One of the most public fights between NCAA conferences over the past few years has been the Big 12 and the Pac-12, who have each been reportedly eyeing each other’s schools. That’s led to some unusual commentary between the conferences, including Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark’s “We are open for business” and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff’s “We haven’t decided if we’re going shopping there yet or not” response (which he said came after “spending four weeks trying to defend against grenades lobbed in from every corner of the Big 12, trying to destabilize our remaining conference”).
The commissioners themselves have been a little quieter lately, but Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades provided some new on-the-record ammunition this week. He did so with some specific comments to 365 Sports about the Pac-12 and its attempts to get a media deal. The key comments here come at 18:30 below in response to the last question the hosts ask Rhoades:
The question is “There’s no secret that right now that the Pac-12 is trying to figure out their future. This is not about them, this is about right now, the Big 12 has your deal that kicks in in 2024, the new TV deal, the extension, whatever medium. Is the clock ticking for the next wave of television deals that come through with all the different conferences? I know the ACC’s way down there in 2036. But was that [the new deal] just a way to take a breath and yet still grind every day on making sure the Big 12 doesn’t find themselves in a situation right now that it has been in before, and that the Pac-12’s dealing with now?”
Rhoades (seen above at a 2016 press conference) responds with “Yeah, so, our new deal begins in 2025 and is six years. And, you know, I like the way we’ve positioned ourselves. We’re going to be with both of the two prominent broadcast companies when we think about college athletics, ESPN and Fox. We’re going to be in a position that at the end of this new deal that will be one year after the Big Ten, but still before the SEC and still before the ACC.”
“And I think things are going to continue to be everchanging. I’m certainly not rooting for the demise of any particular conference, but I’m also, you know, looking out for what’s best for Baylor. And what’s best for Baylor is a really, really strong Big 12, and one that’s secured its future, not just over the next six years from 2025-31, but also beyond that. So there’s a short game and there’s a long game.”
“And again, look, depending upon what happens with the Pac-12, there may be, you know, movement, if whatever, whatever media deal they’re able to strike isn’t satisfactory. So we’ve got to be prepared for that. And I think we are prepared for that if that was to happen, and again, looking out for the Big 12 and how do we strengthen ourselves? There’s so much conversation about the SEC and the Big Ten, and there’s no reason the conversation can’t be about the SEC, the Big Ten, and the Big 12.”
There’s a lot to cover there. But to start with, Rhoades’ “I’m certainly not rooting for the demise of any particular conference” shirt brings up a lot of questions already answered by his shirt. Or in this case, answered by his subsequent quotes specifically discussing the Pac-12, “movement,” and “how do we strengthen ourselves.” Prominent Pac-12 scribe Jon Wilner of The Mercury News certainly saw it that way with a quote tweet of the 247 Sports article on this from Dave Straka:
An athletic director – Baylor's Mack Rhoades – talks on the record about the possible demise of another conference.
What a time to be alive https://t.co/MsNneRP6Qi
— Jon Wilner (@wilnerhotline) February 28, 2023
What’s notable here is not that these conversations are happening within the Big 12. Of course they’re happening; in this era of uncertainty, it certainly makes sense to keep an eye on other conferences’ media deals, and on what that might mean for potential expansion targets. But it’s highly unusual to hear someone as high up as an athletic director discuss a specific other conference, its media deal, “movement” that could happen, and say “We’ve got to be prepared for that, and I think we are prepared for that if that was to happen.”
And this contradicts the official line from Yormark and the conference office a bit. It’s notable that, unlike Kliavkoff, Yormark hasn’t really said much publicly about specific other conferences. Instead, he’s made more general statements like “We’re open for business” (and although he has mentioned the Pacific time zone, that doesn’t have to be the Pac-12). But there have been plenty of reports on the Big 12’s new media deals containing a pro rata expansion clause only for Power Five schools, and reports on Yormark’s plan to “aggressively pursue” expansion now the early departure of Texas and Oklahoma is resolved. That’s all been just logical, though, and it hasn’t been conference officials saying it on the record. And Yormark said earlier this month “We’re not going after the Pac-12. The Pac-12’s not going after us. George and I have a good relationship. The media has turned it into something different.” Now, Rhoades has escalated the discussion somewhat with a specific mention of the Pac-12 (which was once “optimistic” of exceeding the Big 12 media deal, and seems less so now).
Of course, there’s a long history of college sports figures saying things that are expected based on a reading of the situation, but still provoke controversy when said out loud. A few past examples include everything about ESPN and realignment, from then-Boston College AD Gene DeFilippo’s 2011 “ESPN is the one that told us what to do” to 2011 Texas A&M emails to the more recent Oklahoma and Texas exit for the SEC (which even led to a Big 12 cease-and-desist to “right in the middle of it” ESPN at one point) to ESPN and Fox “quietly” driving realignment by relaying school valuations (which at least came from an anonymous AD). And this falls into that category. But it will be real interesting to watch how the already-defensive Pac-12, which took the unusual move of putting out a “Uh, we had a slight media contract malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now. How are you?” statement earlier this month, responds to an AD from another conference talking about them on the record this way.
(The other thing that’s funny here is the ending line of “There’s so much conversation about the SEC and the Big Ten, and there’s no reason the conversation can’t be about the SEC, the Big Ten, and the Big 12.” The current projected average annual media values there once new deals kick in are $1.1 billion per year for the Big Ten, at least $710 million (and likely more post Texas/Oklahoma) for the SEC, and $380 million for the Big 12. So that’s the reason why the conversation is about the economic Power Two. And that’s unlikely to change dramatically even if the Big 12 gets some Pac-12 schools. But hey, athletic directors can dream.)