Texas and Oklahoma are at the center of what could be another major shift in college football realignment — perhaps the biggest in the history of the sport.
According to a report Wednesday by the Houston Chronicle, the Big 12 schools have reached out to the Southeastern Conference to join it in another round of realignment. The Chronicle, citing “a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation,” reported their addition could be addressed by the conference “within a couple weeks.” The SEC would effectively become college football’s first superconference.
A Texas spokesman, speaking to the Chronicle, claimed no knowledge of talks with the SEC before declining further comment. Oklahoma also released a statement in response to the news: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”
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SEC commissioner Greg Sankey declined to comment to the Chronicle before later telling reporters at SEC Media Days that the conference isn’t looking beyond this year.
“We are only worried about the 2021 season,” he said. “Somebody dropped a report from unnamed people.”
AL.com corroborated the Chronicle’s report, saying that “multiple college football insiders” confirmed the Red River rivals had taken “multiple steps” to facilitate a move. It’s uncertain whether the schools are acting independently of each other or would act jointly in trying to leave the Big 12.
The Longhorns and Sooners have been member institutions since the Big 12’s formation in 1996, when former Southwest Conference schools Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech were added to the Big 8. The conference suffered significant losses in the last round of college football realignment at the turn of the decade, with founding members Colorado and Nebraska leaving for the Pac-12 and Big Ten, respectively, in 2011. Missouri and Texas A&M followed suit following the 2011 season to join the SEC.
Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said in response to the Chronicle’s report that SEC ADs have not discussed the addition of Texas or Oklahoma. He also scoffed at the idea of Texas joining the SEC. Per Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated:
Ross Bjork says he was unaware of Texas/OU interest in joining the SEC. SEC ADs have not discussed the issue, he says.
It’s clear where the Aggies stand.
“There’s a reason why Texas A&M left the Big 12 – to be stand alone & have our own identity. That’s our feeling,” he says.
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) July 21, 2021
Bjork’s opposition to the move isn’t the only roadblock Texas and Oklahoma face if they want to jump from the Big 12. Here’s a breakdown of the multiple obstacles that could keep the schools from turning the SEC into a superconference:
Existing broadcast deals with ESPN, Fox
According to a report by Front Office Sports, the SEC earned $728.9 million in the 2020 fiscal year — roughly $300 million more than the Big 12’s reported earnings ($409.2 million). That difference, coupled with the SEC’s new deal with ESPN — which is estimated to pay more than $300 million annually to the conference and is scheduled to go into effect in 2024 — would be alluring for any outside teams looking to cash in on the SEC’s popularity.
Moreover, both ESPN and Fox — which hold Big 12 broadcast and streaming rights — reportedly declined to enter into early TV negotiations with the conference before the deal ends in 2025.
That said, the Big 12’s existing rights deal with those networks could muddy potential negotiations between Texas, Oklahoma and the SEC. Texas has its own deal with ESPN in the form of the Longhorn Network, which pays the school $15 million annually and contractually obligates the network to air 200 Texas athletics events per academic year through 2031.
In 2019, the Big 12 and ESPN rearranged their broadcast deal — which ends in 2025 — to allow every member school besides Texas and Oklahoma to provide inventory to ESPN+. The agreement, as reported by the Sports Business Journal (via the Austin American-Statesman) pays the conference $22 million annually. Oklahoma sold its third-tier rights to Fox.
It’s possible ESPN could rework the Longhorn Network deal in the event Texas and Oklahoma move to the SEC, but Fox likely would be unhappy to part with its two biggest college football assets before the Big 12 contract ends in 2025. Moreover, the addition of two teams to the SEC would reduce the amount each member institution would get from ESPN’s new rights deal; it’s possible ESPN would be forced to pay more on a per-year basis in its deal with the conference.
ESPN could consider that move, as it might be offset by declining a future TV rights deal with a significantly less-alluring Big 12.
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Big 12 exit fees
If Texas and Oklahoma were to leave the Big 12 before the conclusion of its TV deals, it would cost both schools a not-insignificant amount of money. For example, Nebraska and Colorado paid exit fees of $9.25 million and $6.86 million, respectively, to leave for their new conferences. Missouri and Texas A&M both paid $12.4 million to leave for the SEC.
Those fees, however, were paid in 2010 and 2011 — before the Big 12 signed a 13-year, $2.6 billion rights deal with Fox and ESPN. It’s unclear how much Texas and Oklahoma would have to pay in exit fees if they left for the SEC before 2025, but it would almost certainly be more than what Nebraska, Colorado, Missouri and Texas A&M paid to leave the Big 12.
The Longhorns and Sooners might be willing to incur that penalty with the promise of future revenue from the SEC — but would its member institutions be willing to accept them?
Opposition by Texas A&M, Missouri
It’s likely Texas A&M and Missouri would strongly consider blocking Texas and Oklahoma from entering the conference, should the issue come to a vote of SEC presidents. It’s clear both institutions — along with Colorado and Nebraska — left the Big 12 to escape Texas’ long shadow in the conference, due in part to its dedicated network and the disproportionate power it wielded over its fellow institutions.
Bjork is already on the record as opposing any move by Texas to the SEC. The conference bylaws state that at least 11 of 14 schools must vote yes to extend an invitation to a potential new school.
While Bjork and A&M president Michael Young’s initial inclination likely would be to oppose Texas, promises of increased revenue may create pressure from within the conference for a “yea” vote.
Additional SEC, Big 12 resistance
It’s uncertain how the other SEC schools apart from Missouri and Texas A&M would vote on this matter. Adding the top two Big 12 programs to a conference that already includes Alabama, LSU, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee and Auburn — not to mention Texas A&M and Missouri — would make it exceptionally more difficult for teams to win the conference title and earn a College Football Playoff berth.
There’s also the issue of division realignment, which would likely leave several teams unhappy. Texas and Oklahoma could move to the SEC West, forcing Alabama and Auburn to the East, to the chagrin of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. The teams left in the West — Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Mississippi State — likely would not be happy with the additions, either.
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The SEC could also put the teams in different divisions, much as it did with Texas A&M and Missouri in 2012, which would on paper create more balance between the divisions. Or, the conference could look at a pod scheduling format, one that would likely sacrifice one of parity or traditional conference rivalries. Moreover, it’s unlikely teams would react positively — behind closed doors, at least — to any additional competition.
Big 12 teams have already released statements in response to the news as well, such as this from Oklahoma State:
There are other sports the SEC would consider beside football, too. Texas and Oklahoma would bring powerful programs in basketball, softball, baseball, gymnastics, men’s and women’s golf and more. Those would add to the impressive inventory of content already available to ESPN, which could make a new rights deal more lucrative for the network, the SEC and its member institutions. That’s to say nothing of those universities’ academic merits.
But football is first and foremost in the SEC, and any additional roadblocks the conference may face concerning that sport — especially with playoff realignment looming — could be enough to hinder Texas and Oklahoma’ admittance.