Less than a year ago, the Big 12 looked about as stable as a three-legged chair.
Texas and ESPN appeared to be running roughshod over the rest of the league in an effort to make sure the Longhorn Network didn’t turn into TV’s version of just about any Kevin Costner movie released since 1995. Texas A&M had already jumped ship, and Oklahoma’s ill-fated attempt to defect to the Pac-12 set in motion a chain of events that eventually sent Missouri scurrying to the SEC.
OU president David Boren had committed his fair share of boners in the conference realignment process up to that point, but he was correct in his emphasis on achieving “stability” in the Big 12. Conference leadership used more punitive measures to get there than goodwill and promises made with fingers crossed, but it has worked. Even though the Big 12 lost Missouri in the process, it now has 10 member schools that have essentially committed to the league for the next 13 years through a grant of rights extending through the duration of a lucrative media deal.
And, lo and behold, Florida St., one of college football’s best brands, is contemplating jumping from the prestigious ACC to become a member of a conference that was once notorious for its dysfunction. If so, it could put the Big 12 in the enviable position of cherry-picking some other programs from the Southeast to add to its “electronic footprint” in the parlance of new league commissioner Bob Bowlsby.
Maybe DeLoss Dodds and Mack Brown are just posturing. Assuming Texas really is lobbying to keep the conference as-is, I’d advise the league not to listen to the Longhorns on this one.
By its very nature, a conference is generally beholden to the will of its top dogs. If Ohio St. or Michigan started making noise about an issue in the Big Ten to the point that they were ready to leave the league, you’d see their Rust Belt compadres fall in line pretty quickly. If USC had told Larry Scott to piss off when he asked the Trojans to pool their media rights with the rest of the conference, Businessweek wouldn’t be writing profiles of Scott hailing him as the sports industry’s new hotness.
No conference, however, has had to rely on its top economic driver as heavily as the Big 12. Oklahoma may boast one of college football’s elite programs, but the Sooners don’t bring nearly the same amount of eyeballs as their rivals south of the Red River. Texas is the most valuable entity in college sports, and love ‘em or hate ‘em, the school’s administration has leveraged that status masterfully. The zenith came last year when ESPN wildly overpaid to create the LHN, cementing UT as the New York Yankees of the college sports world.
The mere fact that Kansas and Iowa St. share the same conference as Texas is a major reason why they’re going to be making more money than Florida St. when the ink is dry on the new Big 12 television contract. The problem for those schools, though, is that if Texas left the league, you can imagine what that would mean for the top line on their income statements.
In Mad Men phraseology, the Longhorns are to the Big 12 as Lucky Strike was to Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce’s portfolio.
The cold truth is that Dodds can profess his undying love for the Big 12 until he’s blue in the face, but once ESPN and Texas broke ground on the LHN studios, it brought the theory of a conference-less Texas that much closer to reality. The ‘Horns couldn’t survive as an independent today. Thirteen years from now when the new Big 12 TV deal runs out, who knows? No (reasonable) amount of appeasement can kill that possibility.
That kind of longer-term uncertainty creates a problem for every Big 12 school not wearing burnt orange. Texas Tech and Baylor own seats at the table now. If the Big 12 dies, they’re likely heading hat in hand to Future WAC.
Which brings us back to right now and the dalliance between the Big 12 and the ‘Noles.
In the long run, the Big 12 needs to diversify. FSU would mean adding a marquee brand in a huge television market. It could also spell the end of the ACC as we currently know it, with other programs such as Virginia Tech, Clemson and Georgia Tech searching for a new home. Add FSU and possibly as many as three more attractive candidates from the ACC to the Big 12, and you likely have a league that is built to last, no matter what Texas does in the future.
The Big 12 will be absolutely fine with 10 teams for now if the Seminoles decide the league isn’t for them. But the conference shouldn’t let this opportunity pass it by.