The Big 12 is currently embroiled in a dispute with Fox and ESPN over its announced plans to expand. You can read all about that dispute here. But what’s even more fascinating about the Big 12’s expansion plans and the response from Fox and ESPN is how the Big 12 potentially impacts the upcoming television rights deals of the SEC and the Big Ten. That is, the Big 12 does not negotiate in a vacuum, Fox and ESPN have to consider other conference rights deals as well.
You’ll recall that the Big Ten just signed a six year deal with Fox and ESPN that will expire in 2023. Meanwhile the SEC’s only rights deal that isn’t locked up with ESPN until 2034 is the SEC game of the week and the SEC title game which is currently on CBS — it’s the best deal in sports at an insanely low $55 million a year — and ends with the 2023 football season. The Pac 12’s deal with Fox and ESPN ends with the 2024 basketball season. (The ACC has no rights hitting the market anytime soon since ESPN has purchased all of them.)
So the Big Ten and the SEC are both coming to market with desirable packages in the two years before the Big 12’s existing deal with Fox and ESPN expires with the 2024 football season. As if that weren’t enough, CBS’s AFC and Fox’s NFC NFL packages both expire at the end of the 2022 season. (Monday Night Football on ESPN expires at the end of the 2021 season.)
Why does all this matter?
Because football is expensive and there are about to be a ton of decisions that need to be made on how networks allocate their money on the football product.
That’s especially the case when ESPN continues to lose subscribers at a rapid rate. Today news broke that ESPN lost another 231,000 subscribers from July to August this year. That’s $20 million in yearly revenue lost. In the past year alone ESPN has lost 4.159 million subscribers. That’s nearly $350 million in lost revenue.
Let’s say that lost subscriber rate doesn’t accelerate — which is probably generous — and that ESPN only loses 3 million subscribers a year in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. That’s still a loss of a billion dollars in subscriber revenue over the next four years. (ESPN makes around $7 a month off every cable and satellite subscriber in the country).
Which brings me to my big point.
Fox and ESPN aren’t likely to want to extend the Big 12’s contract any additional years because they’ll both be saving up money to compete for the NFL, the SEC, and the Big Ten, all three of which are infinitely better television draws than the Big 12. What’s more, schools like Texas and Oklahoma aren’t likely to want to sign any Big 12 contract extension either becuase they’d like to test the market.
That means the Big 12, whether it expands or not, is unlikely to add any additional years to its television contract which presently expires in 2025.
Which leads us to this big question: How could the SEC and the Big Ten make their television packages more compelling as they come to market in 2023 and 2024?
By poaching the best teams in the Big 12 before their television contract comes up for renewal. These Big 12 schools either pay an exit fee — there would only be one year or two years left on their existing TV deal — or just wait to officially join until the Big 12 TV deal is complete.
So who gets added and where?
The Big Ten would love to add Texas and Kansas to its conference. The SEC would love to have Oklahoma and might they also be willing to add Oklahoma State to seal the bargain? That sure seems possible. (Even though the state of Oklahoma’s TV market isn’t worth having two teams, the added brand value of Oklahoma puts a premium mark up on the SEC’s first round TV package since the Sooners would be primed to appear several times a season on that package.)
Then the SEC and the Big Ten would each have sixteen members.
What could a sixteen member conference look like? Look to the NFL model, you set up four divisions of four teams and, potentially, create a Big Ten Final Four and and SEC Final Four. Instead of just a title game, why not play your four division winners against each other in a semifinal and then play a conference title game a couple of weeks later?
Can you imagine the money TV would pay for that package? You’d effectively create your own conference playoff. (You’d also set up the possibility of a sixteen team playoff in the future where four mega conferences all automatically advanced their 16 division winners to a 16 team playoff and there was no need for conference title games at all.)
Here’s a rough outline of what those four team four divisions could look like.
This is just a rough outline, you could adjust the divisions. You’d play one yearly rival from another division — Florida and Georgia would play and so would Tennessee and Alabama and Mississippi and Mississippi State for instance — and you’d rotate through with four games against teams from another division.
The Big Ten could look like this:
Big Ten West:
Big Ten East:
Big Ten North:
Big Ten South:
Again, you could quibble with the divisional team alignments and the names for the divisions — but Wisconsin’s not South! — but I think you’d agree the idea is pretty cool.
The problem is, this kills the Big 12.
That would leave West Virginia, Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech, Kansas State, and Iowa State desperately looking for a major conference home.
The ACC seems likely to follow the Big Ten and SEC’s lead and also go to 16, with four divisions of four teams each. So West Virginia is a decent addition for them. (Notre Dame might still be “independent” but the Irish would either join the conference or effectively count as the ACC’s 16th team).
Then the Big 12 is effectively finished. The Pac 12 seems unlikely to find any of these remaining schools that attractive. Maybe, just to get to 16, it makes the move into Texas and takes the four Texas schools — Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, and potentially, Houston if they are in the Big 12 by expansion.
The Pac 12 could also try and beat the SEC and the Big Ten to the top Big 12 teams and once more make a play for Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, but don’t you think the Oklahoma schools would rather be in the SEC and that Texas would rather be in the Big Ten?
So what could keep the Big 12 from dying?
The only thing I can think of is political pressure; it’s possible that state of Kansas politicians wouldn’t let Kansas leave for the Big Ten without taking Kansas State along for the ride. The Big Ten is unlikely to take both teams in Kansas, particularly because Kansas State isn’t up to the Big Ten’s academic standards. So that could kill Kansas to the Big Ten.
And what would happen in the state of Texas? Recall the pressure that the state politicians tried to bring to bear when Texas A&M left for the SEC. Would the Longhorns be allowed to leave for the Big Ten — or any other conference — if it meant that fellow schools in the state, both public — Texas Tech and Houston — and private — TCU and Baylor — would fall back down into a non-major conference? That’s where Texas might need to be rescued by the Pac 12 schools moving aggressively into the state of Texas to snag the Big 12 leftovers if Texas bolted for the Big Ten.
Either way, stay tuned.
The Big 12’s battle with Fox and ESPN over expansion isn’t just about the future of the Big 12, it’s about the future of several major conferences in college athletics.
The Big 12 is trying to expand now, but that expansion just might be the equivalent of a man on death row eating his last meal.
Sure, it’s filling, but you don’t have much time to enjoy it.
Because right now the Big 12 is a dead conference walking.