Winds of Change Blowing Again?

A year ago the issue of realignment swept across the country and Texas A&M was in the middle of the discussion. Thirteen months later, recent events surrounding the new Big 12 have sparked rumors once again among Texas A&M donors and insiders. Aggie Websider's David Sandhop dives into the issues and discusses the current chances of a move out of the Big 12. Is there substance to the rumors?

First, for those ready to take to the streets in celebration, let me say that it is unlikely anything regarding realignment or acceptance of an SEC offer will happen in the near future. First of all, while there has been a shift in the winds in terms of certain Texas A&M officials now willing to entertainment the idea of at least analyzing the SEC option, I think some inside sources have misinterpreted the change in tone to mean that a decision has been made to join the SEC. To my knowledge based on the lack of response from certain internal sources, I'd have to say that there is not an imminent deal …but there has been a change in thought and mindset from some of the decision makers.

If you have followed my thoughts on the matter recently, President Loftin has told A&M donors privately that the Big 12-2 deal in its current form was not an ideal solution for Texas A&M, and acknowledged that the sweetheart deal Texas has with ESPN as he said "is a problem for us." In fact, Loftin has made it crystal clear to A&M people who ask that the university has not signed anything that legally binds A&M to the new Big 12 despite what has been released to the public. That "problem" is getting worse and it has energized the A&M donor base again, but apparently the announcement of ESPN buying a second game (this time a conference game) along with all of the many Longhorn Network ads that ESPN broadcast during the College World Series and the issue of showing high school football games on the LHN has also finally gotten the attention of Loftin and even those in the AD that were previous adamant in their support for the new Big 12 and in their opposition of the SEC.

Why the change of heart? Well, because it has become clear that ESPN will do anything to see that their investment in the LHN is successful. That was evident when ESPN purchased a game from Fox to include in the LHN package. Let's be clear here. A lot of people see that move and blame Texas for getting greedy. But, Texas already has its money from ESPN. What you saw last week was ESPN trying to sweeten the content package for LHN. It was ESPN that paid a hefty premium for a game…so hefty that Fox Sports was willing to part with a valuable game in their inventory that they just paid over $90 million annually for a few months ago. Sounds strange right? Well, it is. That tells you how desperate ESPN was to buy this game and how much over market value they likely paid for it. It also suggests that ESPN might be a little worried about the success of the LHN network, so they felt obligated to purchase the second game to attract the attention of cable providers and specifically Dish Network and DirecTV who have yet to agree to offer the network.

Texas doesn't even have to do the heavy lifting here. ESPN is doing it for them. Plus, if ESPN is willingly throwing money at the network to insure its success, what else will they do…like make sure Texas commits are invited to the ESPN-sponsored and televised all-star games, special college gameday events in Austin, more Longhorn advertising that builds national awareness of the Longhorn brand and name. You get the point. With this deal and what we are now seeing with this second game purchase from Fox, ESPN has deemed Texas too big to fail…much like Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, and GM is to the federal government now.

It sounds like the light bulb finally went off for the A&M leadership, especially those in the AD that were ferociously opposed to a move from the Big 12 to the SEC. But just because there's been a break-through in terms of mentality with regard to the Big 12-2 situation doesn't mean A&M leaves tomorrow. There are many issues to deal with and many things must fall into place.

First, if A&M is to take on the risk of moving, they want to be in position to take advantage of that move financially and that means renovate and expand Kyle Field. The electrical system re-wire has been an albatross around Bill Byrne's neck and there are many, many complications and heavy expenses for the re-wire, renovations, and expansion of the south end zone. A&M has needed to do this work, but the financials pushed it down the list. But, we're hearing that a certain big donor has once again resurfaced and has been looking for a big project where he could donate and get some PR in return for his new business venture. So the buzz now is that there's a proposal on the table for a $100 million donation to refurbish and expand Kyle Field in exchange for naming rights to the stadium (the field will remain Kyle Field).

That funding is a key component to any future conference moves. If A&M is to change over to the SEC and play with the big boys, they must be prepared for the increased ticket demand and suite demand. So this is a first step, and a necessary step if and when A&M moves on from the Big 12-2.

But it's not as easy as simply making the decision to go to the SEC. What is happening over at the SEC? I know a lot of people ask me if the SEC offer to A&M is still valid. So I contacted my source who has direct contacts inside the SEC offices and has given me great information over the past year.

He told me that in the spring, the SEC was really focused on working with CBS and ESPN to restructure their TV deal given how the dollars have skyrocketed with the ACC , new Big 12, and Pac-12. He also told me that the SEC felt they could get a new deal by expansion of two teams to get the networks to the table and that a priority was Texas A&M. In fact, my source claims that the SEC has/had Clemson ready to go and they were simply waiting to see if Texas A&M could get their ducks in a row and leave the Big 12. When I asked whether the SEC would still take A&M, he said paraphrasing "are you kidding me, the SEC is drooling over the Aggies. They bring the state of Texas to the table." But he was clear to say that was the focus in the spring. He says that while the SEC would take A&M and expand in a minute, he questioned whether Texas A&M would want to come to the SEC right now given what he called "the mess that is building here".

He told me that with all the media attention on the Cam Newton situation at Auburn along with the Will Lyles stuff and other things that "there are other allegations that will come out that will implicate 3-4 other SEC schools", the SEC has shifted its attention to managing the fallout he said will likely come when these allegations hit. So instead of worrying about whether the SEC will take A&M, it appears the issue could be whether the time is right for A&M to take the SEC. So that is another strike against an immediate decision.

However, if the NCAA starts cleaning up the SEC, that could actually be a positive for the Aggies since the biggest hurdle on the AD side has been the concern about the recruiting environment and the infamous SEC tactics. But, a multiple school scandal likely won't sit well with CBS and ESPN at the negotiating table, so that is a big question mark.

Plus, the deadline for announcing a move was July 1 to start playing in the SEC or any conference in 2012. So 2013 is the earliest A&M could start playing in a new league, so really there is no incentive or hurry to make any type of decision or announcement at this time. As I've always said, the time for these announcements is in June…after the athletic season and before the next contract year kicks into gear July 1.

So, to bring this to a conclusion, I think the big news that has people buzzing is that the A&M leadership that has been mostly hesitant of breaking away from Texas and the Big 12 over the past 13 months now see that the current situation is not feasible in the long-term. Thus, they see it's time to get their ducks in a row and prepare for a change in the future, and that change starts with Kyle Field. However, the landscape at the SEC has changed and an immediate move may or may not be prudent. Either way, it's something that Texas A&M must look into and analyze, and frankly they have about 11 months to do so and see what happens with these power conferences because it makes no sense to jump into an agreement before next June. I think the big news from all of this is that Texas A&M leadership privately does not see the Big 12-2 as a good long-term fit for the university. Given the public statements of leadership in support of the new Big 12 in the spring and the resulting apathy from the general fan base to realignment, I see that as pretty significant…if not immediate.

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