The 10 schools that make up the Big 12 are bound together by a deal committing their television rights to the conference through the 2024-25 school year.
That grant of rights ends with the expiration of the conference’s $2.6 billion television contract with Fox and ESPN. The question hanging over the Big 12 has always been: When that TV deal runs out, will the conference end, too? Will Texas and Oklahoma, the conference’s flagship programs, remain satisfied with being the Big 12’s top dogs, or will they seek potentially sweeter deals elsewhere.
Expansion wasn’t going to change that, so the Big 12 declined on Monday to add two schools from a group of 11 that included BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and Connecticut. The conference’s leaders then tried their best to put forth a unified front and positive outlook for the future.
“No one’s looking to walk away from this conference,” said Oklahoma president David Boren, the chairman of the Big 12’s board of directors. “Any feelings to the contrary is just mistaken. They don’t understand the strong commitment that we all have to it.”
Claiming commitment is nice. A legally binding contract is better, but until the Big 12 starts negotiating another television deal or a revision to the current one, locking up the conference beyond 2025 is not a discussion that is taking place, Boren said.
“When the appropriate proposal is on the table, we’ll be able to go to the open market at the appropriate time and I think negotiate very successfully,” Boren said. “I think the product of that will be cooperation from all of our schools.”
The Big 12 still has much to figure out in the near- and long-term.
First up, the 10-team conference with a nine-game round-robin schedule must decide how to best implement a football championship game, which returns in 2017. Almost all available solutions are square-peg, round-hole conundrums, but the conference thinks it needs the game to better its chances at the College Football Playoff and raise more revenue.
The addition of the conference title game gives the Big 12 an opportunity to open discussions with Fox and ESPN and increase the annual payout from the networks by about $25 million per year.
Boren and commissioner Bob Bowlsby declined to address reports that ESPN and Fox are willing to consider extending the rights contract and buyout a clause that called for a large increase in rights fees if the conference expands.
A Big 12 cable network is not on the horizon. As Boren said, the market has spoken and it has said no. But cable is not what it used to be and having a network does not necessarily mean putting games on television.
“I still wish and hope someday, who knows which form of technology it will take, we will perhaps someday have a branded conference network of some kind,” Boren said.
The Big 12 paid out $30.2 million to each of its members this year, a record amount and third most among Power Five conferences. Still, long-term projections have the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference pulling away in the revenue race from the Big 12, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference in the coming years.
Bowlsby said figuring new ways to generate more is one of the conference’s top priorities.
“But I don’t know that there’s anybody that’s demonstrated a direct correlation between the amount of money spent and the number of championships that you win,” Bowlsby said. “I guess it would be fair to say that we’d not like to get 10 or 15 years henceforth and find out if there was a delta, there isn’t any way we could fix it and it would make a difference in how competitive we were. But we reside in very fertile recruiting grounds. We have great coaches. We have great venues and great traditions. I think we’re always going to be concerned about revenue.”
Revenue is not necessarily a problem for Texas or Oklahoma. According to USA Today, Texas brought in more than $183 million last year, second most in FBS among public schools. Oklahoma was eighth at $134 million.
Texas and its Longhorn Network have been a source of tension in the Big 12 and helped drive some schools away. Despite the Longhorns’ recent struggles on the football field, there is not a conference in the country that would not open their doors to Texas. The Pac-12 already tried to lure the Longhorns away unsuccessfully once. Texas is one of the few schools that could probably make football independence work in the way Notre Dame does.
“I look forward to working with Commissioner Bowlsby, chairman Boren and the other conference members to make the Big 12 even stronger in the years to come,” Texas president Greg Fenves said in a statement.
Oklahoma doesn’t quite have Texas’ star power, but the Sooners would not have much problem finding a home, either. Sooners fans have made it known they are ready for a change and it was Boren that helped make the Big 12 seem unstable by pushing the need for expansion.
On Monday, though, it was Boren touting the Big 12’s unity and unanimity when it came to not expanding. ESPN reported Tuesday that those were agreed upon talking points.
“I think we all left the room feeling a much stronger sense of commitment to the conference, commitment to each other, that all of us are Big 12 people, we’re proud to be part of this conference, and we want to always be a member of this conference as far as we’re concerned,” Boren said. “We want to see it be all it can be.”
At least for eight more years.
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