I hate the Big 12. There I said it, I hate this conference. This has nothing to do with the schools. Yes there are some schools I hate in it (Texas, Baylor, OU, OSU). There are also schools I like (TCU), schools I’m obligated to like (Texas Tech) and schools I’m apathetic about (Kansas, West Virginia, Kansas State, and Iowa State). But I hate the conference.
On its own, that’s a strange thing to hate. You can hate Alabama, the smugness of southern schools, their dicey racial history, and constant recruiting scandals but hating the actual SEC office accomplishes nothing. Here the thing though, the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC act like college football conferences. The Big 12 acts like a reality TV starlet who does something asinine the moment they realize the camera has been off them for more than a few hours.
It makes sense though, the conference itself was born into chaos. It was a political creation of convenience that only occurred because Texas politics kept the Longhorns and Aggies from going west and east in the early 90’s. The Texas Legislature shackled Texas Tech and Baylor to the teams, threatened the Longhorns and bribing the Aggies. From there the four meandered their way up into the Big 8. The Big 8 was happy to accommodate the motley crew and all of their baggage because it meant Texas TV dollars for a conference of small Great Plains states. Since its creation, it has been a conference of regional politics, Nebraska and Texas coming to blows, and tons of angst. Traditional powers fell apart (Colorado, Nebraska, and Texas A&M) and it was easier to blame their woes on boogeymen like Mike Leach, Deloss Dodds, Dan Bebe, and Bob Stoops than look under the hood and see the myriad of problems that would only be fixed with real effort.
Here is the thing though, the drama has never ended. We’ve been over realignment a trillion times but this off-season’s case is on another level. It started with the Big 12 adamant they would not realign, OU continually stirring the pot, and then the announcement that the Big 12 would add more teams. Since then it’s been a chaotic mish mash of rumors, strangely public bidding processes, terrible presentation slides (seriously USF spellcheck has been around for a while), and uncertainty that expansion will even happen.
Back home we have a saying: “expand or get off the pot.”
The real drama queen in all of this isn’t Texas (actually shocking given the Deloss years) but OU. OU leadership has taken every stance possible in this mess but this week a story came out that might be the crowning achievement for how ridiculous this whole thing has become. Berry Tramel recently reported that two independent decision makers at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State floated the idea of a full conference merger to him. This would be the Big 12 completely merging with the Pac-12 or SEC. Also Big 12 expansion is still on the table in this scenario, so who the Big 12 takes could impact the merger (i.e. BYU would be a nonstarter for the Pac-12, UCF/USF would be nonstarters for the SEC). When I read this story it took me a few days to process its absurdity. When I sat down to expand on it and write this article it ended up being a bit longer than I anticipated so I have broken it down into several sections of “why a merger makes no sense.”
The Scheduling Makes No Sense
I made the case for 20 team conferences in 2015 but there was a big catch to making that work which was greatly expanded conference scheduling. A 20-team conference could be divided into four divisions of five allowing four division games per season. To rotate the other teams in the other divisions every four years you would need another six conference games. Nine game conference schedules are already being thrown around and adopted but going to ten is what would be required to make a conference feel like it has any semblance of cohesion at this level. This leaves teams two games for out of conference matches and tune up games while leaving two weekends open for bye weeks. Already that is pushing the envelope since programs will be very reluctant to give up FCS and G5 tune up games (as well as the padding they provide to get to lucrative bowl games) or big ticket home and home OOC matchups. Tramel himself acknowledged this point several days later here. This speaks nothing of the complexities of scheduling in sports like basketball or swimming.
And that is just for my outlandish 20-team conference theory. Having a conference of potentially 26 teams takes things excessively far. The only split for a 26-team conference would be two divisions of 13 teams. That’s essentially two conferences in their own right and there is literally no way for every team to play the other teams in their division without expanding the season. You can have more divisions but you’ll end up creating a “MLB in the 2000’s” situation where some divisions had more teams than others. Can you imagine the outcry there would be in an SEC/Big 12 merger where an SEC North division contained Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, and Missouri while an SEC South contained LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn and Alabama?
A Big 12/Pac-12 merger is a bit cleaner as you can have four divisions of six teams but even this set up would take years to allow a team in one division to play the other programs in the other three divisions. The geography of such a conference would also mean several programs will end up having a ridiculous travel schedule for its division. I don’t even have to set up hypothetical divisions to point out how screwed West Virginia would be in this scenario in football, much less it’s other athletic teams.
Super-conferences are all the rage these days but we know from Mark Twain that history rhymes with itself. A century ago the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association was founded with 19 invited charter members ranging from major public institutions to small Christian colleges. Over the course of it’s nearly 50 year history it was home to 72 different teams. Of course the early 20th century was a different era altogether. The conference largely dealt with uniform rules and hosted an occasional championship but most of the claimed SIAA titles from this era are mythical and conference scheduling was more a guideline than a rule. Disagreement over rules pertaining to freshman actually led to the creation of the Southern Intercollegiate Conference with schools in that conference continuing to maintain membership in the SIAA. The conference frequently hovered near the 20-member mark peaking with 26-members in 1925, mostly small colleges.
Despite loose-to-no conference interference schools still got upset with the plethora of other members and their interests and broke away. Schools like to affiliate with schools that share similar interests. Realignment over the years has given the college athletics world a few good fits like Penn State and Nebraska in the Big Ten or Texas A&M or South Carolina in the SEC but it’s also littered with head scratchers. Colorado and West Virginia are good cultural fits for the Pac-12 and Big 12 respectively but the geography is questionable. The ACC historically was a southern coastal conference dominated by elite academic institutions. Now it’s an east coast basketball conference that also hosts Clemson and Florida State football. The Big East was a collection of east coast basketball schools that became increasingly spread out over the years. The Big Ten is a primarily Midwestern conference that now features Rutgers and Maryland. One of the biggest factors in the initial Big 12 friction was that the Big 8 was a long time conference of Great Plains schools combining with a handful of longtime Southwestern Conference schools. Anyone who thinks a 20+ team conference hosting some combination of Baylor, Iowa State, West Virginia, LSU, South Carolina, UCLA, Stanford, and Washington State is simply deluding themselves if they think that is a stable conference.
The Money Makes No Sense
Ultimately, this is what matters most, even more than cultural cohesion. Yes, a merger of two conferences should massively increase the TV contract the new conference gets. The question isn’t the increase in payout for the conference, it’s the increase in payout per school. Right now the power programs have markedly increased their payouts per school by increasing conference TV contracts and supplementing with conference network deals. Base conference TV deals are based on a plethora of factors including value of programs, proximity to major markets, the college athletic consumership in those markets (Boston might have more people than Birmingham but Birmingham watches more college athletic programming) , and many others. Conference cable networks are largely based on the footprint of the conference. For example, the SEC Network in a non-SEC state might cost a nickel or a dime as part of the total cable TV package but in an SEC state that might raise to a few dollars. This is why adding Texas A&M and Missouri to the SEC was so valuable. Neither have the stature of an Oklahoma or a Texas but they add states with lots of TVs and that doubled the in-state viewership of the SEC overnight.
For the conference networks alone a merger is a non-starter. Right now programs are valuable if they add a new state and adding multiple programs from one state results in a net loss of conference network dollars to the other programs. Kansas or OU might be worth adding to the SEC in their own right because of the extra money they would bring in by adding a new states (and even then its iffy because adding a state alone doesn’t automatically mean more money for everyone if the state doesn’t add enough money to offset adding itself, a problem in small population states like Oklahoma or Kansas). Adding Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State doesn’t make financial sense. Even a major TV market like Texas would be hugely diluted with four or five schools (depending on the merger) splitting the in-state revenue. A merger of the Big 12 and Pac-12 would cover 11 states but seven would have multiple schools per state. A merger of the Big 12 and SEC would cover 14 states but six would have multiple schools per state. On its face this dilutes the SEC Network. It might help the Pac-12 Network though which is struggling to gain steam but even then it would be dicey to see if it actually boosts the revenue of the network enough to increase the payout for the existing teams and all the new programs.
This doesn’t mention the biggest wrench in the engine of realignment, the Longhorn Network. The deal the Longhorns conned out of ESPN has been the biggest wildcard in the business of college athletics this past decade. It is super lucrative and Texas will not part with it until it expires or its revenue can be surpassed. What we do know about it is two things. Firstly, it has largely been a failure for ESPN and they will almost certainly not renew the deal at its expiration. Secondly, Texas cannot or will not (or both) move conferences until the Longhorn Network is done or they are willing to repackage and rework it to fit their needs and a new conferences. ESPN already partly owns the SEC Network as well as the main rights to the SEC. Fox is the primary right holder to the Big 12 and Pac-12. The Pac-12 outright owns its own network which is why it is struggling to find distribution. The choices are as follows:
For a Big 12-Pac 12 merger both conferences would have to work with Fox to increase the total conference TV contract while ESPN could take over the Pac-12 Network and combine it with its existing Longhorn Network property. Fox might not want to go along with this since it gains no new TV property but will likely have to pay more, even if it rolls existing payouts into one new contract. ESPN wins at the conference network level but it cedes two thirds of the college football world to Fox.
For a Big 12-SEC merger one of ESPN or Fox will lose a base conference TV contract and the Longhorns will have to give up the Longhorn Network but the existing money for that package could be rolled into an expanded SEC Network. ESPN and Fox hate this one because one will lose and the other will pay far more in the subsequent bidding war (and perhaps not even retain the first choice of game every week depending on what the SEC on CBS wants to do, but all indications are that deal is coming to a close). ESPN wins at the conference network level if it can make the payouts per team work.
I don’t think the money makes sense in either scenario. Cord cutting is killing the networks and the live sports bubble is already deflating. The contracts these conferences have are already ludicrous. The sheer amounts of added payouts that would need to make this work simply aren’t there. In a nutshell, the networks are not willing, and perhaps not even able, to dramatically increase the payouts so that every team in a 24 or 26 team merged conference gets more than they currently get thus making this endeavor worth their while in the first place.