"If Texas A&M withdraws from the Conference, we want to do so in a way that complies with the Bylaws and is supportive of your efforts to seek a new member of the Conference," Loftin wrote in the letter. "We would appreciate your conferring with the other member institutions and outlining for us the process to be followed by Texas A&M should it withdraw from the Conference."So why is this happening? There are lots of reasons, as I've outlined in previous entries. But it all boils down to the Longhorn Network, of more specifically, Texas Athletic Director Deloss Dodds' insistence on seeing how far he can push the other league members to increase the Longhorns' many-fold revenue streams. Even Oklahoma, which has put up with a great deal of burnt orange rah-rah to keep the Big 12 together, is starting to chafe.
Several sources confirmed the A&M situation has developed some serious strains in the OU-Texas marriage. OU, like those who still want to make the Big 12 work, is reportedly fed up with Texas seeing how far it can push the others around with tactics like the Longhorn Network.When the LHN first became a burning concern last spring, when Dodds used it as an excuse to back out of the proposed Pac-16 deal he'd brokered, all indications are that the scope of such a network were soft-pedaled to the other Big 12 schools. Low-ball estimates of revenue were floated. The Big 12 members agreed that Texas would be allowed one non-conference football game each year, with the remainder of its programming filled with original programming, rebroadcasts of "classic" games and non-revenue sports. Texas agreed to this. Then came the announcement of Dodds' heart-stopping $300,000,000 with ESPN. Suddenly, the game had changed, and Texas started circumventing the rules it had agreed to operate the LHN under. To fill all that airtime and give ESPN a return on that investment, they would broadcast Texas high school football--a move that everyone, except, apparently Texas and ESPN, sees as an unfair recruiting advantage. When the Big 12 athletic directors announced a ban on high school football games on the LHN (a move that was subsequently reaffirmed by the NCAA), Texas (being a "good member" of the Big 12) almost immediately circumvented that ruling by announcing it would show high school highlights. Do we see a pattern developing?
"Texas seems to be losing friends in more places than the Big 12 over all this," said a source with deep roots in college football. "Having a network is fine. But it's just the inference that they are trying to play by a somewhat different set of rules than anyone else that creates problems."
Despite the prohibition on more than one live football game--and no conference games--being broadcast on the LHN, Texas and ESPN announced they would be airing a second game (a conference game no less) right away. It soon came out that they were using strong-arm tactics against league opponents to get their way. Texas Tech was the first to go public, revealing that ESPN had threatened to not carry several of their games during the regular season if they wouldn't play ball with the LHN, so to speak. To their credit, the Red Raiders said "Go to hell." Baylor, Kansas State and Oklahoma State eventually came forward with similar horror stories. To say there is a significant conflict of interest at work here with ESPN is a huge understatement.
And therein lies the crux of the matter. It's not the LHN itself that is the problem, it is the way Dodds is using it as a cudgel to bludgeon the rest of the league into submission. Dodds is fond of saying he's only doing what's best for Texas, and that anyone else would do the same. Well, that's not entirely true. Michigan and Ohio State have pretty big national profiles, but they haven't started their own networks--they are happy participants in the Big 10 Network, which makes a ton of money for all league teams. Southern Cal, likewise, could likely support a lucrative national network, but has thrown its support behind a Pac 12 Network which all can benefit from--something Texas refused to agree to last year, if you'll recall. Texas does do what's best for Texas, but given the choice, will always select the course of action that puts other conference members at the greatest disadvantage. And then dares the other schools to say something about it.
Texas will always get its way. If not right away, then eventually. If complaints go up about overreach, Dodds will back down a little, but rest assured Texas will still be positioned better than before. And they will continue to push. The pressure will be steady until, lo and behold, they're back at their original goal. It's the proverbial camel's nose in the tent. Is there any doubt that ESPN and the LHN will come back to the issue of broadcasting high school athletics over and over again until they get their way? Does anyone really believe the LHN will be satisfied with a single non-conference football game, that they won't keep pushing until they get at least simulcast rights to all of their home games? If not all of their games, period?
For all my hesitation about joining the SEC, A&M is doing the right thing. Texas treats the Big 12 with contempt, behaving as if it is its own personal fiefdom. When A&M departs, expect to see a lot of noise out of 40 Acres about cancelling the traditional Thanksgiving Day football game, and all matchups in all other sports. Don't be fooled--this isn't about punishing A&M (well, it is a little) but rather a threat leveled against Oklahoma. Apart from A&M, the only school in the Big 12 with the clout to stand up to Texas is OU. And OU has let it be known that they've had informal talks with the SEC, and are growing increasingly annoyed with Dodds' heavy-handed tactics. But the Sooners are not following A&M out the door yet for one reason and one reason only: Recruiting. For the Sooners, recruiting in the state of Texas is their lifeblood, and were the annual Red River Rivalry at the State Fair come to an abrupt end, their athletics programs could fall into a swoon they may never recover from. Don't think for a moment Dodds hasn't hinted this. Oklahoma is well aware of what happened to Arkansas once the SWC schools in Texas refused to play them anymore--Texas recruiting dried up and the Razorbacks struggled for more than a decade to become relevant again. This fear is real for Oklahoma, whereas Texas A&M is unencumbered by similar concerns.
If Oklahoma stays (and it will) then the Big 12 will have to expand, as the television contract is void if league membership drops below 10 schools. SMU and the University of Houston are often mentioned as potential replacements--if the Big 12 is desperate. Adding marginal athletic programs with tiny fan bases and non-existent television followings doesn't improve the Big 12 one iota. Likewise, TCU would be a fool to join the dying Big 12 when it can waltz into its new Big East conference and clean up with a BCS bid every year. Other schools mentioned by Dodds (and rest assured, Texas is calling the shots on any future expansion of the Big 12, with the other schools possibly being informed as a courtesy) include Arkansas, BYU, Air Force and Notre Dame. Firstly, Arkansas will not leave the SEC. They're one of the schools lobbying hardest to get A&M to jump ship, after all. Air Force brings national name recognition but nothing else. BYU makes the most sense, has the most to gain, being currently independent without an automatic BCS bid, and they also bring a decent fan base along with a decent national profile. If I were a betting man, I'd expect BYU to be a Big 12 member within a year.
But it's the repeated Notre Dame references that pique my interest, despite the fact that the Irish kind of shot down the idea of joining the Big 12, although not in a terribly forceful way. Two weeks ago, I floated the idea online that Dodds may well have presented an enticing package to Notre Dame: In exchange for joining the Big 12, you get to keep your deal with NBC to televise all your home games. Additionally, you may start your own network to generate even more money. The Big 12 will get your league road games for television contract purposes, which you will have a share of. And you will get guaranteed revenue from bowl appearances, plus better access to Texas recruiting. Guess how long it took for me to be shouted down? Yeah, about that long. But little snippets of information coming out seem to indicate that's pretty darn close to what Notre Dame has been offered to consider joining the Big 12. It is a tremendous amount of money, even by Notre Dame standards. That's $300 million for an Irish network alone, if not more, plus they'd keep their NBC revenues. Think about what that means: Texas is willing to throw the rest of the league out in the cold to ensure special treatment for it's new best friend. Texas is not threatened by Notre Dame in the slightest, 1) because Notre Dame divvies up athletics revenue in such a way that the school's general revenue fund gets the lion's share, which means that no matter how much money the Irish make, their athletics budget will remain only a fraction of Texas'; and 2) Irish football has foundered for the past 15 years, with no indication of turning it around any time soon. Notre Dame, for its part, might be attracted to join a conference as protection against the looming super-conference upheaval, and the truckloads of money Texas is offering is enough to make them at least consider the dysfunctional Big 12 as opposed to their more natural playmates in the Big 10.
But this might not be about the Big 12 at all. Dodds has said in the past that if the Big 12 breaks up, Texas will be just fine--they'll simply join up with Notre Dame and set up their own invitation-only super conference. If that is indeed what Dodds is angling for, then any Big 12 invitation to Notre Dame may well be a bit of mind games, tossing about unimaginable amounts of money in order to establish a more powerful negotiation position for the future. Either way, it is sheer insanity, and Notre Dame would be well advised to stay as far away from Austin as possible, lest they become addicted to the burnt orange teat like Oklahoma.
But either way, Texas A&M is gone. The popular buzz has the Aggies departing within a week, so they might play a full SEC slate in 2012. I don't see that happening, for logistical purposes. Juggling schedules and other practical matters would be possible, but quite difficult. And then there's the matter of a 14th team for a balanced SEC schedule. There hasn't been one identified yet, despite much speculation centering around Virginia Tech and Florida State. To me, it seems much more reasonable that A&M doesn't begin SEC play until 2013: By playing an extra year in the Big 12, A&M reduces the burden of its exit fees; gives the Big 12 an extra year to land a replacement team; and gives the SEC another year to identify and invite a 14th school to that league. When I've pointed this out online, I've been quickly shouted down. I don't know what will ultimately happen, but I do know that by this time next year, college football will be a very different-looking place.
As the conference turns, pt. 1
As the conference turns, pt. 2
As the conference turns, pt. 3
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