With the Big Ten entering into a long-term deal with ESPN and Fox and ESPN helping to create a new ACC Network, the remaining Power Five conference drama is all centered in the Big 12.
The Big 12 has always had black clouds of uncertainty following its existence as now arguably the smallest and weakest link of Power Five conferences. Now with just 10 teams and soon-to-be the only conference without its own major network, the Big 12 is gambling that going back to the expansion well is the way to ensure its long-term future.
Alas, scraping the bottom of the expansion barrel and reaching for Group of Five schools like Cincinnati, BYU, Houston, UCF, or even Tulane is seeing some resistance from perhaps the most powerful party involved in discussions – television.
ESPN and Fox are reportedly not thrilled with the prospects of Big 12 expansion and paying a premium price for schools that aren’t necessarily equated with college football royalty.
The Big 12 wants to expand. They probably need to expand. That’s why this new report from SBJ is so interesting. Because it seems as if behind the scenes, the Big 12 is willing to take a step back from rushing into expansion talks at the behest of their financial partners. At least for now.
Last week, after ESPN and Fox Sports made it clear that they were unhappy with the Big 12’s plans to expand, the conference’s commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, called executives at both networks. It’s not clear with whom Bowlsby spoke; President Eric Shanks and Executive Vice President Larry Jones have been leading negotiations for Fox Sports; Executive Vice President Burke Magnus has been handling negotiations for ESPN.
Bowlsby assured the networks that expansion was not imminent, multiple sources said, although the conference is moving in that direction by vetting expansion candidates.
According to SBJ, the conference and the networks could look to come to some kind of compromise. The Big 12 could seek to receive more money from ESPN and Fox in exchange for not expanding, or perhaps limit expansion to just a couple of teams. The fact that neither ESPN or Fox seems to keen on helping the Big 12 launch their own network is perhaps an issue that’s equally as large.
Why are ESPN and Fox so reticent to see the Big 12 expand? Because ESPN and Fox are on the hook for a $20 million payout to any new Big 12 school. And while ESPN and Fox will happily write that check to college football powers like Oklahoma, sending that money to Houston or Cincinnati isn’t something the networks are too keen on at this stage, especially when they’ve been so hamstrung in their budgets.
In those talks, the commissioner emphasized the need to rework its current media deal, which runs nine more years. He stressed that a new media deal will allow the Big 12 to keep up with the other power five leagues, especially since both network partners recently told the Big 12 that a linear channel wasn’t feasible for its 10-school league.
Expansion provides the clearest path for the Big 12 to grow revenue because its 13-year, $2.6 billion contract calls for rights-fee increases of about $20 million annually per new school from the networks. The conference publicly has made it clear that full payment from adding any new schools was the Big 12’s expectation.
If ESPN and Fox are able to get the Big 12 to not expand or to even limit expansion, it would serve as a major blow to the conference’s future. If expansion doesn’t happen and the conference stays at 10 teams, and a Big 12 Network never comes into existence, it’s easy to see the conference finally breaking apart as the other Power Five conferences sprint ahead of them in the only category that really matters most to all of these players – revenue.
And what this story really boils down to is the overarching reality that the major networks have an uncomfortable amount of power and influence when it comes to college athletics. The Big 12 has been incredibly bullish in public when it comes to potential expansion. But if ESPN and Fox executives can get the conference to back off or renegotiate their current deal to better serve their interests, then it’s fair to ask who really is in control here. Will the Big 12 get to decide what’s best for the Big 12 or will they have to bow to the interest of their television partners? At the moment, ESPN and Fox might have more leverage at the negotiating table given the desperate state the Big 12 always seems to be in.
The major media players (led by ESPN) have acted as puppet masters throughout the game of chess that has been conference realignment and expansion. This goes all the way back to the dissolution of the Big East and when Boston College’s athletic director said “ESPN told us what to do” when it came to ACC expansion. Now that influence is rising to the surface again as ESPN and Fox appear to be leading the Big 12 into thinking twice about expansion.
Big 12 expansion would be a huge boost for programs like Cincinnati or Houston or even BYU. Some of these schools that lost out on the first round of realignment and currently sit on the outside looking in at the Power Five would give anything to have a seat at the grown-ups table. How should those schools and those fanbases feel about ESPN and Fox stealing away their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and potentially sealing their fate as a college football “other”? How should Big 12 fans feel about ESPN refusing to play ball with the Big 12 and placing them at the end of the line behind even the ACC?
It’s an uncomfortable thought for anyone involved in college football. The networks not only get to cover the sport and televise the game, but they also get to have a huge say in deciding who gets to compete at what level. The power that media companies have over college athletics, and the millions at stake for individual conferences and schools, are unlike anything else really in sports.