Jan 1, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA; General view of the ESPN college football tv crew before the Rose Bowl between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby dropped a figurative atomic bomb on college athletics on Wednesday when he sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN, alleging “The Worldwide Leader” had been working with another conference (which we now know to be the America Athletic Conference) to destabilize the Big 12 for financial gain.
The idea of ESPN’s grubby hands being at the center of college football realignment is not a new one. The television network’s role in decision-making has long been discussed publicly and privately, but never in the sense of being the actual decision-makers.
When asked earlier this week if ESPN had been one of the driving forces in college football’s realignment over the last 15 years, one of the network’s most notable former executives was elusive.
“I’d like to take the fifth,” former ESPN president John Skipper said with a laugh during an appearance on The Dan Le Batard Show with Stugotz on Tuesday.
That answer came at the end of a nearly half-hour discussion on college media rights fees, Skipper’s own involvement in the changing landscape of college football and how ESPN has thrown money around in the past to manipulate the dealings of particular schools or leagues.
Say, for instance, Texas and the creation of the Longhorn Network all the way back during the first round of Big 12 realignment in 2011, which ultimately convinced Texas to stay in the Big 12 rather than jumping ship for the Pac-10, Big Ten or SEC at that time.
“There was a moment in time back in like 2010-11 where Texas was at the center of all college football,” Skipper said. “They were responsible for holding the Big 12 together, or they could have gone to the Big Ten, which was trying to get them, or they could have gone to the Pac-12 where there was a plan to create a Pac-16 and a super conference, and the Longhorn Network is what kept them in the Big 12 and kept the Big 12 together.”
Keeping Texas in the Big 12 fold was key for ESPN as it was the primary rights holder for the league. While ESPN had a stake in the Pac-12 and Big Ten deals, it still would have been a massive boon for FOX, which also deals with those leagues.
“We knew that if we did the network, we could entice them to stay in the Big 12, keep them together. So that was important to us,” Skipper said. “We already had a Pac-12 deal, but Fox was ascendant in the Pac-12, and we didn’t want to see, Texas, go to the Pac-12.”
Now, bringing this back to today and trying to understand why ESPN might be pulling strings they’re alleged to be pulling.
Last December, ESPN agreed to pay a reported $300 million a year to the SEC for the league’s premier game each week, which CBS has traditionally broadcasted during the 2:30 p.m. central timeslot.
Adding that game, for which CBS had previously paid $55 million per year since 1996, brought all of the SEC’s football inventory under the ESPN umbrella.
What would be a great way to increase the value of the property you’re now paying six-times the previous price for?
How about adding two of the sport’s marquee programs to the docket?
“I doubt that all of that is unrelated,” Skipper said. “I would not assume that this is just happening… I would guess that it’s a logical sequence of events that now ESPN has all the SEC. So now they bring Texas and Oklahoma and think of all the good games you get. Just think about Oklahoma and Auburn and Texas and…”
As for the other eight schools left behind by Texas and Oklahoma, ESPN finds themselves in another sticky situation. The network is contractually obligated to keep paying those schools through 2025 regardless of what happens with OU and UT unless those schools are willing to pay an exit fee estimated to be in the range of $80 million apiece, which ESPN would surely be pressured to help them with.
But, the schools (or network) are only stuck with that price tag in an event where the remaining eight schools are still together to play out the existing grant of rights set to expire in 2025.
Enter the American Athletic Conference.
Back in 2019, the AAC and ESPN agreed to a media rights extension that made the network the league’s primary media rights holder through 2032. That deal has been reported to pay each of the league’s eleven football-playing schools roughly $7 million annually.
Even if the league added the eight remaining Big 12 schools, the value of that media contract would likely still come somewhere in the range of eight figures short of matching the $35 million-plus paid to each of the Big 12 schools under their current media rights deal.
So, for the sake of this exercise, let’s say the American adds the eight Big 12 schools, and ESPN agrees to increase the media payouts to the league into the range of $20 million per school.
ESPN would immediately gain twice the inventory for that one league for approximately the same price they’re already paying for the Big 12 plus avoid the roughly $160 million they’d likely have to help Texas and Oklahoma pay to join the SEC sooner rather than later, boosting their newest (and crown jewel) property.
Meanwhile, the Big 12 schools left behind by Texas and Oklahoma not only don’t stand to receive the roughly $20 million apiece they’d get from those two schools leaving the league but would receive approximately $15 million-plus less than they already do on an annual basis.
Oh, and ESPN would knock out another piece of Fox’s Power 5 pie by eliminating the Big 12, leaving Fox with the primary Pac-12 and Big Ten packages, while ESPN more or less takes everything else at discounted prices.
It sounds like some pretty damn good deals for ESPN and quite a few other people, but pretty awful deals for the Big 12, Bob Bowlsby and the eight schools that have been left behind. If it hadn’t been for someone seriously slipping up and providing whatever sort of paper trail Bowlsby now has at his evidentiary disposal, it might have worked.
Just like it did once before.
“There was again this sort of flight of schools trying to get to a better conference (back in 2010-11),” Skipper said during a follow-up interview on Thursday. “We had a good relationship with the Big 12. We prefer that the Big 12 stay intact. There were finances involved right because we would have had to kind of pay no matter what. If they went to the Pac-12, we had to pay the Pac-12 more money. Then the Big 12 would replace the schools that left, and we still have to pay that money, so we didn’t mind it the way it was.”