Nature abhors a vacuum and with a month to go until football season starts, conference realignment talk is back at a fever pitch even though there’s nothing really going on. The latest scuttlebutt is that Texas A&M is dancing with the SEC again with the rest of the Big 12 getting all hot and bothered about their high school recruiting targets getting TV time on the Longhorn Network (which has been placated… for now).
Believe me – I loooove conference realignment talk. It’s the reason why 99% of you are reading this blog in the first place. However, the “Texas A&M to the SEC” rumors are driving me up the wall, not necessarily because it would never happen (even though that’s what I personally believe), but that so many commentators on this subject simply argue that “Angry Aggies = SEC Move” without any further analysis. (For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on Texas A&M, but the same principles can be applied to rumors involving angry Oklahoma and Missouri fans.) I went through a fairly detailed look at why I didn’t believe that A&M could go to the SEC several months ago and think that all of those arguments still hold true.
To be clear, I believe Texas A&M is an extremely valuable school and if the SEC could add them with no conference realignment repercussions elsewhere, then I could see it happening. A&M has a lot more value than the average UT fan would likely admit. The problem is there could be major conference realignment repercussions that the SEC will not want to witness happen (i.e. its main competitors getting even stronger with the Pac-12 adding Texas and/or the Big Ten adding Notre Dame) – the SEC wanting to add A&M as a reactionary move in 2010 is much different than pulling the trigger and causing the dominoes to fall in 2011. At the same time, A&M’s value is exactly why UT won’t just let them walk away.
Regardless, there’s a segment of the college football fan population that’s simply always going to believe that Texas A&M is heading to SEC just because the Aggies are pissed off. (Remember Missouri was pissed off at the Big 12 last year, too. Also look at all those Big East schools that are supposedly pissed that the conference won’t split. Tons of options for all of them, right?) That’s fair enough, but all I ask of this segment of the population is to address the following roadblocks to that ever happening:
1. The SEC can’t just rip up its TV contracts simply because it expands – A decent number of columnists/bloggers have taken SEC Commissioner Mike Slive’s comment that there are periodic “look-ins” for its contracts with CBS and ESPN and came to conclusion that the conference could set fire to those deals in the event of expansion. While the terms of the SEC TV deal are not public (and that’s the case for any conference), this is a dangerous assumption that I would wager is 99.99% incorrect. (The .01% allows for the slight chance that Slive has compromising pictures of various CBS and ESPN executives with Casey Anthony.) ESPN certainly doesn’t believe that the SEC’s “look-ins” can reopen the TV deal:
The agreement with ESPN calls for a “look-in” review after the first five years but can occur sooner, said Burke Magnus, ESPN senior vice pres ident of college sports programming.
“We knew when we made a 15-year deal that time was not going to stand still so we purposely built in these look-ins,” Magnus said. “They don’t reopen the deal. There’s no outs. It’s an opportunity for both of us to really take stock of where we are and see what we could be doing better.”
It is standard operating procedure that these types of contracts have provisions that protect the network, NOT the conference, in the event of membership changes. In a post by the excellent college TV sports blogger mattsarz about the C-USA/ESPN lawsuit, he attached the underlying TV contract that was made public as part of the complaint that was filed. Here’s the language about regarding membership changes:
10. CONFERENCE COMPOSITION
(a) Essential Institutions. The participation and availability for televised play of the following academic institutions shall be deemed to be of the essence of this Agreement: University of Texas El Paso, Rice University, University of Alabama-Birmingham, University of Tulsa, University of Southern Mississippi, Memphis University, Tulane University, University of Houston, Marshall University, University of Central Florida, East Carolina University and Southern Methodist University.
(b) Unavailability. If any Conference team leaves the Conference or is otherwise unavailable for televised play as authorized by this Agreement (in either case, “Unavailable”) for any Season during the Term then ESPN and Conference will negotiate in good faith after such Unavailability comes to ESPN’s attention to determine appropriate adjustments to this Agreement. In such negotiations, the parties shall take into account, among all other relevant factors, any new members that are added to the Conference in replacement of the Unavailable members. If the parties cannot agree on the appropriate adjustments, then ESPN will have the right in its sole discretion to elect by the May 1 prior to the affected Season (unless such Unavailability occurs thereafter, in which case ESPN will have the right to make its election within 30 days after it is notified by Conference of the Unavailability) to reduce the rights fees hereunder in the same proportion as the number of Unavailable teams bears to 12. ESPN will also have the right at any such time to terminate this Agreement if the Conference has in any season fewer than ten member institutions that are NCAA Division I-A members and that are available for televised play as provided above. In addition, if additional institutions join the Conference (i.e., bringing the number of member institutions to 13 or more), then within 30 days after ESPN is notified by the Conference to that effect, ESPN and Conference will engage in good-faith negotiations regarding potential increases to the rights fees due hereunder.
As you can see, ESPN was able to get a concrete reduction in fees or even completely terminate the agreement if C-USA lost enough members, but if C-USA added any members, all that the parties would be obligated to do was to engage in “good-faith negotiations”, which as an attorney I can say is Kumbaya B.S. with no real meaning. ESPN was the only entity with a legitimate stick here. A conference would only have power if it actually had concrete termination rights in the event of an expansion, which wasn’t the case in the C-USA contract.
Even though C-USA is relatively small player, we can deduce that the power conferences also have a similar clause. The Big Ten, for instance, gained a new marquee member in Nebraska last year and even added a brand new conference championship game (which wouldn’t happen in the case of SEC expansion). If the Big Ten had a termination right that some are assuming that the SEC somehow has, then Jim Delany would’ve called ESPN ten seconds after the new Pac-12 monster contract was announced and said “I’m out!” That obviously hasn’t happened – the Big Ten still has to wait until its current TV deals are done in 2016. It’s also instructive that both the ACC in 2003 and the then-Pac-10 in 2010 performed their respective expansions only a few months prior to their respective TV rights going back up for open bid. That shows that those conferences needed to time their expansions to coincide with their new TV deals (as opposed to the other way around, as the A&M-to-the-SEC believers are arguing) because that’s the only way that they could receive the financial benefits from expansion immediately.
Frankly, this all makes sense. Networks would never reasonably agree to tearing up TV contracts based on expansion because they want to know who the conferences are expanding with (not just expansion in and of itself), and even then, it’s almost impossible to assign a value to any prospective expansion candidates ahead of time. In turn, networks can definitely assign a value to a conference as presently constituted, so they have leverage to get out of deals (or receive relief) in the event that such conference loses members.
So, unless Mike Slive can produce some Casey Anthony photos, we should assume that the SEC has terms just like everyone else: the SEC is stuck with its deals until 2024 unless its TV partners willingly give it more money prior to that. This brings us to the next point…
2. ESPN isn’t going to willingly hand the SEC more money for expansion – Let’s take a quick look at where ESPN stands right now. First, ESPN worked extremely hard to keep the Big 12 together last year in order to block the formation of superconferences by going so far as to give that league the same amount of money even though it had just lost its most populous non-Texas state (Colorado), a marquee national name (Nebraska) and a conference championship game. Second, ESPN has just invested a ton of capital in the Longhorn Network, which essentially depends upon the Big 12 surviving as none of the other BCS conferences besides maybe the Big East would let that monstrosity live.
Call me crazy, but when considering those two points, it seems quite far-fetched that ESPN would actually provide an incentive to the SEC to expand with Texas A&M (and/or Oklahoma and/or Missouri and/or whoever else you want to throw in) that would directly kill off the Big 12 that ESPN has every incentive to save. Plus, with the amount that ESPN is paying the Pac-12 now and with the Big Ten contract going up for bid in a couple of years, it doesn’t make any sense that the network would give the SEC any ability to increase its rights fees prior to 2024. If the SEC’s contract was up in a couple of years like the Big Ten’s deal, then maybe I could see ESPN throwing more dollars in order to lock in an extension, but there’s no business logic for the network to re-open a deal that’s locked in for the next 13 years that the SEC can’t do anything about.
3. Objectors to high school games on the Longhorn Network are arguing semantics (and that’s ultimately a losing argument) – There’s a massive public flagship university located in one of the top football recruiting states in the nation that has entered into a multi-year multi-million dollar third tier rights deal with a regional sports network that is wholly-owned by a large multimedia conglomerate. There are some football and basketball games along with coaches’ shows and other promotions showing the university. The RSN also telecasts high school football games that potentially showcase that university’s recruits. Such public flagship university does not own any part of such RSN.
I’ve just described the contract that the University of Florida has with Sun Sports. It also describes the deal between the University of Texas and ESPN for the Longhorn Network. Structurally, the two deals are virtually exactly the same. ESPN completely owns the LHN, and therefore, controls its programming decisions, just like Fox owns and controls Sun Sports. The main difference is branding, where Florida is part of a network that also shows the Miami Cheat (among other teams) while Texas has its Longhorn moniker in the ESPN’s network’s name. So, does the NCAA come down on the LHN for a branding decision but doesn’t care about Sun Sports? If the LHN simply changed its name to “ESPN Austin”, would it make a difference? Is a network that has 10% UF content acceptable, but another with 90% UT content unacceptable?
Note that this is different than the BTN and Pac-12 Network situations, where the schools in the Big Ten and Pac-12 have actual equity interests in those channels. This makes it much easier for the NCAA to regulate those types of setups or, more importantly, regulate them in a way where the NCAA doesn’t lose in a court challenge. The Texas relationship with the LHN, on the other hand, is really just a straight-up traditional rights fees deal that Florida and a whole host of other schools have with various regional sports networks. As a result, the NCAA, the Big 12 and any other challengers to the LHN would largely have to rely on semantics (the name “Longhorn Network”) with subjective benefits as opposed to the ownership structure of the network itself that can objectively measured, and courts hate arguments about semantics. If ESPN thought the fight was worth it (and that’s a business question as to whether it would spend millions of dollars in legal fees in order to show high school games on TV), it would likely flatten the NCAA (quite possibly the most blatant example of an antitrust violation that we currently have in America, which is a subject for another blog post at some point) in court, just as the University of Oklahoma did in its landmark lawsuit where the Supreme Court struck down the NCAA’s control of TV rights (thereby opening up the ability for conferences and schools to freely enter into contracts with TV networks directly as we see today). The NCAA telling a network that isn’t actually owned by a member school what it can and cannot show on TV could be construed as an overstepping of its authority and, considering the inherently collusive nature of the organization (hundreds of schools making collective decisions that affect students, agents and media personnel that aren’t even employed by such schools), it needs to be careful on how it phrases its regulations.
When the LHN deal was first announced, I was initially puzzled when UT didn’t take an equity interest in the channel, but we now see one of the main benefits. Is showing high school games on the LHN shady? Absolutely! Can the NCAA or Big 12 regulate it? It could try, but at face value, I doubt it would withstand a court challenge. The Big 12 athletic directors themselves have put the kabosh on high school games on the Longhorn Network for this year, yet I’m sure we’ll see this issue come up again next summer and the conference could face the same legal scrutiny as the NCAA would. If ESPN believes the fight is worth it, the NCAA is a fairly easy lawsuit target.
4. People that keep ignoring Texas politicians will get fooled again – Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me thrice, I’m in fucking denial. In the three major conference realignments since the 1990s, two have been heavily shaped by the whims of Texas politicians. The third was shaped by the Virginia legislature. I’ll point back to my “You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Aggies” post that goes through why it’s critical to take into account the irrational nature of Texas politicians with respect to anything regarding football. At the very least, it would be nice to see some other commentators on conference realignment that this is a very real impediment to change. Gov. Rick Perry might be a former Aggie Yell Leader, but if he wants to run for president, he’ll need to raise a lot of money from UT alums (and Texas Tech and Baylor alums), which brings us to the next point…
5. UT needs A&M in the same conference together – Many UT alums likely won’t admit it, but as I’ve stated before, Texas A&M is an extremely valuable school. That’s why UT simply isn’t going to let them walk away, and if it means making some financial concessions or telling ESPN to not show high school games on the LHN to keep the peace (along with applying their own political pressure plus the support of Tech and Baylor), then they’ll do it. There were a number of factors that went into play in the Pac-16 deal collapsing last year, but the threat of A&M heading to the SEC at that time was extremely high on the list. It’s instructive that the Pac-16 deal could’ve easily moved forward if UT was fine with only moving with Tech (and maybe having Utah or Kansas replace A&M in the Pac proposal) while A&M went to the SEC, yet it didn’t happen. I’ll always remember one of the first comments from a connected UT alum on this blog when the Big Ten first announced that it was exploring expansion almost 2 years ago and how he described that UT, in no uncertain terms, would not let A&M head off to the SEC as the Longhorns knew that opening up the state of Texas to that conference for TV and recruiting purposes would be a killer for their own program.
At the same time, count me in as someone that will always believe that the prospect of UT going independent is an empty threat. Money is important, but many commentators are ignoring how important institutional culture is in making decisions, too. Ultimately, UT needs an entourage like a Hollywood starlet. The school’s actions time and time again have shown that having power over others is how it gets it rocks off. It wants to have schools like Texas Tech and Baylor dependent upon it and it certainly doesn’t want A&M be in a separate higher profile league. UT doesn’t just want to make the most money – it wants to control college football in the state of Texas completely, and that requires A&M to be in the fold. Notre Dame is a J.D. Salinger-type recluse that doesn’t want any attachments to anyone, which is why they have chosen to be independent as an institution (even though they’d actually make substantially more television money in the Big Ten). UT simply isn’t like that – it has always positioned itself as the proverbial sun for a bunch of other schools.
UT and A&M have come very close to separating two times before over the last two decades, yet the leaders of both schools have never been able to pull the trigger (even if some their respective fans would love to use a machine gun on the relationship). A combination of politics, institutional culture and uniquely shared endowment money that makes football TV revenue look like pocket change (see the Permanent University Fund) has always kept them together.
Could Texas A&M end up in the SEC? I guess anything is possible, but let’s be clear that just because Aggies are angry doesn’t mean that they’ll move to the SEC. Any rational analysis needs to address (1) why the SEC would expand when it has no leverage to renegotiate its current TV contracts (meaning that the current SEC schools would be subsidizing any expansion until 2024), (2) why ESPN would help out the SEC on that front when it has direct interests in keeping the Big 12 alive, (3) how a court challenge to any restrictions on showing high school games on the Longhorn Network would turn out, (4) why Texas politicians would suddenly be wallflowers on conference realignment when history clearly indicates that they are not only not wallflowers, but completely interventionist and (5) why UT would just roll over and let A&M walk away. I would love to entertain arguments that address all of those massive roadblocks. “Aggies are steaming mad”, however, isn’t a valid argument.
(Image from ThinkGeek)