Unless Oklahoma president David Boren was giving us some kind of warning – saying the Big 12 needs to be 12 – before grabbing Oklahoma State and making a mad dash to the SEC, let’s talk about what is likely to be the next big move in realignment:
The Power Five conferences – all 65 teams (if you include Notre Dame) - collectively bargaining one TV contract, instead of each negotiating a TV deal, sometime in the next 10 years.
After discussions with several people connected to P5 schools, this scenario could become more plausible as we get closer to 2024.
That’s when the major TV contracts in the SEC and Pac-12 expire, and it’s a year before the TV deals of the Big 12, Notre Dame and the College Football Playoff expire. And three years before the ACC’s TV deal with ESPN expires.
Only the Big Ten, which has TV rights through 2016-17 that are about to be renegotiated, is on a vastly different timeline. But the Big Ten would be wise to include a “look-in window” giving the league an “out” option around 2024.
Why would the Power Five give up the vanity of each league having its own TV deal and commissioner to go back to a world eerily reminiscent of the pre-1984 landmark court ruling that allowed schools and conferences to break away from the NCAA’s hold on TV rights?
Two huge reasons: 1) Because that’s where the most money can be made to combat the rising costs of college athletics. 2) Because you could put some geographic sense back into college athletics (more on that in a second).
You think the NFL, which has 32 teams, has it good with $27 billion worth of TV deals through 2022?
Watch the dollar figures soar when the Power Five - the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC plus Notre Dame – throw open the bidding for one TV contract.
“If you wanted to draw up a really inefficient system in terms of leveraging TV dollars, you’d draw up what we currently have,” said one official tied to a Power Five conference.
The naysayers will vow the Power Five will never collectively bargain because you'd have too many egos to navigate, because of antitrust concerns, because Congress would object and because TV contracts in each conference don't currently end at the same time.
But where there’s billions of dollars, there’s a way.
The P5 is already working together to write new rules with the autonomy granted by the NCAA Division I Board of Directors. Now, just carry those conversations about full cost of attendance scholarship increases and possible early signing dates for football to television revenue.
If members of Congress cry foul and question the status of athletic departments as tax exempt, the P5 can have them call Texas athletic director Steve Patterson.
Patterson, the king of doom and gloom forecasts about the rising costs of college athletics, can tell Congress how every school is about to be coated in red ink.
Patterson reported a $2.8 million shortfall in Texas athletics for the 2013-14 school year. If Texas, which earns more TV revenue than any other school, is getting pinched, other P5 school presidents will probably soon be jumping for the chance to make NFL TV type money.
The real fun comes in trying to align a collective Power Five into divisions. Do you split into four divisions? Six? Eight? 16?
By the time we get to this point, everyone will realize the most money is in a 16-team playoff, and it would be best to cut the regular-season back to 11 games.
For efficiency and geographic proximity, the best model may be six divisions with 11 teams, which means – BYU – congratulations, you’ve become the 66th and final school in the Power Five.
That way, you play all the other 10 teams in your division and then go make like the SEC and schedule one non-conference game - the FCS school of your choice – before your biggest rivalry game (come on down Western Carolina and Tennessee-Chattanooga ... or whoever is in Baylor's non-con rolodex).
Talk about games week-in and week-out that appeal to television.
You could have three divisions in the WEST:
6. Oregon State
10. Arizona State
2. Texas A&M
7. Texas Tech
9. Iowa State
1. Ohio State
And three divisions in the EAST
4. Ole Miss
5. Miss State
10. Kansas State
5. Georgia Tech
9. North Carolina State
11. Wake Forest
1. Notre Dame
2. Penn State
Two teams from each of the six divisions qualify for the 16-team playoff as well as four wildcard teams – two wildcards from the West and two from the East.
Everyone's bottom line increases. Fans will eat it up so much they won't mind absorbing the increased costs for a College Football Channel as well as a DIRECTV type college football package or other games on pay-per-view.
“Hey, UFC this week? Or Texas vs Texas A&M?”
In this TV money-driven world of college athletics, we’ve learned only the strongest survive – and the strongest always find a way to the most money.
It's what we learned in those classes called economics back in the day.
And once the Power Five dissolve their current agreements - as quickly as you can say "look-in-window" – and head to the collective bargaining table, the money begins pouring in, possibly superseding the NFL, which has a goal of $25 billion per year in revenue by 2027.
But back to OU president David Boren for a moment.
Boren said the Big 12 was “psychologically disadvantaged” as a 10-member league. There’s not a consensus in the conference to make 12 happen.
Boren knows that.
So is Boren really telling us something else? Like he’s ready to shop for a new home for the Sooners again? That’s not exactly clear yet.
My sources connected to the Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 say there aren’t any flags going up that would signal Boren is ready to make a mad dash to the SEC with an invitation extended back in 2011.
Back then, Boren made headlines when Texas A&M left for the SEC by announcing Oklahoma would be exploring all its conference options. OU and Oklahoma State looked west, but the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors weren’t interested in the Sooners and Cowboys without Texas.
So is Boren ready to become the first to test the legal strength of the grant of rights agreement the Sooners signed – turning their Tier 1 and Tier 2 TV rights over to the Big 12 through 2025?
We’ll see. Again, there’s no current indication that that’s about to happen.
Oklahoma also has more than five years remaining on a Tier 3 television agreement with Fox that pays OU roughly $5 million per year. If OU bolted for the SEC, which has no TV relationship with Fox, you’d have to figure the Sooners would be facing a hefty lawsuit from Fox for breach of contract.
The only way OU could dodge lawsuits over violating the grant of rights is if the Big 12 disappears.
So the ultimate question – if Boren was just crazy enough to take up a new address in the SEC (with Ok State in tow) – is what would Texas do?
Would the Horns then look west, where one of Steve Patterson’s closest confidantes – Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott – probably lays awake at night conjuring up when he might be able to reel in his Moby Dick (Texas) after UT got away in 2010?
Or would Patterson look at where the most money is and maybe drive a full-on merger of the Big 12 and SEC? Then, you’d have a 24-team, expanded SEC with the best college football teams in the south as part of one, giant, TV revenue-generating machine.
You could put some rivalries back together, such as Texas and Texas A&M, Texas v Arkansas, Missouri v KU, etc.
And the SEC, whose third-tier network is run by ESPN, is probably the only place where Texas, with the help of ESPN, could resolve the LHN contract (by making Texas whole for the $300 million and then dissolving LHN and folding UT into the SEC Network).
Or if OU bolted for the SEC, would Patterson and Scott be licking their chops for the chance to finally have UT rub shoulders with academic powers Stanford and Cal in the Pac-12?
The word from industry executives is the Pac-12’s third-tier television deal is not performing well. Sources indicate the payout is roughly $1 million per school.
If Texas ended up in the Pac-12, LHN would have to be morphed into one of the Pac-12’s regional networks (shared with one other school). How would ESPN view that? How would anyone view it? Right now, LHN is in more households nationally than the Pac-12 Network.
Here’s to Boren skipping the now cliché move of schools jumping from one P5 conference to another, especially when there appears to be greener (cash) pastures in the near future.
The ultimate destination for realignment is likely to be the Power Five conferences coming together and collectively bargaining one TV contract – closer to 2024, when all but the Big Ten Network’s contract would be coming up for renewal.
But is David Boren, a former U.S. senator still upset he couldn’t get Louisville and Pittsburgh into the B12 when TCU and West Virginia were added (in hindsight, Boren was right on that one), willing to wait that long?
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