A cease-and-desist letter from a conference to one of its broadcast partners would be notable under any circumstances, but it’s particularly interesting to see that with the Big 12 to ESPN after Big 12 members Texas and Oklahoma officially applied to join the SEC (a move that would seem to especially benefit ESPN, which will soon have 100 percent of the SEC rights, but only has half of the Big 12 rights). Yahoo’s Pete Thamel first reported the existence of a cease-and-desist letter Wednesday, and Sports Illustated‘s Ross Dellenger and many other media members subsequently posted the full letter:
.@SINow has obtained the cease and desist letter that the Big 12 sent to ESPN.
In it, commissioner Bob Bowlsby says that ESPN has reached out to at least one of the eight remaining Big 12 members in an attempt to convince the school to leave in wake of the Texas and OU exit. pic.twitter.com/j50gEBPWBY
— Ross Dellenger (@RossDellenger) July 28, 2021
That letter (from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby to ESPN’s Burke Magnus, president of programming and original content) got a lot of discussion for Bowlsby’s remarkable signature and its unimaginable amount of Ts, but there are a few notable things beyond that. One of the most interesting is the opening paragraph’s line of “Setting aside ESPN’s potential involvement in the recent announcement by the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma that they intend to leave the Big 12 Conference in 2025 (as to which we reserve all legal rights), I am aware that ESPN has also been actively involved in discussions with at least one other conference regarding that conference inducing additional Members of the Big 12 Conference to leave the Big 12 Conference.”
Bowlsby then went out and made some further comments on this to Max Olson of The Athletic:
Bowlsby: "It’s not unrelated to OU-Texas, because if the conference ceases to exist, they have the best chance to join the SEC more quickly and they have the best chance to get out of their obligations for the grant of rights and the exit fees."
— Max Olson (@max_olson) July 28, 2021
Bowlsby: "I’m not prepared to share the evidence, but I can tell you it’s irrefutable."
— Max Olson (@max_olson) July 28, 2021
ESPN disputes this letter, with an ESPN spokesperson telling AA “The claims in the letter have no merit.” However, it’s still interesting that the Big 12 sent this letter. And it’s definitely notable that they mentioned “at least one other conference.”
The most likely “at least one other conference” in question here maythe ACC, where ESPN also holds exclusive rights through 2036 (as per a deal struck in 2016). There’s been some discussion about the ACC as a potential fit for some left-out Big 12 schools, possibly including West Virginia (which has some historic rivalries there from the former Big East and is inside the conference’s geographic footprint). However, it’s far from clear if any of the Big 12 schools outside Texas and Oklahoma would add the amount of revenue needed to keep per-school payments at least stable with additional members, which can be quite a large number. And it’s far from clear that the ACC will actually expand.
Another option here may be the American Athletic Conference, or AAC. That conference currently pays an incredible amount less in per-school distributions than the Power Five conferences ($7.47 million for its top school in 2020 based on 2018-19 revenues, compared to near-$40 million for Big 12 schools and $32.25 million for Pac-12 schools), so it’s difficult to envision current Power 5 schools heading there without a commitment that the TV revenues will dramatically improve after they join. And the published quotes from AAC sources of “I do think we can be an aggressor” and “We’ve already got ESPN at the table” do support the idea that ESPN may have been in talks with the AAC about boosting their payments if they get some ex-Big 12 schools. And Dennis Dodd of CBS tweeted this on ESPN and the AAC:
Big 12: ESPN conspired with American to take “3-5” teams to AAC. Story up soon.
— Dennis Dodd (@dennisdoddcbs) July 28, 2021
At this point, though, regardless of the identity of the conference in question, it is definitely notable that the Big 12 is claiming that ESPN is interfering with it. And it’s notable that they’re claiming that not just with the much-discussed SEC move for Oklahoma and Texas, but also with talks with at least one other conference. There’s always been a lot of talk about ESPN’s role in college football, whether with on-air coverage or with realignment, but most of that discussion has usually been amongst media and fans. It’s certainly interesting to see one of the conferences in business with them not only sending a formal letter on this, but leaking it to numerous media members along the way.
Whether this letter will actually lead to anything is far from clear at this point. The language Bowlsby cites in that letter is very ambiguous, and doesn’t particularly spell out what ESPN can and can’t do. And there’s certainly an argument that even under that contract, ESPN could at least listen to another conference asking “Hey, what would you pay us if we added [X school]?” and offer a response. There would be a stronger argument that ESPN was violating the contract if there was proof that they started the conversations rather than responding to them, but that will likely be difficult to prove. And even in that case, that might be an “efficient breach” situation for ESPN, where it’s worth violating a contract and paying the stated penalties if the eventual reward is better.
But regardless of any actual legal outcome here, which is likely a long ways away if it happens at all (it’s worth noting that a cease-and-desist itself is not legal action; it’s more of a threat of potential legal action), it’s certainly interesting to see the Big 12 publicly lighting up one of their major TV partners. And it’s interesting to see them doing so not just with the OU and Texas to SEC discussions, but with the talk of ESPN being “actively involved in discussions with at least one other conference regarding that conference inducing additional Members of the Big 12 Conference to leave the Big 12 Conference.” That’s a significant allegation, and one that adds a further microscope to ESPN’s behavior throughout this process.
[Ross Dellenger on Twitter]