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It has been a couple of days since the news broke from Sports Business Daily that Fox is poised to enter into a deal with the Big Ten for 50% of the packages that are currently on ABC/ESPN (football and basketball) and CBS (basketball)… for up to $250 million per year for 6 years. Once again, this is just for half of the Big Ten rights that are up for grabs, which would provide for 25 football games and 50 basketball games on over-the-air broadcast Fox (“Big Fox”) and FS1. As observers such as Matt Sarzyniak have noted (who has a great post on the overall dynamics of the Big Ten deal), that amount is approximately the amount that the Pac-12 receives for its entire non-Pac-12 network package. In effect, we’re about to enter into a world where Rutgers and Northwestern are going to earn significantly more TV money than Florida State, Oklahoma, USC and even Alabama and Notre Dame. The Big Ten schools were already ahead before through its creation of the BTN (which everyone should remember how bold and risky that move was a decade ago compared to taking guaranteed money from ESPN), but the gap is going to be blown through the roof if the conference ends up with around $500 million per year for its TV rights without even taking into account the BTN portion. I have had plenty of critiques of Jim Delany and the Big Ten leadership over the years, but their management of TV and media properties has been pitch perfect for the past ten years and far beyond the capabilities (both quantitative and qualitative) of the other power conferences.

Some further thoughts:

  • I have seen a lot of scuttlebutt online that this indicates that the Big Ten might be leaving ESPN entirely, but personally don’t believe that for a second. For several years, I’ve been predicting that Fox and ESPN will ultimately split the Big Ten’s rights going forward and that is still the most likely outcome. ESPN reportedly “lowballed” the Big Ten in its initial offer, yet that is not necessarily outcome determinative since ESPN did the same thing ten years ago (which eventually spurred the creation of the Big Ten Network) and the parties still eventually got a deal done. It would have been difficult for ESPN to unilaterally come in with a massive offer several weeks ago with the continued cost-cutting throughout its organization and the possibility that this might be the time when the sports rights bubble (to the extent that there actually is a bubble) is going to pop. Essentially, ESPN bet that there wouldn’t be anyone willing to pay the Big Ten’s high asking price (just as it bet that the BTN wouldn’t be successful)… and it looks like they’re going to lose that bet badly.That being said, I’ve written many times before that ESPN’s supposed financial woes are being completely misinterpreted by many sports fans. The reason why so many Disney investors are spooked by any cord cutting and ESPN subscriber losses is because ESPN is, by far, the most profitable media and entertainment entity in the entire world. Note that I said “media and entertainment entity” – this is not just about sports networks. Let’s put it this way: ESPN currently delivers monthly subscriber revenue to Disney that is the equivalent to the domestic gross of Star Wars: The Force Awakens every single month guaranteed… and before they sell a single ad. Disney has relied upon ESPN to deliver monopoly drug dealer profits for years to prop up their entire business. Now, ESPN is “only” making oligopoly drug dealer profits.

    All of this is to say that ESPN still makes a ton of money that is far, far, far beyond what Fox, NBC, CBS, Turner or any other entity with sports interests could ever dream of. Even in cost-cutting mode, ESPN still needs to invest in core properties in the same way that the rest of the cost-cutting Disney organization will authorize massive budgets for Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar and Disney Princess movies. ESPN leadership can now go back to their overlords at Disney and say, “Look – we tried to get the Big Ten on the cheap and that clearly isn’t going to happen. We have now already let Fox into the door to becoming a top tier sports network competitor and we can’t let someone else, especially NBC/Comcast, to get even more traction on top of them. We need to the funds to pay up here.” Anyone that thinks that ESPN can just plug in more SEC or ACC games into its lineup is fooling themselves. The Big Ten provides a massive lineup of football games in the best time slots on ABC and ESPN and have consistently garnered the best ratings of any of the conferences next to the SEC. The people at ESPN aren’t dumb – they know the difference between a short-term administrative cost cut and a long-term investment in their core product… and the Big Ten has been a huge part of their core product since almost the beginning of the network.

  • By the same token, let’s not pretend that the Big Ten wants to get away from ESPN. I have seen some Big Ten fans profess a desire to leave ESPN entirely, but that would be as short-sighted for the conference as it would be short-sighted for ESPN to let the Big Ten go completely. The fact of the matter is that if you were to show the exact same game on ESPN versus FS1, the viewership on ESPN would be magnitudes higher. We have already seen a track record of Major League Baseball, Big 12 and Pac-12 games where similar games on ESPN crush the ratings on FS1. There has to be great concern that the notion that “fans will just find the channel if they want to watch a particular game” isn’t necessarily completely true. ESPN is, and will be for the foreseeable future because the stranglehold that they have on sports rights overall, the “default channel” for sports fans. Just walk into any sports bar across the country and, outside of NFL Sundays, the vast majority of TVs are going to be tuned into the ESPN mothership. A game that is shown on ESPN literally gets a ratings bump, whereas that same game on FS1 gets a ratings discount.This greatly matters to the Big Ten, which is trying to position its TV deals in the same way that the NFL has over the past few years. Money certainly matters, but long-term money (the proverbial golden goose) is directly correlated with exposure… and no one can provide exposure like ESPN. Indeed, even with the increase in cord cutting and falling numbers of subscribers, every single other media company in the United States would kill to have ESPN. We have already established that they have the top-rated and most profitable TV network, but it goes beyond just that aspect. Who has the #1 sports news website? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports radio network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports mobile app? ESPN. Who has the #1 streaming sports network? ESPN. Who has the #1 sports podcast network? ESPN.

    That is what a lot of Big Ten fans that care too much about supposed “SEC bias” on ESPN are missing: there is simply no replication for the multi-platform 27/7 exposure that ESPN provides.* Many other companies have tried to apply the ESPN playbook for years and years (see the CBS and Fox efforts to build their own sports websites and radio networks with only a fraction of the audience of ESPN) and have failed. When a Big Ten game is on ESPN, it gets promoted on (a) Mike and Mike on TV, radio, streaming audio and podcasts simultaneously, (b) SportsCenter on multiple networks several times per day, (c) ads on ESPN’s websites and mobile apps, (d) countless other TV, radio shows and podcasts for an entire week, including the all-important College GameDay for college football fans. Other than Inside the NBA on TNT (which is powered by the on-air brilliance of Charles Barkley, there is not a single cable TV platform in any sport that has anywhere close to the audience that ESPN has for even one of its minor shows, much less SportsCenter, GameDay or Mike and Mike.

    (* Note that it isn’t an accident that ESPN is a master of corporate synergy considering that it is owned by Disney, whose entire existence is based on leveraging its brand across countless platforms. I have never heard of someone that likes Universal Studios, the Jurassic Park movies and NBC call themselves a “Comcast Fan” or a fan of Fox shows and movies call themselves a “Fox Fan” (which is distinct from a Fox News Fan that is an entirely different breed), but you will find millions of Disney fans that travel to Disney parks, watch Disney movies and TV shows and buy Disney merchandise with the Disney branding being a the predominant factor. My sister is a prime example of a Disneyphile. Disney and ESPN simply are masters at synergy via corporate culture that can’t really be replicated even if you followed the exact same playbook elsewhere… and believe me when I say that every one of their competitors have tried.)

    At the end of the day, the Big Ten still needs the exposure that only ESPN can uniquely offer. It’s instructive that out of the 4 major pro sports leagues and 5 power college conferences, the only one that doesn’t have a presence on ESPN is the NHL (which has by far the most limited fan base of that group). Just because the Big Ten could theoretically live without ESPN doesn’t mean that it actually wants to do so at all. That’s why I believe that time will heal wounds due to mutual interests and a deal will get done between the Big Ten and ESPN for the other half of the TV rights that are currently in play. The Big Ten won’t take a lowball amount from ESPN, but I think they know well enough to provide a bit more leeway for ESPN’s bid in acknowledgment of their superior platforms for overall exposure compared to Fox. Both the Big Ten and ESPN need each other here.

  • In looking at the imminent Fox deal with the Big Ten, this seems to be set up to put a weekly football game on both Big Fox and FS1. This will end up being quite a boon for Fox’s college football game inventory quality. From a personal standpoint, I just hope that it improves that actual college football game production quality, which I have found lacking compared to ABC/ESPN and CBS. (I think that NBC’s Notre Dame productions have quality visuals, but the commentary is the college football equivalent of listening to Hawk Harrelson’s calls of White Sox games.) Regardless, if this means that most or all of the games that would have ended up on ESPN2, ESPNU or ESPNEWS are on Big Fox and FS1, then that’s an upgrade in terms of viewership exposure as long as the Big Ten keeps its presence on ABC and the ESPN mothership.Further to what I’ve stated before, I don’t think Fox is as flush with funds as much as ESPN (because absolutely no one is as flush with funds as ESPN), but Fox certainly has a lot more incentive to make a bold move with it being in the upstart position. In particular, FS1 has had a rocky history in its short life. On paper, FS1 has the best sports rights outside of ESPN on paper with MLB, Big 12, Pac-12, Big East, NASCAR, Champions League, FIFA (World Cup), UFC and USGA (U.S. Open) properties, but it doesn’t seem to have a cohesive brand even compared to NBCSN (which seems to have become the yuppie/hipster sports network largely relying upon the NHL, English Premier League and Olympics), much less ESPN. At the very least, the Big Ten may push Fox over-the-top in terms of being a legit college sports destination that it hasn’t quite been up to this point.

    Realistically, Fox can never achieve the synergy that ESPN can provide, but there are strong potential cross-promotional opportunities between Fox’s over-the-air NFL package and the new Big Ten coverage along with the clear connection between BTN (which is 51% owned by Fox) and the rest of the Fox organization. The NFL broadcasts on Fox are by far the strongest on the network (which ought to be the case since they are also by far the largest ratings drivers for Fox), so let’s hope that the Big Ten can receive at least comparable quality in terms of treatment.

  • The reported 6-year timeframe of the Fox deal is unusual compared to the much longer-term deals that the other power conferences have signed. In fact, the Big Ten will end up back at the negotiating table before any of the other power conferences once again. On the one hand, this presents some risk to the Big Ten since they are not locking in today’s high rights fees into the late-2020s or even 2030s. On the other hand, every time that the Big Ten has bet on itself, it has ended up succeeding, whether it was with the formation of the BTN or taking its rights to the open market in a period of uncertainty for sports programming values with decreasing cable subscriptions. By the same token, Fox may be hedging on cable subscriber fee uncertainty itself, as Dennis Dodd had suggested.In any event, the short length of the TV deal means that conference realignment talk might cool down in the immediate term, but will pick up a huge amount of steam in the next 5 years. Whether it’s a coincidence or not (and I tend to think “not”), the end of the 6-year deal term in 2023 is shortly before the expiration of the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement in 2025, which makes any possible damages for a Big 12 defector to be much lower and/or negligible compared to a Big Ten windfall. The same usual suspects of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas as Big Ten candidates. It will also be interesting to see how schools in other conferences (particularly the ACC) are going to adjust to an environment where each Big Ten school could be receiving nearly $60 million per year in media revenue starting in 2017 (as estimated by Awful Announcing), which would lap the SEC’s revenue (much less any of the other power conferences). A few million dollars per year difference in TV revenue may not have been enough to sway the most valuable schools (e.g. Texas, North Carolina, etc.) to switch conferences, but when we’re looking at an eight figure annual gap, it could change the dynamic quite a bit.

The announcement by Jim Delany at the end of 2009 that the Big Ten was exploring expansion was leading to this moment of a new TV contract. Nebraska added a national name brand for football, while Rutgers and Maryland added two massive media markets based on the East Coast. This isn’t the end, though. I still believe that ESPN is going to end up with the other half of the rights. It will be interesting to see what happens with the CBS basketball package (which hasn’t been talked about as much) since that provided great exposure and time slots for the Big Ten (such as the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game leading into the NCAA Tournament Selection Show) even if the contract value itself pales in comparison with football. Digital rights are going to be a much more significant factor in this new contract compared to 10 years ago, while some second tier sports such as hockey, baseball and lacrosse could end up seeing more telecasts beyond the BTN with multiple other networks. The Big Ten’s new Fox deal is a great start and it’s a sign of great things once we get the final overall media rights picture for the conference.

(Image from Detroit Free Press)

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In a move that came out of nowhere, the Big Ten will be adding Notre Dame as a hockey member starting in 2017-18. A few quick thoughts on an otherwise sad day with all that has happened in Belgium:

  • This is by far the most surprising move that I’ve seen from the Big Ten (and possibly any conference) ever since I started following conference realignment. The timing of the Maryland/Rutgers expansion was stealthy, but anyone that has followed this blog since 2010 had been tracking those schools as high on the Big Ten candidacy list. Johns Hopkins coming to the Big Ten as an affiliate member was a natural fit academically and in terms of the need to get a 6th lacrosse member to obtain NCAA auto-qualifier status. In contrast, Notre Dame joining the ACC as a non-football member and then placing its hockey program in the extremely strong Hockey East, seemed to be give the Irish everything that it wanted in preserving football independence, membership in strong conferences for its other sports and kowtowing to the segment of its alumni base that wanted to cut off all possible relationships with the Big Ten. Meanwhile, the Big Ten seemed to move on from any possibility of Notre Dame joining the league in any capacity. To see this new arrangement come up is quite remarkable even if it’s just for hockey. Ice hockey could be thawing Big Ten – Notre Dame relations in the way that baseball helped that U.S. – Cuba relations.
  • Notre Dame coming into the Big Ten creates a 7-team hockey league, which is unwieldy for scheduling purposes. The discussion naturally is going to turn to which school comes in as #8 and it continues to look like Arizona State. The Big Ten and Sun Devils have been contemplating possible membership for over a year and I discussed it in depth during last season’s NCAA Tournament. Pretty much everything that I stated a year ago still applies today (minus the part where I didn’t believe that Hockey East members like Notre Dame would join the league as associate members), where Arizona State hits a lot of metrics that the Big Ten is looking for at an individual school level with its key Phoenix market location and the league overall seems to open to adding more affiliate schools. Think about MIT joining the Big Ten for rowing or Rice bringing its top level baseball program to the conference. There are a lot more possibilities for academically-aligned schools in the non-revenue sports.
  • Hockey fans that might be pushing for a powerhouse hockey program like North Dakota to join the Big Ten are engaging in the classic behavior of thinking like a fan instead of a university president. The academic, market and demographic needs of the conference are completely different than on-the-ice considerations. I’m sure the Big Ten would be very open to the top hockey schools in New England, such as Boston University and/or Boston College, but that is more driven by the league’s interest in the Boston market than competitiveness.
  • Speaking of markets, an underrated aspect of this move for the Big Ten is that it finally has a hockey presence in its most important market and alumni home of Chicago. Unfortunately, I don’t have an extra $100 million laying around for me to start-up a new Division I hockey program at Illinois despite it having had one of the most competitive hockey club teams and strongest fan bases for the past two decades. Meanwhile, Northwestern has many other athletic funding priorities in building new facilities, so hockey doesn’t seem to be on the radar. The Big Ten would love to rotate its hockey tournament into the United Center in Chicago to go along with Detroit and Minneapolis/St. Paul, especially with the basketball tournament needing to be outside of Chicago more often with the league’s push into the New York and Washington, DC markets. Note that the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four will be played at the United Center and sponsored by Notre Dame.
  • I’m someone that takes Notre Dame at its word that the school will stay independent in football. There is no “forcing” the Irish to join any league and its independence is as much of an institutional identity issue for the school’s alumni as it is a football issue. I don’t see this hockey membership having any correlation with Notre Dame possibly joining the Big Ten as a full-time football member down the road.
  • That being said, the bigger picture issue is whether the Big Ten would consider offering Notre Dame a full non-football membership in the manner of the ACC (and the old Big East before them). Notre Dame’s agreement with the ACC ends in 2025, so this is more long-range thinking for the conference. Would the Big Ten offer Notre Dame a deal where it would be a basketball and non-revenue sports member in exchange for, say, 6 football games against B1G opponents each season (compared to the Irish commitment to play 5 ACC opponents per year now)? Previously, I never thought that would even be an option on the table since the Big Ten is as much an “all for one and one for all” league as Notre Dame is an independent school, yet this hockey arrangement legitimately puts that into play. The Big Ten really didn’t care about Notre Dame’s relationship with the old Big East, but the ACC deal with the Irish might have been perceived by Jim Delany and others in Rosemont as much more of a potential threat down the road. This is a huge shift in the Big Ten’s thinking, where there is now a large crack in the league’s decades-long insistence for Notre Dame to be “all in” or “all out”.

The upshot is that this is great for Notre Dame in terms of leverage against both the ACC and Big Ten in the future. The ACC might have gotten a bit cocky with how close it thought it was with Notre Dame over the past couple of years and (at least in some quarters) deluding themselves in thinking that they’ll eventually join as a football member. However, the Irish are now openly stating that they have plenty of options. If Notre Dame could get the Big Ten to budge on hockey membership, it’s no longer a stretch at all that the B1G could eventually make a play for Irish basketball and other non-football sports along with a more robust football scheduling arrangement.

(Image from The Daily Domer)

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The financial news stories coming out of ESPN over the past several months have been quite negative. The Disney-owned cable network has endured several rounds of layoffs and reported  last week that it has lost 7 million subscribers over the past two years. This is of particular interest to the Big Ten, which will be negotiating new television contracts over the next year and has been banking on massive increases in rights fees. All of the Big Ten’s off-the-field moves during this decade, from conference expansion to adding a conference championship, has been leading up to providing the league with maximum leverage in this negotiation. The Big Ten Network has certainly been a boon, but the first tier national TV contract is still the Big Ten’s top priority both financially and in terms of brand exposure by a wide margin.

Many of the Big Ten’s financial projections during the conference realignment process were based upon the assumption that ESPN would offer a massive rights fees increase (which in turn would garner similar bids from other media companies, particularly Fox). However, should the Big Ten be worried with the recent turbulence at ESPN? Do the cost-cutting measures at ESPN mean that the network will pull back on what it could offer to the Big Ten?

John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal recently examined the race for the Big Ten rights and noted that the market may not be as “frothy” as it was when the Pac-12 secured a huge rights fee increase in 2011. However, he still expected “ESPN and Fox Sports to at least double the conference’s annual average payout and share the rights” despite the overall market factors (and he would have as great of an insight of what’s likely for sports media rights as anyone in the business).

I completely agree with Ourand on the likelihood of ESPN and Fox splitting the Big Ten rights (as I also predicted in my last post). This would have the effect of ESPN and Fox not having to each completely break their individual banks yet provide the Big Ten with much larger overall rights fees compared to one single contract holder. At the same time, I believe that the Big Ten greatly values the exposure the ESPN provides via its multiple platforms that can’t be matched by any other media company (even with pressures on the basic cable model). I don’t buy the notion that the Big Ten would walk away from ESPN completely – Jim Delany has set up this league to be like the NFL with multiple high profile media partners viewing it as an essential product. (See this article from Ed Sherman from this past March pointing out the presence of ESPN, Fox-affiliated BTN and CBS all at the Big Ten Tournament.)

At the same time, Big Ten fans shouldn’t pay attention to the arm chair observers (i.e. partisans from other leagues that would love to see the Big Ten fail to meet its expectations) that simply assume that ESPN cutting costs in its operations will mean that it will cut its spending on rights fees (and thereby the Big Ten). Ultimately, content is king, and ESPN in particular needs live sports content whether we live in a basic cable world or cord-cutting a la carte/over-the-top streaming world. If anything, retaining premium live sports programming becomes even more critical to ESPN as more people drop basic cable. It’s not going to sell over-the-top subscriptions like HBO Now with more Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith shows. The only way ESPN is going to get people to shell out $20 (or $30 or $40 or $50 or more per month) if it has to move to that environment is to have the broadest suite of exclusive live sporting events that large audiences want to watch as possible. That includes the Big Ten.

The adjustments that ESPN’s corporate siblings at Disney in Hollywood have already made years ago provide a template for sports programming expenditures in the future. Movie studios have already had their revenue and profits eroded by the Internet much more quickly than the television industry. Box office revenue is only being buoyed by ticket price increases (masking a general decline in attendance) while increases in digital streaming and downloads have not been enough to offset the decline in sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs . It’s harder than ever to make money in the movie industry today.

However, that doesn’t mean that Disney has slashed all of its movie budgets. Quite to the contrary, Disney will greenlight massive production and marketing budgets for its tentpole franchises and brands, such as Star Wars, Marvel and Pixar, that dwarf the figures that have been used in the past even on an inflation-adjusted basis. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is estimated to have a production budget of $200 million and films of that size typically have marketing costs that come close to matching that number dollar-for-dollar on top of that. The Avengers: Age of Ultron had a combined production and marketing budget of over $340 million. When it comes to premium content, Disney isn’t skimping because those tentpole movies have downstream impact on the company’s business, such as merchandising and theme park tie-ins. (This classic Spaceballs clip is now literally the business strategy for all of Hollywood.)

Disney will also greenlight lower budget movies, such as documentaries out of its Disneynature unit. Other Hollywood studios have figured out that really cheap horror films provide the best returns on investment in the business, which is why consumers now get a steady diet of new horror movie releases throughout the entire year.

What Disney did completely cut, though, was its middle budget film division. Disney sold off Miramax in 2010 (less than a year after Disney purchased Marvel), which was the Oscar nominee producing machine of films such as Pulp Fiction. The prestige film business might provide nice publicity during awards season, but it doesn’t generate the top-to-bottom movie/merchandising bonanza of tentpole films like Star Wars or the pure ROI of low-budget movies. As a result, Disney has gotten out of the mid-budget film market entirely.

This “high/low” budget strategy while cutting out the middle is almost certainly what ESPN has in mind. Indeed, one the highest profile casualties of ESPN’s recent cost-cutting was the elimination of Grantland. In my opinion, Grantland had produced the best content on any ESPN platform over the past few years (particularly Zach Lowe on the NBA and Bill Barnwell on the NFL) with its mix of sports and pop culture analysis targeted to educated readers. The issue from ESPN’s perspective was that employing the talent to produce such high-level analysis was relatively expensive, yet its mothership website has been getting its most hits for fantasy football lineup recommendations. What is ESPN going to spend its resources on in the future: more top flight reporting on Outside the Lines that is getting marginal ratings, or more lowest common denominator hot take shows where the same broadcast can take up a couple of hours on ESPN2, get syndicated on ESPN radio affiliates across the country and be uploaded to the ESPN website as a podcast? It doesn’t take long to figure that one out.

Believe me – I don’t personally like these trends. Even though I’m a massive Star Wars fan and I’ve got my tickets with the exact seats reserved for opening weekend (along with buying the spectacular Chewbacca Illini T-shirt shown above that might as well have been custom-made for me), I’m also a large watcher of prestige films (and I have zero interest in cheap horror flicks). Grantland was one of my favorite websites and I can’t stand vapid talking head shows (whether news-based or sports-based). We need more resources dedicated to hard news and smart analysis. Unfortunately, the Internet’s business model doesn’t really reward that type of content compared to slideshow click-bait. As a result, prestige content producers may need to go toward an NPR-type funding model.

Putting my personal feelings aside, the high/low budget strategy still works very well for the Big Ten. As far as sports properties go, it’s definitely the equivalent of a tentpole movie franchise and, timing-wise, it’s the only tentpole of any kind available on the TV rights market until the next decade. That’s not hyperbole. Outside of the NFL (which is the undisputed king of TV sports), college football has consistently delivered the best week-in and week-out ratings out of any sport for U.S. viewers and the Big Ten has been at the top of those ratings next to the SEC for many years. This is not a property that ESPN can afford to lose (whether on the mothership cable channel or ABC, whose Saturday programming is heavily reliant on the Big Ten), and this is also not a property that Fox can afford to miss out on. Top tier sports brands like the NFL, Major League Baseball, NBA, SEC and Big Ten aren’t going to be the ones that are worried about cord cutting because they are all proven drivers of viewership on multiple platforms. Inexpensive sports rights with lower production costs and high ROI (think West Coast Conference basketball with Gonzaga games) will also be in high demand. The sports brands that should be worried are the ones that have relatively high production costs but lower viewership, such as Group of Five conference college football and non-major tennis and golf events.

At the end of the day, ESPN (and likely Fox with them) will end up paying top dollar for the Big Ten just as its Disney corporate siblings continue to pay top dollar for Star Wars films. Going forward, ESPN is in a position where it needs to keep its premium sports rights because that is the only way that it can maximize its value regardless of whether the world stays with basic cable (where such rights are needed to keep the basic cable subscriber fees high) or moves to an over-the-top environment (where such rights are needed to draw in direct paying subscribers). ESPN still paid a premium for more European soccer rights in the past month (as Ourand pointed out) and was still willing to sign up for massive deals with NBA and Major League Baseball when they were fully aware of the erosion of their basic cable subscriber numbers. The Big Ten has tentpole sports content and that will always be in demand.

The new college football season is finally upon us! Let’s get to some quick hits on college sports business news from the past few weeks:

(1) Sports TV Rights: Bubble or Not? – Even before the broader stock market swoon over the past two weeks, cable companies have been getting hammered by investors due to continued decline of the basic cable model due to cord cutting.

This potentially has a large impact on sports fans, particularly college sports fans, since so many off-the-field issues are directly related to cable rights fees for sporting events that have largely grown unfettered for the past decade. Conference realignment doesn’t happen if the Big Ten Network isn’t formed and becomes enormously successful. Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL franchises are buoyed from attendance peaks and valleys by massive regional sports network deals. The NFL receives more rights fees from ESPN for Monday Night Football and DirecTV for Sunday Ticket exclusivity than from its over-the-air network partners that are showing higher profile games than the former and are actually producing the games for the latter.

This begs the question that has been circulating quite a bit these days: is there a sports TV rights bubble that is about to pop?

It’s a lot more complex question than many observers give it credit for. On the one hand, cord cutting is accelerating with a major complaint being that non-sports fans are having to pay higher cable and satellite bills for sports networks that they do not watch. As a result, cable subscriptions rates are going down, which drags down the subscriber fees that networks such as ESPN depend upon. On the other hand, sports programming is one of the few (if not only) exclusive draws to cable and satellite television in the first place, so the relatively inelastic demand from sports fans is arguably even more important to cable networks than ever. In essence, when push comes to show, cable networks may rather lose the more price sensitive cord cutters than lose the higher paying sports fans.

Even with the impact of cord cutting becoming clearer in recent months, cable networks are still charging ahead with large sports rights deals. In early August, NBC and Comcast ponied up a 100% increase in rights for English Premier League games compared to the last deal that was signed only two years ago. The St. Louis Cardinals similarly just scored a doubling of its rights fees from Fox Sports Midwest on the regional sports network front.

It’s an interesting paradox: sports rights fees are arguably both the largest cause of cord cutting and the largest hedge against cord cutting. A non-sports fan is rightly going to question the wisdom of paying for cable when he or she can get the same lineup through a less expensive combination of Netflix, Amazon Prime and/or Hulu (plus maybe even HBO Now). By the same token, sports fans are more dependent upon cable than ever. Cable is no longer just a repository for surplus niche events, but now is the home (whether in whole or part) of the NCAA Tournament (including the Final Four), the College Football Playoff and nearly all bowls (including the bluest blue blood brand of the Rose Bowl), and MLB, NBA and NHL playoff games. More importantly, sporting events are exclusive and unique – a viewer can get news coverage as easily from an over-the-air network or Internet as he or she can from cable, but an over-the-air Ohio State game is not a replacement for a Michigan game for a Wolverines fan.

As a result, I don’t see complete doom and gloom for ESPN and sports networks in the future. For all of the alarmist articles about ESPN’s supposed impending demise over the past few weeks due to employee shuffling and Disney’s earnings reports, ESPN is still the single most valuable media and entertainment property on Earth. The reason why investors are scared isn’t because ESPN’s revenue and profit levels are bad, but rather that they have set such an insanely high bar financially that anything that deviates from that bar is worrisome. To put it into perspective, ESPN is still averaging about $6.61 per subscriber per month with over 92 million subscribers, which translates into $7.372 billion per year before they sell a single advertisement. That is over $614 million per month in just subscriber revenue (once again, we’re not even talking about the commercials that ESPN sells), which is more than the domestic gross of any movie released by Disney in history (and in fact, more than the domestic gross of any movie in history except for Avatar and Titanic). Just think about that: ESPN is generating revenue from just subscriptions that is more than what Disney grosses domestically from any Marvel, Star Wars or Frozen movie every single month… and once again, before they sell a single advertisement.

To be sure, the incredible amount of money that ESPN is generating that is propping up the entire Walt Disney Company (and national and regional sports networks are similarly propping up companies such as 21st Century Fox and Comcast) is exactly why investors are so spooked by any deterioration of the basic cable model. When Disney has been able to set ESPN on auto-pilot and generate more revenue than a new Star Wars movie without lifting a finger every month, both companies and investors start taking that seemingly endless cash flow for granted.* Still, there’s so much money at stake that cable networks are unlikely to stop investing in sports since they are what will keep such cable networks relevant regardless of whether the industry moves from a basic cable to a la carte or over the top environment. Hence, the Big Ten will still likely rake in massive record-setting cash for college sports deals when it signs its new TV contract(s) over the coming year.**

(* Speaking of Star Wars, Disney just announced that it is building a new Star Wars Land built at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland. I’ll admit that I’ve had schematics created in my head for a Star Wars Land ever since I was 3 years old with a Millennium Falcon ride and fully operational Death Star. So, this is as exciting to me as it is to my uber-Disneyphile sister.)

(** Just my semi-educated guess: look for the Big Ten to split its first tier rights between ESPN and Fox, where the ABC/ESPN package will effectively be the same as today, but the games that are currently on ESPN2/ESPNU/ESPNEWS getting sent over to Fox/FS1 with some provisions for better game picks if they are carried nationwide over-the-air. The BTN contract is locked-in going until the 2031-32 season, so that won’t be changing. I don’t believe that the Big Ten is truly interested in selling all of its rights to solely Fox, as exposure is still extremely important the conference in the same manner as the NFL. In fact, the NFL TV rights model is a good template for what the Big Ten wants to do, which is to ensure that it’s getting exposure and revenue from several of the top media players instead of just one.)

(2) House of the Rising Sun Belt Expansion (and Contraction?) – As much as the college football world is most interested in whether the Big 12 and/or its individual schools (i.e. Oklahoma) will decide to get back into hot conference realignment action, the Sun Belt has made the latest expansion move by adding Coastal Carolina as a new all-sports member. On paper, Coastal Carolina seems like a fairy good addition for a Group of Five non-power conference since it’s a school with a rising enrollment and solid TV market and recruiting location in the Myrtle Beach area. The Sun Belt may also be turning its focus back on being an all-sports conference as Commissioner Karl Benson has hinted at the league dropping football-only members Idaho and New Mexico State. Those two football programs might soon be joining the homeless UMass as independents against their will (unlike Notre Dame, BYU and Army). If that occurs, it’s going to be tough since there isn’t any natural home for those schools and independence is effectively a death sentence for those schools for more than a couple of years. UMass will be hoping for the AAC to lose a school or two to the Big 12, which would then open up a spot for them. In turn, that could open up other spots down the line for Idaho and New Mexico State. As much as the powers that be in college sports probably like the general slowdown in conference realignment, there are several schools out there that want and/or need chaos.

(3) Illini Coaching Dumpster Fire – As many of you know, I’m an Illinois alumnus and fan. I’ve seen enough dysfunction with Illini football over the years that I barely batted an eye when they fired their head coach only a week before the season opener. At a core level, Tim Beckman was a terrible football coach, awful in press conferences, disjointed with the media and, according to the evidence, abusive to his players. The question in my mind isn’t whether Tim Beckman should have been fired, as that was obvious to me after his first season in Champaign. Instead, the question is what the heck did Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas ever see in Beckman in the first place? If Beckman had an interview that was anything like his conversations with the media, what possessed Thomas to see anything in him? Let there be no doubt: this was a CYA firing by Mike Thomas, but the seat under his own “A” is going to be burning hot coal for awhile. To be fair, many of the non-revenue programs have seen quite a bit of success under Thomas, particularly volleyball, tennis, golf and baseball. However, football and men’s basketball are where power conference athletic directors are ultimately judged and Thomas has, at the very least, underachieved with both of them.

Here are my basic expectations for the Illinois football program: considering its location with access to the Chicago and St. Louis recruiting areas along with Big Ten membership, this team should at least be winning 6 to 8 games per year to consistently make it to bowl games while challenging for the weaker Big Ten West every 4 years or so when senior-laden teams cycle through. This shouldn’t be much to ask for. I’m not delusional in believing that Illinois should be having Ohio State-level success in football or becoming the dominant team in the Big Ten West. However, I also don’t buy some of the national narratives that Illinois football has to be inherently bad. Illinois is not like Indiana or Kansas where football will always be a placeholder until basketball season starts, so I’ll never accept the “Illinois is a basketball school” excuse for football ineptitude. (Besides, a top tier athletic department should have the ability to perform well in both football and basketball. See Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin just in the Big Ten.) Instead, Illinois is simply a fairweather football school in the same manner as 90% of other college programs: they sell tickets when they win but fans won’t come out when they lose. The Illini football fan base is similar to the fan base of my Chicago White Sox – there are large numbers of us out there, yet we aren’t paying to watch a poor product like, say, Cubs fans have historically done. Illinois has made several terrible bad football decisions in the past, but there isn’t any structural reason why the school can’t have at least a competent football program. The immediate issue is that I don’t trust that Illinois will make a competent football decision until Mike Thomas is gone.

Of course, even with the turmoil surrounding Illinois football, I’m still pathological enough of a football fan to get excited for a Friday night game against Kent State. I’m fairly certain that my hopes and dreams for the Illini and Bears this year will be quickly crushed within the next 4 weeks, but until then, que sera, sera. Enjoy the games and holiday weekend!

(Image from News-Gazette)

It might be legitimate smoke or just the hot summer air of the peanut gallery, but conference realignment talk is still percolating in the wake of University of Oklahoma President David Boren’s comments last month about wanting Big 12 expansion. Lee Barfknecht of the Omaha World-Herald reported that five Big 12 schools approached the Big Ten back in 2010 (intimating that they were Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa State and Texas A&M) about joining forces with Jim Delany. Today, Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman (essentially OU’s home newspaper) explained why Nebraska would never leave the Big Ten and noted that OU was “thrilled at the prospect of joining a conference that included the likes of Stanford and Cal-Berkeley” when it was considering the Pac-12. Finally, Dick Weiss (a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee for sportswriting as opposed to a plebeian blogger like myself) “casually” Tweeted the following on Monday:

Weiss has been on the conference realignment beat before as he was one of the first to report about the “Catholic 7” breaking away from the Big East and then forming… the Big East.

Edit: Weiss has clarified his Tweet:

I don’t position this blog as a newsbreaking site, but I have heard from a knowledgeable person with extensive contacts with current and former Big 12 members (i.e. knew specific details about Nebraska heading to the Big Ten and Texas A&M to the SEC beforehand that couldn’t have been simply guessed from the news) that basically had this to say: Oklahoma isn’t happy with the Big 12 and wants to get out.

Putting aside all of the valid issues of whether the Big 12’s grant of rights agreement can be broken or whether Oklahoma could politically leave Oklahoma State behind (both of which need to be cleared before any moves are even possible), it doesn’t seem as though OU wants to stand pat. David Boren’s comments about wanting Big 12 expansion with the “right schools” was more of a warning shot to the rest of the league because, frankly, the “right schools” wouldn’t ever take a Big 12 invite. As a result, everyone in Sooners land seems to agree on the overarching desire to leave the Big 12, but there are two mindsets within the school: the academic wishes of Boren and the athletic interests of OU Athletic Director Joe Catiglione. (Emphasis that these are currently mindsets that could take years to play out – please don’t interpret anything here as “Oklahoma is leaving for Conference X by the end of the year.”) Boren, not surprisingly, wants a more academic league, but it seems as though his focus is more on the Pac-12 as opposed to the Big Ten as of now. That’s not to say that OU wouldn’t consider the Big Ten (as it did in 2010), but there are still apparently concerns that the B1G would find OU to be academically acceptable. In contrast, the Pac-12 would like Oklahoma if they came with, say, Kansas. The West Coast league just doesn’t want an OU/Oklahoma State expansion (which is what OU had offered back in 2011 in the wake of Texas A&M bolting the Big 12 for the SEC). Meanwhile, the athletic side of the school would relish going to the SEC. Once again, the SEC would take Oklahoma in a heartbeat without Oklahoma State coming along. The SEC would likely prefer Kansas, as well, provided that the biggest dog of them all of Texas rejects their overtures.

Ah yes – Texas. The Longhorns aren’t oblivious to their rivals to the north. In a perfect world for Texas (as described to me by my Big 12 guy), they would want to join the ACC as full members with… wait for it… Notre Dame. Apparently, the UT people are convinced that the new College Football Playoff system will eventually drive the Irish to join a conference and Texas wants to be right alongside them. In turn, UT would also have Oklahoma and Kansas follow along to create an 18-school ACC behemoth. Texas would be fine with the same type of move to the Big Ten (although Notre Dame is contractually obligated to join the ACC if it chooses to drop independence until 2027, which would seemingly make that prospect impossible). The new Texas leadership doesn’t have the West Coast preference that their leaders circa 2010 had, so any new deal with the Pac-12 seems to be out. At the same time, the SEC continues to be simply a non-starter for the Longhorns.

Personally, I reflexively reject the viability of any realignment move predicated on Notre Dame joining a conference as a football member, where we might as well say that Texas would be willing to join the MAC if Notre Dame comes along with them. Also, the Irish would have 100% made a 4-team playoff in a year like 2012, so I consider any supposed South Bend-based worries about the CFP system to be false hopes for Texas partisans. Until I see actual consternation from Notre Dame itself about today’s college football world, they are going to be an immovable object. In that sense, it seems as though the smoke from Texas is more of a “If we get the PITCH PERFECT deal to move, then sure, we’ll move.”

Contrast this with Oklahoma, where they appear to be making public comments and private moves to put themselves in position to bolt from the Big 12 with merely a passable offer (as opposed to the perfect one that Texas would require). It then becomes a matter of whether it’s worth the risk of breaking the Big 12’s grant of rights of agreement with unpredictable damages claims (which I wrote about a couple of years ago) and/or any political fallout if Oklahoma proactively leaves the Big 12 without Oklahoma State.

If I were running the Big Ten, it’s time to take advantage of one of those rare moments where a national football brand name is essentially begging for offers. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: if we assume that Texas, Notre Dame and ACC schools are off the table, then the single most valuable expansion that the Big Ten can have at this point is adding Oklahoma and Kansas. These are two of the most elite blue blood brand names in college football and college basketball, respectively, and their small markets on-paper compared to Eastern options are irrelevant when they can effectively turn the Big Ten Network into a legit national network instead of a mostly regional one (which may become more important as cable cord cutting continues and the TV industry starts moving toward an a la carte or at least less-than-basic cable model). Also note that Kansas actually had the highest third tier TV rights revenue of any Big 12 school prior to the formation of the Longhorn Network, so it has been shown that the BTN can basically charge any price within KU’s market (and presumably OU’s market) and garner a ton of more revenue even with fewer households on paper.

Finally, I’m as much of a Big Ten academic snob as anyone, but Oklahoma’s academic reputation rankings have long been right in line with Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State despite OU never having had membership in the Association of American Universities. If the Big Ten is fine with Nebraska no longer being an AAU member from an academic standpoint, then that should make any concerns about OU’s academics much less of a roadblock. The prospect of Oklahoma and Kansas moving within the next few years is simply much more likely than schools like Virginia and North Carolina leaving the ACC within the next generation, so an OU/KU combo is the best viable expansion option for the Big Ten by far as of today.

(Image from KOTV)

The comments from University of Oklahoma President David Boren last week voicing his desire for Big 12 expansion has kicked up some dust on conference realignment speculation. National media people such as Andy Staples from Sports Illustrated and Jake Trotter from ESPN have started weighing in on at least the possibility of the Big 12 expanding (even if there is a wide range in opinions about how likely that will be in the near future). The Twitter universe continues to be a source of rumors of all types (and for those of you that follow the NBA closely like I do, this is the most rumor-filled week of the year on Twitter with free agency starting), including the following:

Yeesh. A Paul Finebaum Tweet that quotes Colin Cowherd*. All we need to do is add in the HOT TAKES of Stephen A. Smith and (IMHO, the absolute worst) Skip Bayless and we would have an ESPN shock jock grand slam.

(* What’s interesting is that if you’ve ever heard Cowherd in interviews outside of his own show, he actually comes across as a measured and analytical guy with a ton of business savvy. I didn’t even feel he was out of line in his awkward interview with Jim Harbaugh yesterday that received a lot of attention. Cohwerd reminds me of a sports version of Howard Stern in a way, where I never really enjoyed Stern’s show but it was clear that he was a media business genius. Of course, that makes Cowherd’s liberal use of HOT TAKES on his show that much more disappointing. Finebaum, Smith and Bayless are just plain terrible and don’t know any better.)

It’s all interesting speculation to get people to call in on radio shows, but there’s not much substance. Even if we were to buy that Oklahoma were to go to the SEC, how do we rectify the clash of interests between the Pac-12 Network and the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network if Texas were to go to the Pac-12? I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: Texas will never get a better offer than the Pac-16 deal from 2010 that would have brought Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State along with them. That would have given them a power base in a superconference with a division largely made up of their historical rivals. Now, Texas A&M has gone its separate way to the SEC and the Texas TV deal with ESPN complicates any potential move. Honestly, it’s hard to see Texas ever agreeing to be an equal member of any conference. Sure, the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 all want Texas (just as the Big Ten wants Notre Dame), but it’s with the caveat of the Longhorns being an equal member. Outside of the Big 12, the only other viable power conference option would be for Texas to go independent in football and then join the ACC for other sports in the same manner as Notre Dame. This allows Texas to receive the special treatment it desires/needs if it ever wants to leave the Big 12.

That being said, one of the things that I was very wrong about in 2010 was thinking that Texas wanted to get away from the Big 12 members that weren’t bringing in much revenue and that they could make so much more in the Big Ten (or Pac-12 or SEC) by aligning themselves with much stronger brands and markets. Instead, Texas has proven that it wants other schools like Texas Tech and Baylor to be dependent upon them. Notre Dame wants everyone to get off of their lawn as an independent, whereas Texas wants a huge estate with lots of worker bees from Lubbock and Waco. Controlling a conference (even if it’s weak) has shown to be more of an end game for Texas than merely being a member of a strong conference.

With that backdrop of the Texas desire for control, here is a sampling of direct Big 12 expansion Tweets from Dave Sittler over the past few days that conference realignment observers should be much more aware of, as he is known to have very close connections with David Boren and administrators throughout the Big 12:

Putting aside the Big 12’s obvious delusions of grandeur of reverse raiding the Big Ten for Nebraska or adding Notre Dame and/or Florida State, this actually appears to be some legitimate information from someone with contacts with people that control the situation. Follow Sittler’s Twitter timeline for some further comments. Bottom line: Houston has seriously vaulted itself into Big 12 expansion talks. Now, this makes little sense for the Big 12 when looking at the typical goals of power conference realignment, such as expanding into new TV markets and recruiting territories. However, we would be remiss to forget that Texas politics (whether we’re talking about the state itself or the university) effectively control the Big 12 (as Sittler alluded to in his Tweets). The Big 12 was initially formed with heavy demands from then-Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock and other Texas politicians in order to get Texas Tech and Baylor to tag along with UT and Texas A&M. It’s a bit of surprise to see such relatively strong statements about Houston’s Big 12 candidacy here, but not completely shocking when looking at the political history of the conference. Back in the midst of conference realignment mania in 2010, I recall then-UT President Bill Powers stating that it was a goal for Houston to become a “Tier 1” university, so there was an acknowledgment even back then of some broader goals to elevate the stature of that school.

This is just my personal reading between the lines, but it’s noteworthy to me that these quotes and sources are coming out of Oklahoma. There isn’t any obvious reason why Oklahoma itself would be pushing Houston specifically over the likes of BYU or Memphis (note that it seems that Cincinnati is still a frontrunner for a Big 12 spot) – it’s hard for me to fathom that the Sooners have a strong feeling either way outside of who can make them the most money. As a result, these aren’t quotes that seem to be pushing a specific school’s agenda, but rather a reflection of what the Big 12 overall is thinking… or more specifically, what Texas is thinking (as the Longhorns do have a very specific interest one way or another about Houston). This is critical because if Texas wants (or outside forces like politicians force them to choose) Houston, then that’s going to be a game-changer for Big 12 expansion candidacies. If a spot is effectively reserved for Houston by the powers that be, then that is going to be disheartening for schools like BYU, Memphis and Tulane. Cincinnati seems to be in good shape with the right combination of a solid athletic program in an advantageous location as a bridge between West Virginia and the rest of the Big 12.

It goes to show you that whatever might seem logical in conference realignment can get changed up by outside forces (such as politicians in the form of a Bob Bullock-type) or personal connections (see how the athletic directors at TCU and Louisville won over their counterparts in the Big 12 and ACC, respectively, while BYU’s personnel seemed to have turned off the Big 12). Who knows when or where Big 12 expansion will happen, but it’s fair to at least move Houston onto the short list of candidates (as opposed to being a complete long-shot) based on these Tweets. These comments carry a lot more weight than what Finebaum and Cowherd are throwing out there. At the same time, if both Texas and Oklahoma want the Big 12 to expand, then expansion will likely happen sooner rather than later.

Have a great Fourth of July!

(Image from Pinterest)

I know that is has been a looooooooong time since my last post. Between coaching basketball and baseball teams for both of my kids and work, it’s been tough to write lately. The patience of the readers and commenters here is sincerely appreciated.

Not much has gone on in the conference realignment world over the past couple of months between a few smaller moves on the margins, such as the Big Ten adding the Johns Hopkins women’s lacrosse team as an affiliate member. (They didn’t join the B1G at the same time as the men’s team.) However, University of Oklahoma President David Boren had some interesting direct comments yesterday about Big 12 expansion. Some quotes from NewsOK about his desire for the Big 12 to add teams:

University of Oklahoma President David Boren on Wednesday reiterated his stance that the Big 12 should expand to 12 teams.

“I think it’s something we should strive for while we have the time, stability, all of that to look and be choosy,” Boren said. “(We) can be very selective about who we want to add. It would have to add value to the conference. I think we should.”

Boren said he worried about not only the perception of the league as other major conferences have expanded but there long-term health of such a setup.

“How many years can this go on?” Boren said. “Finally, it just gets to be really debilitating. I worry about that. That’s something I just worry about long-term about the conference, not short term.”

Boren also threw some shade on the Longhorn Network and the notion that the Big 12 TV revenue distributions would be reduced by expansion:

Boren also said without explicitly naming it that the Longhorn Network—which keeps the Big 12 from having a conference network like the SEC, Big 10 and Pac 12—is a big problem for the conference.

“The elephant in the room remains the network south of us that has struggled and has in a way as long as it’s there,” Boren said. “And we have done quite well with our network and if anything ever changed, it has value to it which we see. But someday, maybe we’ll get past that other problem as well. It’s a problem.”

Boren said the problem of reduced revenue per school with expansion wasn’t as big of a hurdle as it had been made out to be.

“The contract says that our main television contract … if we grow from 10 to 11 or 11 to 12, their payments to us grow proportionally,” Boren said. “So everybody’s share stays the same. If it’s ‘X’ dollars, it stays ‘X’ dollars.

“Our main media contract says it’s not the same pie now cut 12 ways instead of 10.”

Boren did say that that only includes the primary television contract, not other revenue that is split between the schools.

“It’s not total because there’s some smaller—much smaller—amounts of money around the edges but if you can find the right people, it should be additive even though it’s split 12 ways instead of 10.”

Boren provides an important confirmation that the Big 12’s first tier TV contracts would increase proportionally in the event of expansion. Essentially, the notion that each Big 12 member’s revenue slice would be reduced in the event of expansion is largely a non-factor. As a result, any potential Big 12 expansion school doesn’t need to show that they would directly increase the value of the league by $20 million (as some Big 12 expansion opponents have suggested) – that increase is already baked into the conference’s TV contracts.

West Virginia Athletic Director Shane Lyons also indicated support for Big 12 expansion earlier this month (albeit athletic directors generally do not drive conference realignment talks in the way that university presidents have done, notwithstanding the efforts of special exceptions such as Tom Jurich of Louisville and

Does this mean that the Big 12 will take my advice and invite BYU and Cincinnati (or Memphis or other potential candidates)? I’ll reiterate my belief that the Big 12 has been focusing on short-term revenue dollars at the expense of long-term stability… and Boren indicates that there isn’t even much of a short-term revenue upside to avoiding further expansion. The worst thing that happened to the Big 12 leadership (and in turn, many of their fans) is that they deluded themselves into believing schools from the ACC (notably Florida State) could possibly be interested in joining the Texas-centric league. Ever since that occurred, the Big 12 has been paralyzed on the expansion front with an overrating of their position in the conference realignment marketplace (which is #5 out of the 5 power conferences). The Big Ten might have initially wanted Texas and Notre Dame (and to be sure, I wanted them as a fan), but the league moved on with adding a national brand in Nebraska and two mega-markets with Rutgers (New York City) and Maryland (Washington/Baltimore). The Pac-12 had a Pac-16 proposal to create a superconference that would have completely upended the college sports world by adding Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado, but when that fell through, the league quickly shifted gears to solidify the Rocky Mountain region with a smaller expansion with Colorado and Utah. The SEC surely would have wanted Texas and Oklahoma, too, but they went out and nabbed Texas A&M and Missouri. The ACC will always dream of getting Notre Dame as a full member while harboring their own delusions of thinking that they could ever raid the Big Ten, but that league still got the Irish to commit to being a non-football member with 5 football games per season against ACC opponents and pilfered much of the value of the old Big East.

The point is that the other 4 power conferences gained more power and adjusted even when they didn’t get their #1 and/or #2 expansion options, whereas the Big 12 simply survived. Now, the Big 12 will always survive as long as Texas stays there. The MAC could add Texas and it would be automatically deemed to be a power league. However, if the Big 12 ever wants to get past mere survival and continuing to be the primary target for raiding by the other power conferences, it needs a more cohesive long-term strategy that doesn’t involve pie-in-the-sky hopes and dreams. The only realistic pool of expansion candidates for the Big 12 exists in the non-power “Group of Five” conferences plus independent BYU. The Big 12 can’t just sit back and wait for much longer – it needs to proactively find a way to extract value from 2 (or even 4) expansion candidates from that group in order to be more than a very regionalized (with a West Virginia appendage) conference.

Otherwise, the words of David Boren should be cautionary to the Big 12: this doesn’t sound like a guy that would turn down an invite from the Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC. Indeed, once you get past the expansion targets that multiple conferences lust after because of their combination of athletic value and academic prestige (i.e. Texas, Notre Dame, North Carolina), Oklahoma is probably the single most valuable school that you could plausibly envision actually moving conferences in the nearish-term (defined as the next 10 years). I’ve stated here previously that if you take away any Texas/Notre Dame/Florida State expansion scenarios, the Big Ten adding Oklahoma and Kansas is probably the most valuable expansion that the league could realistically obtain. Their respective direct markets might not be the largest, but the national brand values of Oklahoma football and Kansas basketball are massive. With the NYC and DC markets already in the fold, the Big Ten Network is not necessarily going to be swayed by market size unless it’s the size of California, Texas or Florida (all of which might be unrealistic). Instead, expansion is about taking the last step of turning the BTN into a true national network, which is something that OU football and KU basketball can do. (Think about how much more attractive the Big Ten West looks as a division with Oklahoma in the fold, too.) On paper, Oklahoma may have some academic issues with the Big Ten since it is not an AAU member, but I believe the conference would look at form over substance in this instance with such an elite national football brand. Oklahoma has long been in the same academic tier as its neighbors of Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, so this would not be a completely outside-the-box expansion. To be sure, it would be a much easier case for OU if it did have AAU membership, but they’re such a valuable potential addition (like non-AAU member Notre Dame) that I think that it would tip the balance.

The massive mountain-sized caveat, though, is that Oklahoma and Kansas aren’t schools that have complete autonomy over their conference decisions. Oklahoma State and Kansas State need to be taken care of if those schools move, which means either (a) the Big 12 can’t collapse (AKA Texas can’t move anywhere else) as a result of OU and KU ditching the league or (b) OSU and KSU have to come along with them as a package. This is big difference from the decisions of Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri leaving the Big 12 and even Texas A&M was able to avoid outside political pressure (which had occurred during the collapse of the Southwest Conference in connection with the formation of the Big 12 and the potential leaving behind of Baylor in the Pac-16 proposal) since Texas had (and still has) such huge financial incentives with the Longhorn Network that provide it with golden handcuffs to the Big 12.

Indeed, the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12 would all take Oklahoma in a heartbeat, but the existence of Oklahoma State could limit the options of the Sooners. Note that the Pac-12 turned down an expansion proposal from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the chaotic days following Texas A&M’s announcement that it was leaving the Big 12 for the SEC, which means that the Pac-12 did NOT reject Oklahoma as an individual expansion candidate. If Oklahoma and Kansas were making that expansion proposal instead, then they would almost assuredly be Pac-12 members today.

Regardless, David Boren is pretty directly stating that Oklahoma isn’t that happy with where the Big 12 is today. Whether OU has any leverage to do anything about it depends upon whether it can act alone (in which case it has all of the options in the world with the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) or needs to do everything in tandem with Oklahoma State (where the only option might be to grit their teeth and stay in the Big 12).

(Image from Wikipedia)