In a conversation in May, one of the people I respect and trust the most in varsity athletics let me down, unsolicited: “Keep an eye out for Texas and the Oklahoma.” The person suspected that the two traditional Big 12 energy programs were coming to a wandering eye, a decade after they almost left that league in ruins and drastically changed the national landscape.
Later in May, it was reported that the Big 12 had made early efforts to strike a new media rights deal with broadcast partners ESPN and Fox, four years before it expired. These efforts were rejected by the networks, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, signaling a lack of interest in paying more money to the Big 12. It was another indicator of how fragile the league was.
I asked with several other parts of varsity athletics, but nothing firm has materialized. Now fast forward two months, and there are fires reported to go with all that smoke. The Houston Chronicle posted a story saying the Longhorns and Sooners approached the Southeastern Conference to jump on board. Not only that, but a decision on their potential addition to the SEC could come in a few weeks.
If you’re looking for the lever that could irrevocably tip varsity athletics in the direction of a new model and shape, that might qualify. Everything could be on the table, from the four long-theorized Super Leagues to an NCAA breakaway. It could dramatically change the whole business, at a time when upheaval is already underway and the NCAA has never had less authority.
(Or it might come nowhere. Texas and Oklahoma are notorious for breaking their way over the brink before backing down. The Pac-12 nearly had them in 2011, and they’ve also beaten eyes in all of them. other Power 5 directions.)
Interestingly, the reaction from the Big 12 and the SEC on Wednesday was swift but not furious. The word “speculation” was thrown by several people, but there was a grand total of zero firm denials. The only entity that seemed determined to throw cold water on it was Texas A&M, for obvious reasons.
“We want to be the only SEC team in the state of Texas,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told my colleague Ross Dellenger in Hoover, Alabama, during SEC media days. “There’s a reason Texas A&M left the Big 12: to be alone and have their own identity. This is our feeling.
Could A&M single-handedly block a Texas-Oklahoma move to the SEC? It seems unlikely. The statutes of the league state that “a vote of at least three quarters of the members is required to launch an invitation to become a member”. This means that 11 of the 14 current members would have to vote yes to add a new member. Thus, A&M would either need to find a few allies or create such fury that unanimity, always prized in conference politics, would be impossible and would discourage others from moving forward.
Perhaps support for nix’s expansion could come from the SEC East Schools which have traditionally reinforced the premise of adding their rivals in the ACC State. If Florida doesn’t want Florida state, Georgia doesn’t want Georgia Tech, South Carolina doesn’t want Clemson, and Kentucky doesn’t want Louisville, are they sympathetic to A&M who doesn’t want be part of Texas?
But beyond the motives of rivalry, it makes sense that most of the rest of the SEC would welcome the big brands of Texas and Oklahoma. They make a ton of money; they add weight to television while still expanding this media footprint; they have a deep tradition; and better to add them than watch a rival conference pick them up instead. The accumulation of power comes first; the logistical nightmares associated with running a 16-team mega-league are just details to be worked out later.
Now is also a great time for the SEC to strike, if it so chooses. The Big 12 is wobbly, with a power imbalance that leaves the Other Eight unattractive compared to the Big Two. There are new commissioners at Pac-12 and ACC, and while they may function well, they are also in the works. The Big Ten is in Year 2 with Kevin Warren, and the first year has been an eventful race that has thrown everyone in the conference upside down. There is no doubt that the SEC can present itself as the best landing point for finicky Blue Bloods, although the ACC has a lot to offer. (Other than geographic proximity, but that ceased to matter a decade ago.)
That is, if Texas really wants a conference landing point. For more than a decade, a prominent power broker in varsity sport has insisted that the Longhorns are an ideal independent: big enough to stand on their own, program and recruit nationally, and already in possession of their own television deal with ESPN via the Longhorn Network. This could be another option for the school to consider.
The fact that Texas became the first school other than Stanford to win the Learfield IMG Directors Cup since 1994 adds another line to the resume. If the Longhorns wanted to go it alone in football and find a quality home for their other sports, as Notre Dame did, they would have some good options.
Oklahoma, of course, is wise to stay aligned with Texas if possible. If the Longhorns leave the Big 12, the Sooners are a bit of an island in a league that is losing weight and market value. They should go there too, and maintaining ties with the state of Texas is vital.
So the two are kind of like Butch and Sundance jumping off the cliff together. The next question is whether their state legislatures would let them jump without additional company.
Ten years ago, politicians in both states made it clear that the state of Oklahoma is linked to Oklahoma and Texas Tech is linked to Texas. If a conference takes one, it must take the other. It was not a welcome development for the academically prestigious Pac-12, which examined the scholarly profiles of the tagalongs and cringed their teeth.
Could these links be unraveled today? It’s not clear. Otherwise, and the SEC has no interest in going 18 to add the Red Raiders and Cowboys, that’s another reason why Texas independence might be an option.
As it stands, Texas is the ultimate example of what a strange place college athletics can be. His football schedule has only underperformed for 10 years, and yet there is no doubt that every major conference in the country would love the Longhorns to join their club. They can sometimes look like a child of a trust fund squandering family wealth, but that source of money never runs out.
The business is increasingly driven by dollars, and the money landscape change ten years ago was doomed to be temporary. Loyalty and tradition are expendable whenever television contracts are offered again. The days of 80-year conference membership are fading, and so is the power of the NCAA.
The time for seismic change has arrived once again, and this could be a constant for years to come.
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