Oklahoma coach Brent Venables (L) and Texas coach Steve Sarkisian after the 2022 Red River Showdown. Oklahoma Sooners head coach Brent Venables, left, and Texas Longhorns head coach Steve Sarkisian meet after the Red River Showdown college football game between the University of Oklahoma (OU) and Texas at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022. Texas won 49-0. [Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman, via USA Today Sports.]

There’s been a lot of discussion of just when exactly the Texas Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners will move from the Big 12 to the SEC. The move is currently slated to happen ahead of the 2025-26 academic year, which would be after the current Big 12 TV contract expires. There would still be financial penalties for those schools to pay to leave then, but less significant ones than if they exit in the middle of that contract.

Despite that, there have been plenty of rumblings that these teams might make that move happen earlier. Some of those have come from Big 12 officials, but some have come from comments from ESPN executives. And ESPN stands to gain the most with the Sooners and Longhorns in the SEC, where they have full rights. ESPN even has been cited as a factor in making this happen by some, and the company drew a cease-and-desist from the Big 12.

Now, there are new reports that the move isn’t likely to happen until 2025. One of those is from CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd and Chip Patterson, and it carries a very unusual suggestion on why the move won’t happen before then, saying that it would require a Fox-ESPN inventory trade. Before we get to that, though, let’s discuss the undisputed part of that report, which is that the Big 12 is finalizing a new scheduling model for 2023 and 2024 that includes both their new additions (Cincinnati, BYU, UCF, and Houston) and Texas and Oklahoma. Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated broke that news; here’s more from his piece.

The league is finalizing a future scheduling format that features no divisions, protects long-standing rivalries and includes Texas and Oklahoma in both the 2023 and ’24 seasons.

Conference executives agreed to the temporary, two-year format during meetings earlier this week in Dallas, sources tell Sports Illustrated. They have not officially adopted the model and are still finalizing details. 

…The Big 12 will drop from 14 to 12 teams when Oklahoma and Texas leave for the SEC, a move that is scheduled for 2025. Though many believe UT and OU’s exit could happen as soon as 2024, their inclusion in the temporary two-year scheduling format suggests that the conference is moving forward with the expectation that they will stay in the league for the remainder of the grant of rights. The Big 12 Grant of Rights expires after the 2024-25 academic calendar.

Leaving a year early would require the two schools to pay a cumulative, estimated price tag of more than $100 million. The schools already owe the league a mandatory exit fee of $80 million each. The exit fee, stemming from an agreement they made years ago, is required even if they stay through the grant of rights. However, officials are in the midst of on-going negotiations over the exit fee.

It’s notable that Dellenger is careful to say “the conference is moving forward with the expectation that they will stay in the league for the remainder of the grant of rights” rather than just “they will stay in the league for the remainder of the grant of rights.” Yes, things seem to be aligning for a Big 12 containing Texas and Oklahoma as well as the new schools through 2024-25, but those plans are happening from the Big 12 side, not the schools’ side. And these schools have done unexpected things before, including announcing this move to the SEC in the first place.

And while there would be larger financial penalties for an exit ahead of 2025, there are further revenues from that too. The SEC currently has much higher per-school distributions than the Big 12: for 2020-21, the results announced this year, they paid out $54.6 million per school, up from $45.5 million the previous year, while the Big 12 paid out a record $42.6 million this year, up from $34.5 million the previous year. That gap is projected to grow further in the next few years, with the per-school SEC TV dollars likely increasing more (although we still don’t know by how much) once Texas and Oklahoma join the conference. So “It would be extremely expensive” is a deterrent, but not necessarily an insurmountable one, especially when talking about two schools with well-off athletic departments and boosters.

What’s more remarkable is the suggestion that there’s a broadcasting obstacle in the form of Fox. That is not in Dellenger’s SI piece. It is in the CBS piece by Dodd and Patterson, which covers much of the same ground on scheduling and then jumps into Fox and ESPN.

Though there was a belief that Texas and Oklahoma may have been attempting to exit the Big 12 one year early in 2024, sources told Dodd that Fox would likely have demanded years of significant television inventory trades from ESPN as the marquee programs would have left its airwaves. That’s beyond what would have been a potentially massive early exit fee the programs would have needed to pay the Big 12 directly.

Fox and ESPN are currently partners in Big 12 programming, while ESPN will be the exclusive television partner of the SEC beginning in 2025 when the Longhorns and Sooners join the league.

The Big 12 is actively seeking a new media rights deal with Fox and ESPN both engaged in conversations.

Update: CBS posted a very significant update to that story later Friday, indicating that there was a miscommunication with Dodd’s source and the inventory trades were about future Big 12 deals, not the current deal. Here is the new language they have posted in full:

Though there was a belief that Texas and Oklahoma may have been attempting to exit the Big 12 one year early in 2024, sources told Dodd that Fox would likely have demanded a return to make its future programming whole, including a top-tier selection of games years into the future given the marquee programs would have left its airwaves early. That’s beyond what would have been a potentially massive early exit fee the programs would have needed to pay the Big 12 directly.

That makes much more sense. That means there isn’t a provision on inventory trading in the current contract, but that an early Texas/Oklahoma exit for the SEC would impact Fox’s willingness to sign a lucrative future Big 12 contract unless they pick up some gains against ESPN (in the Big 12 or elsewhere). That’s a future negotiation, not an existing contractual provision, and most things can be negotiated. That still lands on the same place of “Fox is the main party blocking an early Oklahoma/Texas exit,” but it does so in a way that fits better with the previous reporting. It’s not “Fox blocking this over a clause in a current contract with ESPN,” it’s Fox blocking it by saying “We won’t sign a future deal unless we get some advantages versus ESPN.”

And with this being a negotiation rather than a contract term, it presumably could be settled for financial figures, not just inventory-trading. The inventory-trading discussion just makes some sense to include because of both sides’ volumes of college football games, which could lead to a resolution that makes more sense for both parties than a pure dollars-and-cents trade. Again, the general premise of Fox holding up an early exit for Oklahoma and Texas works, but not as initially stated.

Our analysis on the original piece resumes below:

“Sources told Dodd that Fox would likely have demanded years of significant television inventory trades from ESPN.” Inventory trades absolutely happen between networks, but those are usually about deals specifically involving those networks. For example, there’s Fox getting an extra Big Ten game (Penn State-Purdue) this year in exchange for letting Joe Buck out of his deal a year early so he could go to ESPN, or CBS and NBC trading Super Bowls so NBC could stack the Super Bowl and the Olympics, or the famous trade of Al Michaels from ABC to NBC for Oswald The Lucky Rabbit.

But, while ESPN stands to benefit from Oklahoma and Texas  joining the SEC, and Fox stands to lose from those schools leaving the Big 12, the actual deals here are ESPN with the SEC and ESPN and Fox with the Big 12. And while networks unquestionably play roles of some sort in realignment (with recent discussions there including ESPN with the SEC and Fox with the Big Ten), there’s been little substantive reporting of anything beyond relaying potential valuations. That is “quietly driving” at most, and could cause its own problems if prohibited, causing conferences to add schools networks don’t actually want and creating more turmoil.

And ESPN in particular wants the world to think they’re not making these moves, just reacting to them. So it’s far from clear why schools choosing to change conferences would trigger “years of significant television inventory trades” from one rightsholder to another. And while Dodd doesn’t specifically spell out that this is contractual, it would seemingly have to be; it seems highly unlikely that ESPN would give Fox “years of significant television inventory trades” out of the goodness of their corporate heart. And a revelation that there are contractual provisions requiring one broadcaster to provide specific inventory, not just financial compensation, to another over realignment would be huge, and would be the clearest evidence yet of networks playing a larger role in realignment then they’ve stated publicly. So if that is actually what’s going on, it would be nice to see more than one sentence on it in a report largely focused on other matters.

There absolutely is a potential indirect financial relationship here. Fox’s contract with the Big 12 presumably has some dependencies on what schools are actually in the Big 12 (as, presumably, does ESPN’s). It’s quite conceivable that an early Texas and Oklahoma exit from the Big 12 would lead to Fox (and ESPN) paying the conference less money for TV rights in the years without those schools. As mentioned above, that early exit would also lead to the schools having to pay penalties to the Big 12 (which could be used to offset the lower TV money and stabilize the per-school distributions). But the schools could get some of that back from higher distributions in the SEC.

And it is possible to envision (although entirely just speculation at this point) ESPN tossing in some extra financial help on these exit fees. They’re gaining a benefit from these schools going to a conference where ESPN holds 100 percent rather than 50 percent of the rights. And there are further possibilities with ESPN and Fox currently reportedly “in talks” with the Big 12 about signing new media deals early. But there would seem to be a big escalation between “ESPN maybe kicks in money to help Oklahoma and Texas pay Big 12 who pays Fox” and “ESPN has to trade games to Fox.”

That doesn’t mean we can prove this report is incorrect. Contracts can include provisions on almost anything, and without access to the contracts, we certainly can’t prove that there’s no provision of “If a school leaves for a conference where broadcaster A has more rights than broadcaster B, broadcaster A has to trade broadcaster B inventory.” If that kind of clause does exist, it would be fascinating to learn if it only exists in this specific situation or if it’s wider. Would Fox have had to make the same trade if Texas and Oklahoma went to the Big Ten (where Fox has the primary rights package, and ESPN is about to have no rights) instead? Does something like this exist in the Pac-12, where UCLA, USC and possibly more are about to leave a conference with split media rights for the Fox-dominated Big Ten?

But if these kinds of inventory-trade provisions do exist, it’s certainly remarkable that the first we’re hearing of them in the millions of words spilled over realignment over the past decade is as one sentence in a report about Big 12 scheduling. Even a purely-financial provision in a rights contract forcing direct deals between the broadcasting parties would be notable and different. These deals are presumably primarily between the broadcasters and the conference, not between the broadcasters. But that’s escalated further still when it comes to suggestions of mandated “years of significant television inventory trades.” And if those are actually a contractual provision, we’d love to see much more reporting on that.

An interesting thing here is that the general implications of the report make more sense as stated than the specifics do. If this was “Fox blocking early Texas and Oklahoma Big 12 exit” by demanding financial penalties (presumably spelled out in those contracts) that Oklahoma and Texas found too steep to pay, that would be notable new reporting, but it would fit with everything that’s been written so far. Oklahoma and Texas have deals with the Big 12, and Fox has a deal with the Big 12, and there are previously-reported financial penalties for changes to those deals. But taking this to penalties for ESPN is a huge jump, and taking that to inventory trades and not just financial penalties is a step further still. It will be worth watching to see if more comes out on this.

[CBS Sports, Sports Illustrated; photo of Oklahoma coach Brent Venables and Texas coach Steve Sarkisian shaking hands after Saturday’s game from Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman, via USA Today Sports]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.