The Big 12 Conference is exploring the possibility of expansion, looking at perhaps adding two to four schools. Exciting news, right? Well, maybe not for the Big 12’s television partners.
As reported by Sports Business Journal‘s John Ourand and Michael Smith, ESPN and Fox Sports are not warm on the idea of the Big 12 adding members from outside Power Five conferences. Potentially adding the likes of Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and UConn would water down the level of competition and quality of product in the view of those TV networks. Additionally, ESPN and Fox Sports would face increased rights fees as a result of the Big 12 expanding. Naturally, that’s exactly why the conference wants to add schools.
The Big 12’s current deals with ESPN and Fox Sports total $2.6 billion over 13 years (through the 2024-25 season), which averages out to $20 million per school. The math from there is rather simple. Include another $20 million to that package for each school the Big 12 adds to the conference. An extra $40 million to $80 million obviously sounds wonderful to the Big 12. (And the current 10 schools would initially reap more of that rights fee bounty than the new members.) But that’s not as appealing to the conference’s TV partners.
SBJ also points out that ESPN and Fox feel the Big 12 owes those networks some gratitude for helping to keep the conference from falling apart six years ago, when several schools either left or threatened to bolt to other conferences. Nebraska ended up going to the Big Ten, while Colorado left for the Pac-12. Making a financial grab now by adding inferior programs — at least from a national standpoint — provides those networks with a diluted product for the money that’s being paid.
This is a conflict that could potentially get ugly if the Big 12 makes a push for expansion and tries to get more in rights fees from their TV partners as a result. ESPN and Fox could attempt to negotiate smaller fee increases, rather than the prorated increases currently in their deal with the Big 12. The two networks could also simply refuse to pay the additional fees, which could force the conference to sue, since such increases are a part of the original contract agreement.
While the Big 12 obviously wants to increase revenues — the entire reason for pursuing expansion and a resulting conference championship game in football — maybe the conference will ultimately have to settle for less than envisioned. That is, if their TV partners have anything to say about it.