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With Missouri to the SEC all but done, the male soap opera of conference realignment turns back to the Big 12 and the Big East. Namely, what the hell are these conferences going to do? Missouri’s departure will leave the Big 12 with nine members. It also means that the Big 12 will face a tremendous scheduling quandary in 2012 that’s almost as complicated as the SEC’s trouble with 13 teams would have been. That’s because the Big 12 currently plays a round-robin slate that sees each Big 12 member playing every other member for a total of nine conference games. (In basketball each Big 12 member plays every other team home-and-home for a total of 18 games).
Meanwhile, it’s feeding season on the Big East again. Just as the Big East had hoped it would be able to solidify through the addition of new schools like Navy, Air Force, Central Florida and Boise State, Missouri departs and puts the Big East back in danger once again.
What does all this mean? Let’s try and play some conference dominoes and consider what’s likely to happen from here:
1. The Big 12 has three real options:
a. Play the 2012 and 2013 seasons as a nine team conference and add West Virginia (or Louisville) as a tenth team that would commence conference play in 2014.
I think this is the most likely outcome since the Big East is presently refusing to release any teams until 2014. So adding a Big East school provides no immediate benefit to the Big 12.
You can already see the complexity here, however. Under this scenario each team has just eight conference games. That would mean that all nine Big 12 schools would have to scramble in a hurry to fill up an open date. Hello, inflation. It would also mean that ESPN and Fox, the Big 12’s two television partners, would be asked to continue to pay the same amount, $90 million and $65 million a year, respectively, for a lesser conference. (Recall that ESPN has already agreed to pay the same amount as the Big 12 has declined from 12 to 10). Assuming the TV payments stayed the same each Big 12 school would actually see their TV payouts increase to over $17 million a year because the TV money would only be split nine ways. (There’s also a decent probability that the TV partners could decrease the payout for a nine team conference, while maintaining the payout that each team expected to receive as a ten team conference. As soon as the tenth team began play, that payout could return to ten team levels).
If this happens, OKTC believes that West Virginia would be the Big 12’s addition.
b. Add BYU, Houston, or SMU as a tenth school to commence play in 2012 and don’t add anyone from the Big East.
While these schools may be less attractive than the Big East additions, they could all play in 2012 without major schedule disruptions.
BYU is likely the favorite in this scenario because Texas fought the addition of TCU for recruiting reasons. Adding another big city school in the state of Texas would dilute the Longhorns conference power to an even greater degree. So Houston and SMU seems less likely additions.
If the Big 12 elects to add a tenth member to commence play in 2012 then BYU is the odds on favorite. But, and this is key, does BYU really want to be a member of a conference? If not, the available options decline in a hurry.
c. Go to 12 schools with one new team added immediately and two more schools added for the 2014 season.
I think this is the least likely outcome because the television payout wouldn’t increase enough to make the revenue split make sense. That is, ESPN, which already bought a 12 team Big 12 and then agreed to pay the same for a ten team Big 12, is unlikely to increase the payout when the Big 12 returns to 12 teams. Especially when the new Big 12 is a drastically reduced television property. (Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Missouri would have been replaced by TCU, BYU, West Virginia, and Louisville).
Going to 12 would add the potential for the return of the Big 12 title game — likely in Dallas’s Jerry Dome to keep the SEC from adding a date there — but the title game is really only worth about $14 million, at most, to the conference. That’s just a little over a million each in redistributed funds.
So I still think a 12 team Big 12 is unlikely in the near term.
2. The Big East is fighting like hell to keep PItt and Syracuse from leaving until 2014.
But is this really a sustainable legal proposition? Virtually any contract can be broken provided the breaching party is willing to run the risk of damages. Here the buyout — for all intents and purposes a liquidated damages clause — is only $5 million. (There is the potential to double that to $10 million). That’s a piddling sum as buyouts go. For instance, Missouri and Texas A&M are on the hook for over $26 million to bail on the Big 12. (They’ll pay less, but the figure, on paper, is substantial). Generally speaking these buyout provisions act as liquidated damages to protect the schools from bearing any further liabilities over their departures. If the Big 12 schools can leave with virtually no notice, how is it possible that the Big East buyouts are so low, but the schools can’t leave for 27 months?
Put simply, we don’t know what that language says since the Big East bylaws aren’t available online. But if Pitt, Syracuse, and another school or two really wanted to leave the conference with less than 27 months notice, are you really telling me they absolutely, positively, couldn’t do it?
If that’s true, it’s incredibly strong bylaw language that is unique to the Big East. And even if that language is inpenetrable, I simply don’t buy the fact that a school couldn’t leave if it wanted to and was willing to risk a lawsuit for breaching the conference bylaws.
So the most important question for the Big East is: can the conference really hold teams hostage for 27 months after those schools have stated their intentions to leave?
The second most important question — which ties in with the first question — is this: Will the Big 12 take a team or not?
If the Big 12 opts for a quick fix, the Big East will survive Missouri’s departure for the SEC with no real damage. But if the Big 12 doesn’t opt for a quick fix — or finds a school willing to challenge the 2014 departure date — then we’re in for a real mess and the Big East will be fighting to survive again.
This also could be a sports law field day — could the Big East sue to keep a school in its conference for multiple years? That is, can a school be compelled to play under a specific conference’s bylaws even when that school wants to leave that conference?
Puttiing it another way, what if West Virginia held a press conference announcing it was joining the Big 12 effective July 1, 2012? Can it really be forced to stay in the Big East for two more seasons?
I think the answer is no. Now, the departing school might face substantial damages in a lawsuit that could last for several years, but I don’t believe the Big East could compel a member to participate in its conference if that school wanted to leave. No court is likely to reward the Big East specific performance under a contract here. Instead the Big East would have to make do with whatever monetary damages it could receive via lawsuit. The bottom line, if a team really wants to leave, it can.
So far the Big East’s assertion that teams must stay until 2014 has gone unchallenged. But I think it could be successfully challenged.
It’s a really fascinating legal dilemma that has substantial consequences.
3. The kill the Big East strategy could be in play.
This is for you conspiracy theorists. (Lots of y’all are emailing me about this).
ESPN offered the Big East a nine year $1.4 billion deal this past May. The Big East said no because it didn’t believe that was enough money. This angered ESPN. So Pitt and Syracuse were plucked from the Big East by the ACC. According to Boston College’s AD, who has since renounced the statement, ESPN was a major proponent of these ACC additions. Indeed, Boston College’s AD initially said that the ACC acted after ESPN told it which schools to take.
So with the departure of Pitt and Syracuse the Big East has six members going forward past 2014.
What if ESPN — whose television deal with the Big 12 comes up in 2016 — made it known that a 12 team Big 12 with the additions of Cincinnati, Louisville, and West Virginia would be a very valuable television property? If the Big 12 took all three schools then the Big East is down to South Florida, UConn, and Rutgers.
The ACC could pick off the crumbs — UConn and Rutgers (Notre Dame would also be in play) — and South Florida would be left standing alone when the music stopped.
Voila, the Big East would be dead as a football conference.
The message would be clear: Don’t f— with the four letter network.
I’m not buying all the conspiracy theories yet, but if the scorched earth theory happens and the Big East gets wiped from the conference landscape, I might become a believer.
In the meantime, the only asset that is keeping the Big East from football eradication is that BCS bid. Will that BCS bid survive? That’s the final question. And the answer is, it won’t survive if the conference is mortally wounded by the Big 12. So the Big 12 now holds the fate of the Big East in its hands.
OKTC would like to thank y’all for choosing to stay informed on conference realignment here. We’ll stay on top of the story going forward, but OKTC has broken more news than every major news site combined on conference realignment.
Read all of OKTC’s conference realignment stories here.