The Art of Deception: Big 12 vs. ESPN

For most conference realignment moves, the timing may often be surprising, but the logic behind them makes sense. The SEC taking Texas and Oklahoma is a perfect example: the move came out of nowhere last week and shocked the college football world to its core, but it’s a move that makes perfect sense for the parties involved with increased money and power.

Every once in awhile, though, conference realignment causes a story that goes beyond the realm of reasonable possibility, such as a Power 5 conference commissioner publicly going postal on ESPN. Yesterday, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN where he accuses the network of attempting to induce league members to join another conference. Then, he didn’t just let that letter speak for itself: he basically went to every media outlet out there (sans ESPN) and left no doubt about how he really feels. Conspiracy! Deception! Manipulation! Tortious interference! Backstabbing partner! All that we need is a missing body and this would be an episode of Dateline!

The only thing crazier than all of this is ESPN’s alleged plan: dissolve the Big 12 by having 3 to 5 members join the AAC. Not the ACC, but the AAC. Now, from a pure ESPN perspective, the dissolution of the Big 12 makes financial sense: that allows Texas and Oklahoma to move to the SEC without paying any exit obligations (likely in the neighborhood of $70 million to $80 million for each of those schools), move the most attractive remaining Big 12 brands to a less expensive AAC contract that’s 100% under the control of ESPN, and eliminate around $1 billion in rights fees that are remaining on the current Big 12 contract with ESPN. I have no doubt that ESPN would love everything to play out this way.

However, if these allegations are true, this is an insanely brazen and obtuse proposal regardless of incentives for ESPN. If we assume that no other P5 league is going to take any of the remaining Big 12 members, how on Earth did ESPN think this was going to work? Think of it from the perspective of the remaining Big 12 schools of the ESPN “offering”:

(1) This would have involved asking Oklahoma State to ask Tulsa for an invite to a league. It would have involved Texas Tech, Baylor and TCU to ask SMU and Houston to the same. Putting aside football, this would have required Kansas State and freaking Kansas (whose basketball program was founded by basketball inventor James Naismith) asking Wichita State to join the Shockers’ league!

(2) The Big 12 would just willingly disband and give up $140 million to $160 million of exit fees from Texas and Oklahoma.

(3) The Big 12 would further willingly dissolve and give up around $1 billion for the rest of the existing TV deal with ESPN.

Once we take a step back from the initial shock of how openly public this dispute is between the Big 12 and ESPN, the alleged proposal from ESPN is frankly comical. It’s no wonder that Bob Bowlsby claims that he has receipts that ESPN has been attempting this here: any Big 12 school that received a proposal from ESPN for them to join the AAC (not the ACC) so that they can dissolve the league and make less money in the process would have forwarded those texts and emails to the Commissioner’s Office with the subject line: “Dude?! WTF?!”

To be sure, nothing is going to change ESPN’s power position in college sports (or simply the sports world in general). However, I believe that this is going to backfire on the AAC quite badly. The AAC might get a few days of positive news cycles where they appear to be the aggressor as opposed to being the hunted in the conference realignment game. However, when anyone takes a step back and goes line-by-line comparing the Big 12 and AAC members, the fact of the matter is that the AAC would take every Big 12 member while there are several schools that the Big 12 wouldn’t touch from the AAC. That inherently means that the remaining Big 12 schools as a core are simply more valuable than the AAC and it makes more financial sense for the Big 12 to take the best schools from the AAC as opposed to the other way around.

Just 24 hours ago, I would have believed that the Big 12 was aiming to have as little backfilling as possible (maybe just taking 1 AAC school like Cincinnati plus independent BYU) or even simply stand pat at 8 schools. Frankly, the Big 12 has been spending the past several years convincing itself of reasons to not take AAC schools such as Cincinnati, Houston, UCF and Memphis. I believe those days are gone. With this accusation of the AAC coordinating with ESPN for the equivalent of a hostile takeover, my sense is that the Big 12 is going to find every reason to strip mine anything of value from the AAC to neutralize any real or perceived threat here. This may turn out well for the AAC schools that I just mentioned, but any current schadenfreude at the Big 12 predicament from the bottom half of the AAC is wildly misplaced.

In the past week, I feel that a lot of fan chatter has overrated the chances of the Big 12 schools to get an invite to any of the other Power 5 conferences since they were ignoring institutional fits and simply how much more money a school needs to bring to the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC just for expansion to break-even for them (much less actually be more profitable). However, it seems as if though the tide has turned where the Big 12 is now underrated in comparison to the AAC and rest of the Group of 5 leagues. The truth is somewhere in the middle – the rest of the Big 12 may not be finding homes in other P5 leagues, but they still have absolute poaching power over the G5 leagues if only because of a combination of autonomy status with the NCAA, incoming exit fees from Texas and Oklahoma and existing NCAA Tournament credits. To say that I’m watching all of this from the sidelines while eating popcorn is an understatement: this is all worthy of downing an entire souvenir Chicago skyline tin of Garrett’s Popcorn.

(Image from the Big 12 Conference)

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