Texas Standoff Ends With Survival of the Big 12, er, 10…Posted by rtmsf on June 14th, 2010
Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and the Mountain West conferences and an occasional contributor.
The Big 12 went all the way to the brink, peered over the other side into non-existence, and then veered away from the white light at the last minute. The patient is now resting comfortably in Austin, although it has lost a little weight.
After last week’s rumors that the University of Texas was all but signed up to head to the Pac-10, bringing Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, and potentially Texas A&M or Kansas along for the ride, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe pulled off perhaps the biggest longshot in the college sports year, reportedly in conjunction with an influential group of concerned citizens both within and outside of the world of college athletics, pulling Texas back from the brink with promises of SEC-type money and an ability for the Longhorns to start their own television network, the revenues of which they’ll be able to keep all for themselves. And, just as a little bonus, the remaining ten Big 12 schools (yes, it appears that for the near future, the Big 12 will have ten schools and the Big Ten twelve) will get to split the nearly $20 million in buyout penalties that Colorado and Nebraska must pay for leaving the conference. Maybe Christian Laettner’s shot and Doug Flutie’s pass were more exciting to watch, but Beebe’s last chance attempt at holding the Big 12 together will have a much larger long-term impact on the college sports landscape.
The biggest winner here is Texas, on several fronts. According to Beebe’s projections, the Big 12’s next television deal coupled with projected income from a Longhorn television network could provide the university with between $20-$25 million annually, a marked increase from the estimated $10-$11 million they are currently generating. And, the Longhorns get to remain in a conference with its historic rivals, many of whom were either in the position a few days ago of doing whatever Texas decided it was going to do, or being left behind if Texas did leave. While the Big 12 was already painted as Texas and the 11 dwarfs before the last week, that image has been cemented in everyone’s minds now. Clearly that will be just another useful recruiting tool for Texas athletics.
The Aggies come across as the only school in the Big 12 whose leaders were able to think of themselves in a way other than their relationship to Texas. If Texas had made the decision to head west, A&M was already well on its way to paving its own road to the SEC. Whereas before this mess, most would have pointed at Oklahoma or maybe Nebraska as the strong number two program to the Longhorn Ace, Texas A&M went a long way this week toward establishing their own identity. And then, of course, at the last minute the Aggies blinked. Fortunately for them, big daddy Texas still had their backs.
The Little Twelve
So what happens to the conference as a whole? It gets significantly richer, while being in the excellent position of dividing up a bigger pie up into fewer pieces. Beebe’s number should certainly be retired, and any time that he shows up at a Big 12 sporting event for the rest of his lifetime, they should roll out the red carpet for him, sit him down at a nice courtside throne and pay off a few cheerleaders to fan him with feathers and feed him grapes. Iowa State in particular was certainly on the verge of relegation to a mid-major program with Baylor likely not far behind. Missouri’s administrators, who not long ago talked of their involvement in the Big 12 in the past tense, have been saved as well from peddling their wares on the street corner. Kansas and its pre-eminent basketball program has been spared the indignity of either playing out of region in the Big East or asking for shelter from the Mountain West. And all these longtime rivals (or at least most of them) get to continue beating each other up on the playing field. Without a doubt, the 2010-11 season has just taken on some added significance.
Beyond all that, there are the details. First, is this league still the Big 12? We’ve put up with the Big Eleven still calling themselves the Big Ten if only because they were sorta old and quaint, perhaps a little senile, and who could blame them if they couldn’t count anymore. Sure the Atlantic 10 has 14 members, but the Atlantic 14 sounds like a really bad sequel to Ocean’s Eleven. But we really can’t have the Big 12 operating with ten members (assuming they actually stay at ten – more on that in a second), still calling itself the Big 12, can we? The easy solution is to just have the Big Ten and Big 12 swap logos, but something tells me we’re stuck with these names.
Next, the schedules should improve for the conference. As the Pac-10 gave up its claim as the only BCS conference to host a full schedule in football and a home-and-home round-robin in basketball, the Big 12 should be able claim that schedule for their own as its football championship goes on hiatus for awhile and it drops the dead weight at the back end of their basketball slate.
Then, there is also the issue of whether the Big 12 maybe gets a little bit of that expansion greed of its own and tries to reach into the MWC for a couple teams to move back to 12, giving the name meaning again and firing the football championship game back up. Air Force and BYU have already been mentioned, and while I’m not going to say for sure (things ‘round these parts have a way of changing rapidly), I don’t see that happening. The member institutions have this nice new television contract, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for them to be interested in cutting in two new schools on the deal.
One interesting question that remains is the talk of this television money. The Big 12 still has existing television contracts with Fox (which expires at the end of 2010-11) and ESPN (which expires at the end of 2015-16). Renegotiating the Fox contract surely did not suddenly make the conference flush with all this cash, right? It had to be ESPN that came in to save the day, renegotiating their contract with the Big 12 to allow the conference to stick around. And, in the process, ESPN prevented a bidding war for the rights to the new Pac-16 conference (the Pac-10’s deal expires at the end of 2010-11) and stuck it to Fox a little, since the plans for the new Pac-16 conference network included Fox as an operating partner and perhaps as the main cable conference for the network. It will be interesting to see the details about exactly where this conference-saving television contract came from at some point in the future.
Pac-10. Or 11. Or 12?
So, with the Big 12 (or 10, or god knows what) all set, where does that leave the Pac-10, which currently has 11 teams? Commissioner Larry Scott is not going to be able to reel in the big fish, but he’s still got a line out there, looking for a 12th team with the likeliest target being Utah. And frankly, Utah is probably snapping around in the water just begging to get a bite of that hook. Utah is everything the Pac-10 is looking for, and the combination of Colorado and Utah was the likeliest set of invitees to the Pac-10 all along. Utah is a large state research institution in a big western market, and they match well with Colorado as their traveling partner in the Pac-10’s geographical clustered format. Utah athletic director Chris Hill has made it clear that his school is happy in the MWC, but he would have a hard time turning down an offer from the Pac-10, which would certainly be more profitable.
While the Pac-10 may take a little heat in the general public for having missed out on Texas, the perspective I see is that they swung for the fences, and only wound up with a double. They still will likely end up with the schools they thought they had the best chance of getting at the start of this whole process, and the schools that were the best geographic and cultural matches. The talk is that they’ll still proceed with their plans for a conference cable network, as they’re still well positioned for their upcoming television negotiations (although there isn’t much chance they’ll get the type of money the Big 12 got), and they’ll now be able to hold the football championship game they wanted all along.
And, if the Pac-10 does wind up at 12, don’t expect them to force the Pac-10 moniker on us. They’ll at least be smart enough to call it what it is, the Pac-12.
With Utah apparently the next target for the Pac-10, the Mountain West could wind up basically trading Utah for Boise State. With Utah, the MWC would have been a very strong football conference,but without the Utes they’re basically back to where they were last season. The worst case scenario for the MWC is if the Big 12 does in fact try to get back to twelve teams by poaching a couple of the MWC schools, like Air Force and BYU. In that unlikely scenario, both the MWC and Boise State wind up the big, big losers in the whole affair, with the both sides wondering why they didn’t wait a few more days to make their union official. As it is, however, it looks like mostly a wash. But the college sports landscape may lose another of its big conference rivalries, with BYU and Utah being split up.
Will the MWC try to replace Utah? If so, it won’t be an upgrade; possible targets would be further WAC teams like Fresno State, Nevada or Utah State, but those conversations may be further down the road.
The next big story will likely be the Pac-10’s courtship of Utah, which shouldn’t really be a long and suspense-filled dalliance. After that, we may downshift into normalcy for awhile. Big Ten expansion has moved back over into the slow lane (although I don’t suspect that they are quite done yet), and Jim Delany’s original 12-18 month timetable is again the order of the day. With the Pac-10 and Big 12 pieces of the puzzle off the table (Orangebloods.com reports that the new TV deal for the Big 12 will lock the schools into the conference for the life of the deal), any further conference realignment will be focused in the east. The Big Ten, if it expands further, will still look at Notre Dame and several Big East football schools. There is talk of Memphis trying to buy its way into a BCS conference via FedEx CEO Fred Smith’s offer of up to $10 million annually for an invitation, and some talk that the Big East may be interested. The SEC could still be interested in some ACC football powers, although the SEC/ESPN contract that was once such hot stuff is no longer all that outrageous anymore. For the time being, however, it looks like we have passed the hyper-critical stage of conference realignment, with just three confirmed moves so far, and it looks like we have avoided the apocalyptic meltdown that was once a distinct possibility. At least until all these television contracts get ready to expire again.