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Texas, ESPN, and the future of the Big 12

January 27, 2011

   By now most of you have heard of the mega deal struck between ESPN and the University of Texas. Basically, it stipulates that ESPN will produce the Longhorn network and provide the infrastructure for an all-Texas, all the time sports channel. ESPN will pay Texas $15,000,000 a year for the next 20 years, for a total of $300,000,000. For Texas, this is a no-brainer. They will still receive money from the Big12 conference’s TV deal, which they get a majority of because the Big12 has an uneven money distribution with the more powerful schools receiving more money than the lesser schools. This is a big reason why Nebraska left the Big12; they did not feel like they should play second fiddle to Texas in terms of money paid out by the conference. Also, it has been joked that the Big12 conference’s head offices(which are housed in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area)should be located in Austin, TX. This is because since Texas agreed to join the Big12 in 1994, what Texas wants, Texas gets. One example (besides the disparity in monies paid out) is that when the conference was formed, all of the schools, with the exception of Texas, wanted to allow partial qualifiers to be signed to scholarships. For those unfamiliar with the term, a partial qualifier is a student-athlete who does not meet all the academic standards of a university, but is admitted and allowed to practice with the team their freshman year and must meet minimum academic requirements to become a full qualifier and play his remaining 3 years. Because Texas did not want partial qualifiers, they were not allowed in the Big12.

   While it is obvious to me why Texas would take this deal, I am still trying to figure out why ESPN would go for this. They are only going to be able to show 1 to 2 football games a year(and those will most likely be against FCS opponents), 8 basketball games, and Olympic sports. The rest of the time they will show academically themed content, like debates, and culturally themed content, like plays and orchestra concerts. The only reason I can come up with is that ESPN thinks that in the near future Texas will go independent and ESPN will be in position to have an NBC/Notre Dame type deal. My question to ESPN would be, why would Texas go independent? Now they will not only get around $14,000,000 from the Big12, they will get another $15,000,000 from ESPN. Plus, the Big12 conference gives Texas whatever it wants. They would also have to find a home for all of their olympic sports.  In addition, the Big12 is still an automatic qualifying conference in terms of the BCS. If  Texas was to go independent, they don’t have a clause like Notre Dame that allows for their automatic inclusion in the BCS with a certain number of wins. That automatic qualification in the BCS by winning the Big12 would be no more. The only way I see Texas becoming independent is if the other schools in the Big12 get tired of the uneven playing field and start to seek out better deals elsewhere. I would think a school like Oklahoma would look to follow Nebraska’s lead and find a better situation for themselves. That could trigger a domino effect that would spell the end of the Big12. The other challenge that ESPN will face will be selling the network to the various cable/satellite companies that will have to include the channel in the packages. While the Texas brand is very strong, it will not draw nearly as many potential households as the Big10 network does. The Big10 had a hard time at first getting its network picked up in the beginning, but now has deals with over 300 carriers and reaches 74,000,000 homes in the US and Canada. I can’t imagine in their wildest dreams that ESPN thinks that a network featuring only one university will be appealing to enough carriers that ESPN will make a profit on running the network.

       The SEC and the Big10 have been the most financially successful conferences with their TV deals. The Big 10 partnered with Fox to produce an individual network, while the SEC struck a deal with ESPN to carry SEC games within the ESPN family of networks. SEC schools take home around $18,000,000 a piece in TV revenue, while the Big10 schools take home about $20,000,000 apiece. These leagues are so solid in no small part because schools like Ohio St., Michigan, Alabama, and Florida have agreed to share equally with Indiana, Northwestern, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss.  Texas’s inability to check their ego at the door creates a unlevel playing field for the rest of the teams in the conference. I look for Oklahoma to make a move to find a better situation for itself, most likely in the SEC or PAC 12 that will eventually spell the end of the Big12 as we know it.


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