The last major round of NCAA conference realignment (2010-2014) had a whole lot to do with media rights, with Texas’ deal for the Longhorn Network helping convince Texas A&M and Missouri to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, the Big Ten’s moves to add Rutgers and Maryland seen largely as expanding their TV reach, and the Pac-10 adding Colorado and Utah to become the Pac-12 and launch a series of conference networks (which has gone super well, thanks for asking). Meanwhile, the Big 12 staved off elimination by adding TCU and West Virginia and kept its status as a Power Five conference, while the ACC pillaged the old Big East partly thanks to better media rights deals and the promise of a conference network (which is now set to launch in August 2019).
Now, some realignment rumors are starting again, and media rights are again a key reason why, especially when it comes to the Longhorn Network, the upcoming ACC Network, and the Pac-12 and its networks.
There’s been a lot of stability in the major conferences since 2014, but part of that’s because the TV situation hasn’t really changed. With the Big Ten (after 2022-23), Pac-12 (after 2023-24) and Big 12 (after 2024-25) deals all set to expire in the next decade (plus the SEC’s Tier 1 deal with CBS after 2023-24; the rest of the conference’s rights are locked up through 2033-34, but the Tier 1 rights will be a big deal), there’s again some discussion about if realignment could be in the cards. And, as a detailed Sports Business Journal piece on the issue from Michael Smith and John Ourand notes, LHN and ACCN might be central there.
While college experts were skeptical about widespread conference shake-ups, they unanimously said they’ll be watching three factors that could be triggers for change: Texas, Oklahoma and the success of the ACC Network.
…When the Big 12 begins negotiating its next media rights deal, it will be incumbent on the league to show enough revenue growth, without expanding, to keep the Longhorns and Sooners from exploring alternatives. Whether the Big 12 can generate significant raises from its base of 10 schools remains to be seen.
…Another potential trigger for change is the ACC Network, which is scheduled to launch in August in an environment rife with cord cutters and dwindling subscriber bases. ESPN fully owns the channel and was able to secure the right to launch it on Altice’s New York-area systems and nationally on at least one digital multichannel video provider.
If the channel is successful in signing more carriage deals, the conference’s makeup will remain the same. If not, some of the ACC’s stronger programs — Florida State, Clemson — could become targets for the SEC and Big Ten.
As that piece notes, any further realignment is far from assured. In fact, Texas AD Chris Del Conte told SBJ in that piece “Right now, it’s very calm. I don’t see any movement right now.” And if the TV situations remain about as they are right now in the next wave, nothing big may happen. But what happens if they start to dramatically diverge? As per SBJ, Texas currently makes around $36 million annually in distributions from the Big 12 and another $15 million from ESPN for LHN (and it doesn’t really matter for the Longhorns that no one watches that and that its carriage isn’t great, as they get paid regardless), which would put them pretty close to Big Ten schools (the current leader in media rights revenue). But if the bidding for Big Ten rights or SEC Tier 1 rights in this next round goes through the roof, and if there’s lesser interest in the Big 12 rights and the chance of Texas falling behind even with their LHN revenue, that could lead to them exploring an exit.
There are some interesting possibilities out there for Texas outside the Big 12, and wherever they go, they’ll still have LHN in some form (as that contract isn’t tied to the conference). One option is for the Longhorns to go independent in football a la Notre Dame, and they’re perhaps well set up to do so; with LHN already somewhat established, they could put their top-tier rights there in return for a massive boost in rights fees (which ESPN would probably jump at, as compelling games would let them raise the LHN price while also expanding its carriage and audience). Another is them heading to the Big Ten or the ACC, but the Big Ten would carry some challenges given its well-established conference network (owned by Fox and the conference) and its current rights split between Fox and ESPN.
The ACC is tougher geographically, but could be a better fit on other fronts, especially with its network both owned and operated by LHN owner and operator ESPN. That could lead to LHN being folded into ACCN (or carrying it as some sort of sub-brand), or it could lead to LHN being maintained with just some crossover. And it’s also possible to see a full Notre Dame situation, where Texas joins the ACC in most sports and schedules a lot of ACC teams in football, but remains a football independent. (And Notre Dame proves the ACC’s willing to go outside its usual geography when it makes financial sense.)
Speaking of the ACC, while its Tier 1 rights are locked up by ESPN through 2035-36, its network is also a potential factor in realignment. There’s been a whole lot of skepticism about how well it’s going to work to launch a new conference channel in the 2019 TV landscape, and that’s understandable; even well-established networks are facing significant subscriber loss. If ACCN gets good carriage (which it might, given ESPN’s ability to bundle it with other channels and put good games there) and brings in solid revenue, then everything’s probably fine, but if ACCN struggles for some reason, that might lead to some top schools exploring other options.
And while it’s not really discussed in the SBJ piece, another factor that could potentially come into play is the Pac-12. With dropping per-subscriber fees and continued carriage issues, all is far from well with the Pac-12 Networks, and even conservative ACCN projections have that conference’s per-school distributions shooting past the fourth-place Pac-12 and coming closer to the Big 12. And school officials are noticing. Meanwhile, the conference’s coaches continue to complain about late starts and Friday games, which were necessary concessions in order to get as much Tier 1 media revenue as the conference did (which still trails everyone but the ACC).
There are a whole range of possibilities for how the Pac-12 media rights could go. One is that they prove less flexible with scheduling and get absolutely low-balled as a result, while another is that they get low-balled even with flexible scheduling (the Pac-12 games just aren’t as desirable for networks as some of these other rights coming up, thanks partly to time zone and thanks partly to fanbases). Either of those scenarios could lead to big Pac-12 schools like USC and Oregon considering if they might be able to do better elsewhere.
But the other end of the spectrum is if the Pac-12 decides the status quo isn’t cutting it, gets super aggressive and tries to bring back the idea of expanding to 16 teams (which they attempted in 2010, targeting Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State). They’d have to offer something pretty compelling to make that happen, especially considering that they’re not in a position of strength right now and those other schools are, but if they were able to pull that off, that would drastically reshape the power structure. Oh, and that’s all before considering just where the Pac-12 Networks are when the rights come up; if they’re still owned by the schools and still going along the way they are now, maybe they don’t make much of an impact on these talks, but if they’re sold to a network partner or even downsized or closed, that would make things rather different.
With all that said, though, it seems like the likeliest outcome at the moment is largely the status quo. If the Big 12 gets decent TV rights offers and LHN keeps puttering along, Texas may be just fine where they are. If the ACCN does anywhere near as well as the conference is projecting, their schools will probably be just fine with long-term stability. And if the Pac-12 rights don’t absolutely collapse, there may not be much change there either. But there are plenty of possibilities out there for realignment, and most of them are driven by changes in media rights. We’ll see if any of them come to pass.