CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The news of a report of Oklahoma and Texas expressing interest in joining the SEC tornadoed through ACC Media Day. Mack Brown cracked a wide smile, recalling Texas’ flirtations with the Pac-10 from a decade ago. Dabo Swinney, wearing an ear-to-ear grin, joked that the ACC would try and add Alabama and Auburn tomorrow.
Reporters on radio row had the Houston Chronicle paywall up on their screens, declining to pay to subscribe to read the news that the Longhorns and Sooners “have both reached out to the Southeastern Conference about potentially joining the powerful league,” and the report cited a “high-ranking college official."
And with that, the chaos that defined realignment craziness a decade ago has returned to the college athletics landscape.
This would be the most significant switching of leagues in the modern history of college athletics. After speaking with several sources all around college athletics, the sense is these conversations are very real and could move quickly. The next step in a potential process would be OU and Texas communicating their plans to the Big 12 before formally expressing interest to the SEC. It’s uncertain when that would be, but the publicity from Wednesday would potentially expedite that timeline.
While Texas A&M is aggressively against the move, it may be the only team in the league that feels strongly that way. Admittance requires 11 of 14 votes, which appears imminently attainable.
If the Houston Chronicle report was blatantly false, Oklahoma and Texas would have immediately denied it. Oklahoma issued a classic non-denial word salad: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don't address every anonymous rumor.” A Texas spokesman issued a similar non-denial about “speculation.”
Indeed there's some validity to the schools exploring changing leagues, a potential paradigm change for a billion-dollar industry that's kicking off a new era with one-time transfer; name, image and likeness; and the likelihood of an expanded playoff. Any move of those schools would push the Big 12 to the brink of extinction, further fortify the SEC’s status as the sport’s most dominant brand and force a sea change to college athletics as we know them.
Let’s be clear, conversations don’t consummate deals. Remember, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were reported to be going to the Pac-10. Until they weren’t. Anyone who lived through realignment a decade ago would be quick to remember the political football, palace intrigue and seismic momentum changes that accompany these moves.
The combination of neither Oklahoma nor Texas issuing any kind of denial and the quiet buzz the past month about Texas being active on backchannels make it likely that there’s some exploration happening.
“There’s too much chatter and conversation behind the scenes for there to not be some truth here,” one Big 12 source said.
Here’s what to look for as this drama plays out.
Texas' options include independence, ACC
The notion of Texas having some kind of conference wandering eye isn’t shocking. With the Big 12’s grant of rights — haven’t heard that term in a while, right? — expiring after the 2024 football season with its TV contract, Texas was expected to explore the free agent market. “They’ve put themselves in a unique position to consider all options within the next few years,” said a high-ranking college official. “Most people in the industry expected them to do something.”
The paradigm for realignment has changed in the past decade since the last realignment shake-up in college sports. While cable boxes dictated moves like Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big 10, streaming has become the new potential financial geyser for college programs.
So who could offer Texas the best deal? Well, the ACC had the potential to unglue itself from an unwieldy and antiquated television contract if it lured the Longhorns. The ACC’s television deal runs through 2036, and it’s already considered an anchor that will inhibit the conference’s ambitions. Would Texas go there? Who knows? But at the very least, the league offered leverage.
The Longhorns also were expected to explore independence, as Notre Dame is expected to cash in on its next television deal thanks to the sweetener that streaming offers. Remember, a streaming outlet purchasing and staging seven or eight football games a year is much easier than ponying up hundreds of millions annually for a league package. Even with Texas’ pedestrian results on the field for a majority of the past decade, there’d be enough value in independence.
Oklahoma's potential break from Big 12 isn't as clean as Texas'
Oklahoma being part of the discussion was more surprising, but it's important not to underestimate how in lockstep both OU and Texas are in this. The remnants of the Big 12 wouldn’t be appealing to the Sooners, who have won six straight league titles as Texas has churned through coaches, athletic directors and presidents.
Because of population and location, Oklahoma’s brand doesn’t have the same cache as Texas'. The notion of Oklahoma going independent wouldn’t carry the same amount of national interest as Texas, as there’s a lot more homes to stream to in Houston, Dallas and Austin/San Antonio than Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Broken Arrow.
The notion of Oklahoma and Texas leaving behind public school brethren Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in the Big 12 wasn’t tenable during the last round of realignment. Tech and Oklahoma State were part of the package that nearly went to the then Pac-10, which Oklahoma State hinted at in a statement Wednesday night.
“If true, we would be gravely disappointed,” Oklahoma State said in a statement. “While we place a premium on history, loyalty and trust, be assured, we will aggressively defend and advance what is best for Oklahoma State”
Translation: We will fight you in court and in the legislature.
Realignment has long had significant political ties. Virginia Tech politicked its way into the ACC. Baylor did the same in the Big 12. West Virginia and Louisville’s race to get into the Big 12 was a political duel. The two are, and will remain, intertwined.
Pettiness in Lone Star State? Why Texas A&M is frowning at Texas
Texas A&M is finally on the cusp of breaking through in the SEC. After the comet of relevance with Johnny Manziel, it has been a slow burn back to the top of college football for the Aggies.
Realignment talks are always done at the presidential level and above. And usually when they become public, deals are quickly made or talks stop. Sunlight is the worst additive for the complexities of realignment moves.
So is the fact that the story came out in Texas A&M’s market and Aggies athletic director Ross Bjork was at SEC Media Days, running to every available microphone to say A&M doesn’t want Texas-fueled speculation that A&M’s brass wanted to get the story out to kill momentum. A majority of SEC ADs don’t attend media days, so Bjork’s presence was at the least a convenient way to shine a spotlight on Texas’ reported conversations. There’s no petty in football like Texas petty.
Bjork’s move may be viewed in retrospect as tone deaf, especially because the Aggies appear to be the only ones with strong objections.
It’s bad business for Texas A&M to bring Texas into the league, especially with the Longhorns teetering after a coaching change and the Aggies potentially boasting their best roster in a long time. A&M has a significant recruiting advantage and a financial advantage in the SEC. It'll do anything and everything to keep those.
Much like Oklahoma State will exhaust every political avenue to either follow or quash Oklahoma’s move, A&M will utilize every available political maneuver to be sure that the Longhorns don’t come in.
This is the type of decision that will impact political races.
Financial gains, costs of leaving Big 12 for SEC
These deals all come down to money. The money in the Big 12 isn’t terrible, as it’s the third-most annually among major conferences at nearly $38 million. But long term, the SEC would be a safer and higher-profile place for both programs, even if the road to the playoff – even a 12-team playoff – would be much rockier.
The SEC paid out $44.6 million per school last year. That number is expected to jump significantly when its antiquated deal with CBS ends in 2023. Would ESPN essentially pay more than $120 million more annually to make Oklahoma and Texas whole again? Of course, as the league wouldn’t explore the move if all its members weren’t paid more than $60 million they’re expected to make when the full ESPN deal begins. While the other SEC members wouldn’t make a windfall more with OU and Texas coming in this TV deal, the move for the SEC would be more about cashing in on the next deal.
The timeline of all of this is interesting. With it being publicly uncovered, it’s going to be harder for both schools to explore their options. Essentially, this cast a pall over the Big 12 that could last the next four seasons. Oklahoma and Texas would have to pay fees of around $70 million to leave before the grant of rights end, though those have been fought out in court before.
Realignment decisions are made with the next generation in mind, however, and because there’s mutual interest between the SEC, and Texas and Oklahoma, it’s hard to imagine finances getting in the way.
This would essentially set up the SEC as the quasi-professional college sports league. Some would argue it already is. And the addition of Texas’ brand and Oklahoma’s history of success would only add to the SEC's lore.
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