The realignment rumors at Texas A&M just won’t die. After resting in dormancy for over a year, the “Texas A&M to the SEC” rumors were resurrected once again earlier this month when ESPN purchased a Big 12 tier two game from Fox Sports for its fledgling and flailing Longhorn Network (LHN) and decided to expand its programming by broadcasting high school games that feature Longhorn signees, commits, and targets.
Texas A&M and other conference members took exception and took to the air waves to voice concern over the recent moves by ESPN to expand programming at the Austin-based network. Even Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe, who has become adept at putting Humpty-Dumpty (Big 12) back together again and again, stepped up and put a moratorium on the network to prevent ESPN from moving forward with plans to show high school games and a TBA conference game. He hoped the edict would stop ESPN in its tracks and placate agitated conference members Texas A&M and Oklahoma that felt the LHN was expanding into programming areas that violated the spirit of the conference agreement cobbled together hastily last year in the face of realignment rumors that threatened to destroy the conference.
Since that pronouncement by Beebe, the big issue really focuses on the response of ESPN which is the entity absorbing the financial and business risk for the LHN. After all, how can the Big 12 or any conference dictate to ESPN the games they can or can’t televise that were purchased and the rights secured? Well, based on recent moves by the sports leader, ESPN doesn’t believe the Big 12 can interfere in their programming choices and the ability to make a profit. After the Beebe announcement, ESPN and the LHN finalized contracts with Brenham High School and Lamar Consolidated to become the first high school football broadcast on the network. The Longhorns currently have two verbal commitments from that Brenham team, linebacker Tim Cole and highly-regarded defensive lineman Malcolme Brown.
Pearland Dawson officials indicated last week that the LHN has contacted the school inquiring about the possibility of airing one of their games this fall. The school is home to highly-rated offensive lineman Kennedy Estelle who happens to also be a Texas verbal commitment. There have been others similar reports of ESPN contacting high schools across the state about broadcasting games – this coming after the Beebe proclamation and the public statements of concern from Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne and other Big 12 member schools.
Now, the NCAA is looking into the issue of broadcasting high school games on proprietary conference-specific and university-specific networks. This is an area without precedent, so the NCAA plans to collect information over the next three weeks and hopefully will provide a clear ruling at a scheduled August 22 meeting just prior to the season.
But given information we’re hearing from several Big 12 institutions that may be too late to save the Big 12. The fate of the conference (barely one month old) could hang in the balance at a critical Big 12 athletic directors meeting that is currently scheduled for Monday. The issue continues to be Texas and its broadcast partner ESPN.
Whether the NCAA decides to eliminate high school broadcasts on team-specific networks is really moot at this point. ESPN basically showed its poker hand to the Big 12 through its actions last week. They will not respect the authority of the Big 12 Commissioner. They will not respect the concerns of Big 12 Conference members. Thus, member institutions now realize what some of us have been saying for weeks. It is counter-intuitive to the health and goodwill of an athletic conference to have one member exclusively partnered with a for-profit multi-billion dollar sports broadcaster with a financial stake in that partner’s overall success.
To be clear here, I don’t fault ESPN in this situation. Why should the sports conglomerate care what Dan Beebe or the Big 12 thinks when it comes to their investment in the LHN. As with any private business, ESPN is here to invest in business ventures and use its expertise in making a healthy profit from those ventures. A business’ first priority is to meet the financial goals of its management and stakeholders.
But therein lies the problem for Big 12 member institutions. When you have one member in bed with a multi-billion dollar partner that happens to have a tremendous influence over not only the finances of the sport in the form of TV revenues in the billions, but also in the narrative of that sport by determining which universities get national exposure every week, it’s an imperfect situation for member schools. And if you are universities like Texas A&M and Oklahoma that command value in the college sports marketplace, you have options. In fact, you have very attractive options in other conferences that provide a fair and equitable conference affiliation without having to worry about what ESPN will do next.
And that’s the issue that particularly Texas A&M has with the current Big 12 mess. Even if the high school game controversy gets resolved next month, there will be another problem that is created through ESPN’s efforts to make the LHN profitable. Why? Because for the LHN to be profitable, the network must appeal to a wider audience, not just the 50,000 hardcore Longhorn fans that will snuggle up to the TV with a bag of popcorn to enjoy the day’s volleyball practice or an inside feature on the daily routine of the football equipment manager. ESPN has realized that the network must appeal to those outside the hardcore Longhorn base. That’s why the network has taken steps to broaden programming to show high school games. Also, network officials have discussed broadcasting Big 12 Championship events and even road games in various sports to sweeten the broadcasting pot.
But broadening the customer base and building a national brand is in direct conflict to a conference affiliation and the other members of the conference. While Texas A&M, OU, OSU, Baylor, ISU, KSU, Missouri, Texas Tech, and Kansas are working toward building the brand of the Big 12, Texas and ESPN are off building the Longhorn brand. So there will always be some problematic issue or concern that divides the two parties.
And that’s why rumors are surfacing that Texas A&M along with OU, OSU, Missouri, Kansas and others are working behind the scenes to evaluate conference options and future moves. Based on what we’re hearing, Texas A&M and others could be ready to play their hand if the athletic directors meeting doesn’t provide the right answers.
Big 12 Schools Jockeying For Position
According to inside sources, Texas A&M administrators believe at this time that ESPN is unlikely to compromise on the high school games and they are moving forward with an aggressive approach to programming meaning they are in no mood to compromise.
If ESPN/Texas does not back down at the upcoming athletic directors meeting, this could be the tipping point. From a Texas A&M standpoint, that would likely be a move to the SEC – something that has been rumored since last year and is supported by recent actions of due diligence by the university. It sounds like the rest of the Big 12 is getting nervous as well and starting to check out conference options.
Several sources inside Texas A&M suggest a move could happen sooner rather than later if current conference conditions remain the same, which frankly surprises me if true. I was told it could be "weeks" versus "next year" in terms of a final decision to accept a standing offer to join the SEC. That would likely mean a move to the SEC for the 2013 athletic season.
The smoke with Missouri is building according to SEC sources. After getting snubbed by the Big 10 last year, Missouri is posturing for an offer to the SEC and working the phones hard. It might just pay off for Missouri. Apparently, Oklahoma was told by several SEC sources that a future deal including Oklahoma State was highly unlikely...that they would need to split if they wanted to be seriously considered for inclusion. That explains recent rumors that OU has been inquiring about the PAC-12’s interest level in expanding the conference with both Oklahoma schools. If that doesn’t pan out, then the Sooners may come back to the SEC and consider working the politics of splitting with OSU. But, Missouri is ready to go now and if the chips start falling pretty soon, it looks like Missouri could be in line to get that western division SEC spot along with the Aggies.
What is also helping out Missouri's cause right now is that Arkansas is pushing the SEC to take both Missouri and A&M as a package. For the Razorbacks, that would be a great addition with the proximity of both schools and the built-in rivalries along with the enhanced recruiting possibilities in Texas and Missouri.
Texas Tech is also putting out feelers with the PAC-12 and Kansas has been in contact with the Big East for quite some time and there’s talk that Kansas State could also be in the discussions. And of course, that would leave Texas free to pursue independence and cement its partnership with ESPN with a more comprehensive TV contract. Unless the PAC-12, Big 10, or SEC reverses its stance on not wanting a new partner with an exclusive network, the Longhorns must go independent. That appears to be the end game for Texas anyway.
This is an extremely fluid situation and nothing will surprise me in the short term. But if Byrne and Texas A&M walk away from the conference AD's meeting unsatisfied and it appears that ESPN and Texas are going to move forward with disputed programming regardless of the Big 12's concern, then this could go down quickly...and if so, it appears that Missouri could be the big winner in all of this chess play.
If the meetings go well and Texas A&M gets assurances of significant changes to the issues surrounding the LHN, then this situation will play out much longer as we originally anticipated. However, this won’t be the end of the saber rattling because the Big 12 is an imperfect and inequitable union. Another problem associated with inequity will pop-up and at some point this hastily-crafted conference will finally collapse. It’s inevitable. The question is whether that collapse will occur in weeks, months, or a year. ESPN’s profit motive will see to that. Big 12 member schools are preparing for that.