The college sports news cycle went into a frenzy on Wednesday after rumors that Texas and Oklahoma are reportedly considering major moves to the SEC began making the rounds across the web.
The news seemed to have caught everyone from fans to executives off guard — prompting the Big 12 to schedule a meeting for Thursday at 6 p.m. ET, Dennis Dodd of CBS reported.
The news, which was first reported by Brent Zwerneman of the Houston Chronicle, brings major conference realignment back into the spotlight for the first time in a decade, and in surprise fashion, amid a summer full of potential future modifications to college football. The most notable of which is the proposal of a 12-team College Football Playoff in 2023 at the earliest.
That proposal, which (somewhat ironically) was partly championed by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, did spark questions about changes to the current conference structure. At Big 12 Media Days on July 14, however, Bowlsby said he wasn’t losing any sleep over that concept.
“[The CFP proposal] is really mute on that question. Conference alignment is always at the discretion of the conferences,” he said. “But you have to remember…the last round of realignments was all driven by cable households, and we find ourselves now in a rapidly-shrinking cable environment, and it is much less driven by capturing a particular cable market….That motivation is essentially gone, and the cable universe has shrunk 20 million households already, and it’s going to continue to shrink as we migrate to digital consumption and streaming.”
Bowlsby didn’t rule the whole concept out, though. In fact, he concluded his press conference with a line — which in hindsight, reads like unknowing foreshadowing from the league commissioner.
“Is that to say it couldn’t happen? No, it could possibly happen for other reasons, but it doesn’t appear to me that the motivation is there at this point in time,” Bowlsby said. “Not to say it couldn’t happen, but it’s not one of the things that keeps me up at night.”
Executives from Texas, Oklahoma and the SEC all abstained comments on any talks between the parties, with both schools issuing statements refusing to address the rumors.
Both Big 12 and SEC member schools were taken aback by the news. Ross Bjork, the athletic director of Texas A&M (which dipped from the Big 12 in 2012), was clear — he wants the Aggies to be the only Texas school in the SEC.
Similarly, Oklahoma State commented on the rumors, which did not sit well with OU’s Bedlam rivals.
“If true, we would be gravely disappointed,” OSU stated. “While we place a premium on history, loyalty and trust, be assured, we will aggressively defend and advance what is best for Oklahoma State and our strong athletic program, which continues to excel in the Big 12 and nationally.”
An unnamed source cited by Zwerneman indicated that the proposed changes to the CFP, as well as changes outside of football, like name, image and likeness rights, motivated Texas and Oklahoma. Simply put, Zwerneman reports this change is based on “economic forces.”
A move to the SEC would very likely be more profitable for both Texas and Oklahoma, especially after a difficult year with the COVID-19 pandemic in which schools across the country lost tens of millions of dollars. The Big 12 distributed $34.5 million of revenue to each school for the 2020-21 fiscal year, which was a drop of $3.2 million from a year prior (both years were severely impacted by the pandemic).
Bowlsby anticipates the distribution should pass $40 million for 2021-22, but that still doesn’t compare to the SEC, which gave each school $45.5 million in 2019-20. Plus, the conference announced it would supplement an additional $23 million with the hopes of stymieing hardships caused by the pandemic.
That additional money comes from “future increases in media rights revenue,” which is presumably its deal with ESPN that begins in 2024. Correspondingly, the Big 12 reportedly tried to open talks to renew its own deal with ESPN and FOX, but according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, the networks declined to discuss a new deal.
Bowlsby said, though, that the financial impact of the pandemic is not and will not be uniform across the league. Rather, it will vary depending on the school.
“The longer-term hangover is likely to be on campus where lots of ticket sales were lost, and it varies from place to place,” Bowlsby said. “Some laid people off, some have reduced terms of service, some dealt with it very early, others chose to deal with it later, and so it really very much is institutional, but that impact is real, and it’s not likely a one-year impact. It will be into fiscal year ’23 before some institutions fully recover, others will be able to do it more quickly….It’s a little all over the place.”