were taking place between VERY high up folks at UT and OU and the SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey for a long time. It’s frankly incredible that Texas boosters didn’t find out and spill the beans. One day someone needs to write a book on all this. Sankey had been working with Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby for 2 years as part of a small committee coming up with college football playoff expansion plan. It’s clear from Bowlsby’s comments since this news broke that Sankey – who he considered a friend – didn’t enlighten him on these discussions.
The reasons for the OU/UT maneuver can be explained in five letters – m-o-n-e-y. They will make a lot more money – and increase their prestige and access to ideal television game times and marquis matchups by doing this. I would argue their path to the college football playoff, even a 12 team one, is not improved here but we’ll see.
ESPN clearly wanted this to happen as it would allow them to devalue the Big 12 which is partially in bed with a rival network (FOX) and increase the overall value of their deal with the SEC – including the SEC Network.
For the ‘Horns and the Sooners, this maneuver gets them into the SEC which is reaching what Jay Busbee calls “Amazon of College Football” territory. For the SEC, if these two iconic brands were available, the conference may have felt it had no choice but to try to land them. However, the impact of this is far-reaching in college football which has been roiled by major changes for the past several months, from the COVID 19 impacted 2020 Season to allowing for NIL rights for student-athletes who are now cashing in.
Now it also appears that other conferences are feeling the heat to scramble to add value but – other than Notre Dame – there are no big brands that are realistic free agents. However, the PAC 12 and ACC both have some awkwardness surrounding what will become of them in future competition and television negotiations as the SEC soars even further ahead in the #1 spot and the Big 10 is a clear #2.
For my part – I really want to write about what’s happening or going to happen on the field in 2021 and I hope that we can get to that. But, here’s some quick thoughts on where Big 12 and their schools could go from here as well as the impact this has on the SEC:
1. The Big 12 could negotiate a payout to let Texas and Oklahoma go early and then try to expand by grabbing some AAC/Mountain West programs using their “Power 5” designation that will last until 2025. If they nabbed, say UCF and Cincinnati in the East they’d get into Florida and Ohio (plus give West Virginia a closer rival in Cincy). Grabbing Boise State, if possible, would give them arguably the best G5 program of the last 15 years – although it’s not clear what kind of television ratings power they’d deliver and finally, if they could entice BYU to join they’d be adding a stronger-than-you-would-think national brand. However, BYU makes similar money as an independent with its television deals than current Big 12 members make from theirs – and that value will go down with the loss of their two biggest brands.
2. Members in the Big 12 could negotiate deals to join other conferences BUT – none of these programs bring anywhere close to the kind of value that UT & OU bring. Even a tradition-rich program like West Virginia and regionally competitive and popular teams like Kansas State get a fraction of the television ratings that even a bad Texas team gets. What seems most likely to me is one or two Texas schools getting grabbed by the PAC 12 so they could get into the Texas market and, perhaps, Kansas getting to the Big 10 or PAC 12. The others may be destined for AAC or lower.
3. Why is Kansas or Baylor not more attractive due to their basketball success (historic for Jayhawks and more recent for the Bears)? About 80% of the revenue for conferences in their media rights comes from football with most of the rest coming from college basketball. For some conferences like the ACC that might be a little higher on the basketball side but football is what moves the needle.
4. This will make ALL the SEC schools richer but it makes the climb much tougher for the mid-to-low range SEC programs who have hope to one day maybe go to Atlanta for the conference title. South Carolina, the Mississippi schools and Arkansas are all teams that can sometimes be good but often are average to worse. Adding a program like Oklahoma that is already elite and one like Texas that has all the resources to be and has been in the past is going to make the SEC road even tougher for about half of the current conference.
5. How does the SEC deal with 16 teams and maintain some semblance of a conference feel? There’s a lot of talk about creating four team pods that would group historic rivals to play every year and then piece together the rest of what would have to be a 9 or 10 game conference schedule. Think of how the NFL is now broken up into four team divisions. But there’s a lot of unanswered questions.
6. Will this delay official consideration and approval of the expanded 12 team college football playoff? The PAC 12’s new commissioner is sounding the alarm that this seismic shift impacts that discussion in new ways. Of course the PAC 12 NEEDS the playoff to expand but this could delay it by a year, two years – or maybe change how they want to structure it if the SEC is going to potentially have 5-6 teams in contention for it rather than the 3-4 that was expected.
These are only a few of the questions. My overarching take is that I don’t like this. I think it breaks down an entire conference and continues to accelerate college football away from the regional rivalries, upstart program stories and wholistic, symphonic process that takes place on Saturdays that make this sport so great. I recognize we are likely heading to an “English Premier League” style in the sport long term where there are upper and lower divisions. We will have to see. As for me – I will be watching, and am going to move on in the coming days to reporting on the season ahead.