The Houston Chronicle reported earlier this week that The University of Texas and The University of Oklahoma have been in talks with the Southeastern Conference (SEC) about joining their league. On Friday, reporters confirmed Texas and OU would be leaving the Big 12.
— Chip Brown (@ChipBrown247) July 23, 2021
The news isn’t just about conference shake-ups, but bigger changes across the entire NCAA. Thanks to a recent SCOTUS ruling, college sports is now entering the era of NIL: name, image, and likeness. Until just recently, no college athlete in the United States could earn money for their athletic talent. They weren’t even allowed to have a job scooping ice cream during college. Now the quarterback for the Alabama Crimson Tide is worth nearly $1 million in endorsements.
If you think this is the first time money is entering college sports, you haven’t been paying attention. Money has exchanged hands for decades, and decades, just under the table. Now it will be all above board, and taxable. But having a local car dealership pay Joe Football the QB at the local college to appear on occasion to sell some cars is just the beginning.
This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this talk about the breakup of the Big 12. Since its inception, there has always been a bit of worry that the biggest conference in Middle America was never as strong as it could be. Originally including football powerhouses like OU, Texas, Nebraska, and Texas A&M, the conference has never been run very well. Their TV deals aren’t negotiated as shrewdly as those for the SEC or the Big 10, and it got worse about ten years ago when the conference took a big hit to its membership.
According to ESPN’s Paul Finebaum, who is (for good or ill) Mr. SEC, Texas reached out via a backchannel law firm to the SEC. The driver at Texas has been Board of Regents Member Kevin Eltife, a former state senator, appointed by current Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Texas & Oklahoma officials reached out to SEC in late December/early January, sources close to the schools told @Stadium. “(UT & OU) have been in lockstep the whole time,” source said. “They decided then they were leaving. It was just figuring out where.”
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) July 23, 2021
Eltife allegedly saw how college sports would be changing in the world of NIL, an expanded playoff, and bigger TV contracts and wanted to be sure Texas was well-positioned for the future. Texas is a big brand, a blue blood of college football, but selling a move to the SEC would be much better if they came as a package deal with the other beast of the conference, Oklahoma.
The Sooners are one of the winningest programs in college football history, and they’ve dominated the last decade in the Big 12. If they went along to the SEC, it would be incredibly enticing for the member schools, even those members that had a history with the two schools, and those are legion in the SEC.
Texas A&M, which has long seen themselves as Texas’ “little brother,” left the Big 12 for the SEC to separate themselves from their Burnt Orange neighbor. LSU, Arkansas, and Missouri all also used to play in a conference with Texas and or Oklahoma. In fact those schools form the block of schools that may vote to keep this merger from happening.
Aggieland is not in favor of this move, as they wanted to get away from Texas when they left for the SEC a decade ago. They want to be the only school in the state with that logo painted on their field and emblazoned upon their jerseys. It’s a quiver in your recruiting arsenal, no doubt about it, particularly in the era of NIL. It may unavoidable though, no matter much they protest.
The Hurdles to Realignment
There are several hurdles to this realignment happening. First, there is the legal mess of untangling contracts that the SEC, Big 12, and their member schools have signed with media providers like ESPN and Fox Sports. None of us outside the conferences are privy to the specifics of those contracts, much less the loopholes available to the schools in order to weasel out of them.
The Big 12 TV contracts are up for renegotiation in 2025, and the SEC just signed a new deal with ESPN that goes into effect in 2024 and lasts for ten years. Any move by Texas and OU to the SEC would necessitate a renegotiation of that contract and likely a substantially larger payout. That’s how the two schools convince their detractors in the SEC to bring them in. More money to every school as part of a record TV deal.
The Big 12 contract is, allegedly, not favorable to UT and OU up and leaving before it expires, but no one in Oklahoma is likely to out-lawyer OU, and no one in Texas is going to out-lawyer the Longhorns. If they really want to fight about this, it may get expensive, but the schools could eventually find a way to win. The other question is, if UT and OU leave the Big 12, will there even be a Big 12 left to sue them?
With enough time, money and effort, the issues of legal fees or television contracts can be fixed. The biggest problem is politics.
Texas state legislators from the potentially discarded Big 12 schools like TCU, Texas Tech, and Baylor will look for a legislative “fix” for this problem. Perhaps they can draft some kind of language that says the Texas Legislature should have approval on any state-funded school that wants to change conferences. Still the governor of Texas is a Longhorn, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he’s not going to get in the way of his alma mater moving to college football’s premier conference. That leaves what happens in Oklahoma.
The last time we went through this realignment discussion a few years ago, there was talk that a gentlemen’s agreement existed amongst the Oklahoma legislature that would never let the state’s two big schools be broken apart.
OSU’s response to the news this week was as harsh and vitriolic as a you’d expect from a jilted longtime lover.
We have heard unconfirmed reports that OU and UT approached Southeastern Conference officials about joining the SEC. We are gathering information and will monitor closely. If true, we would be gravely disappointed. 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.
So Is This Happening?
Realignment is unavoidable at this point thanks to the new landscape we’re facing with NIL. The rich will only get richer, and smaller programs will find it makes more sense to cancel their failing football program and focus on their successful basketball or baseball programs instead.
Alabama, Clemson, USC, Oregon, Michigan, Ohio State, Texas, OU, LSU, Penn State, and the other big guns can sell a complete package to kids in football, basketball, and baseball that their school is a destination where not only can you get an education, and play for championships, but you can also make mad money while in college. They’ll hook up these kids with alums who run everything from car dealerships to tech startups to hedge funds in an effort to find the sponsorships that fit each kid and get them in the door. The big schools that understand how to succeed in this new era and have the tools to do so will thrive, those schools that do not will see their athletic programs be relegated to lesser leagues, or just wither and die altogether.
What we’re likely headed for is three or four “Super-Conferences” of at least 16 schools each. Once that happens, and once the college football playoff expands to at least 12 teams, there’s nothing from stopping the biggest conferences from getting together and telling the NCAA that they’re breaking away from their control altogether and forming the “College Athletics League,” or whatever their marketing departments determine is the most sponsor worthy name.
The NCAA has been nothing but a mall cop in college sports for years now. They’re boastful, flash their badge now and then, but have no real power to back up their demands.