Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that for every action in nature, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Ever since news broke last week that Texas and Oklahoma were looking to leave the Big 12 (which was made official today) and join the SEC, one of the most common questions has been how the Big Ten and the other Power Five conferences would react. As sports fans, many of us have a preternatural desire for clean and organized structures, such as seeing 4 superconferences with 16 schools each in college football as a logical endpoint. However, conference realignment doesn’t work that way: it is a messy uncoordinated process with a lot of different individual entities acting separately trying to advance their own respective self-interests. While the Big 12 would clearly seek to backfill with replacement members at a minimum as a matter of survival, there is absolutely nothing that requires the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC to react at all if it doesn’t make financial and cultural sense. There isn’t any master plan or rationale that says that other leagues need to go to 16 members simply because the SEC has done so. In essence, Newton’s Third Law of Motion simply doesn’t apply to conference realignment.
The fact of the matter is that the SEC adding Texas and Oklahoma is the most baller power move in conference realignment history because it doesn’t leave the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC with any logical moves to react at all. This is quite different than the 2010-13 round of conference realignment when there were many theoretically valuable expansion options actively looking to move on the table for the power conferences, fewer restrictive covenants locking schools into their home leagues (such as Grant of Rights agreements), more cable households being added every year for conference networks and lower revenue thresholds for new members to clear to ensure that expansion would actually make money for leagues.
With all of the hysteria with the admittedly outstanding power play by the SEC, let’s take a step back and remember where the Big Ten is today. An undercurrent in the media stories and fan perception back in the realignment wars of 2010 was that the SEC had to be the revenue leader and top power broker because of its prowess on-the-field, but that was never correct: it was always the Big Ten in front… and that’s still the case now.
In the fiscal year ending in 2019 (the last full season prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), the Big Ten distributed approximately $55 million to each school (outside of Rutgers and Maryland who had still been receiving reduced shares), while the SEC provided an average of $45.3 million per school (excluding Mississippi because of a postseason football ban that year). The fiscal year 2020 figures show a similar gap outside of the SEC advancing each member $23 million against future earnings for relief plus the general pandemic-related revenue reductions of the past 18 months (which should hopefully be aberrations).
To be sure, the SEC did sign a new deal with Disney/ESPN in December for its Game of the Week that will be worth $300 million per year on average starting in 2024. CBS had been previously paying $55 million per year for that package (the absolute TV rights steal of the century), so that in and of itself will increase per school revenue in the SEC by $17.5 million per year for 14 schools. Note that this is on top of the existing ESPN contract for the rest of the SEC’s TV rights and the SEC Network. Whether any of the amounts being paid by ESPN will be adjusted by the addition of Texas and Oklahoma is an open question. (The reports that UT and OU started talking to the SEC in December, which would have coincided with the new ESPN contract, might mean that such new contract is effectively funding the conference expansion, but that’s purely my speculative guess.)
On the other hand, the Big Ten’s current TV contracts with Fox and ESPN expire fairly soon in 2023. This gives the Big Ten another opportunity to reload in a still ever-increasing sports TV rights environment (once which saw leagues like the NHL, much less the NFL, get explosive new TV contracts in the past few months), so the Big Ten will very likely continue to be effectively even with the SEC (if not still ahead) in terms of revenue. The additions of Texas and Oklahoma simply keep the SEC on par with the Big Ten for revenue, not zoom ahead.
Now, the SEC expansion with UT and OU certainly exposes the long-term demographic issues of the Big Ten footprint that Jim Delany was trying to address over a decade ago with expansion. The Big Ten will still be in the same tier with the SEC revenue-wise for the next decade, but the SEC will now have the flagship of Florida on one end, the top two schools in Texas on the other end, and a complete stranglehold on the college football universe in all points in between with elite national brands like Alabama and the best pound-for-pound recruiting area.
The problem is none of that can be addressed by the Big Ten adding any of the Big 12 schools available. While schools like Texas Tech, TCU and Baylor are located in the State of Texas, they aren’t academic or institutional fits with the Big Ten and are far behind Texas and Texas A&M in terms of in-state power. Kansas may have some value as a blue blood basketball program and has membership in the Association of American Universities (AAU) that’s a key academic credential for the Big Ten, but it’s certainly not a demographic play. Iowa State has AAU membership, too, but it would be doubling up on a small population state that the Big Ten already has covered. None of the schools in the Big 12 meet the Big Ten academic standards.
Frankly, the only real options to address the Big Ten’s longstanding demographic issues that would also make enough revenue are in the ACC and Pac-12, but those are significantly tougher nuts to crack compared to all of the Big 12 schools essentially being free agents now. The Big Ten would clearly love to go after several ACC schools such as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia Tech, but that league has a Grant of Rights agreement that won’t end until 2036. It will be difficult enough to see how Texas and Oklahoma deal with a Big 12 Grant of Rights agreement that won’t expire until 2025 (or more likely, the stiff financial penalties involved to get out of it early), so trying to convince ACC schools to put their TV revenue for the next 15 years on the line is realistically way too tall of an order right now.
The current Pac-12 TV contracts end in 2024, so the Grant of Rights issue isn’t as much of an urgent concern there, but the challenge with the Pac-12 is that they legitimately fit with each other institutionally and culturally similar to how the Big Ten schools fit with each other. Colorado would be a good fit for the Big Ten on paper and a logical westward expansion with great demographics, but that school is also already a perfect fit for the Pac-12. Meanwhile, the Big Ten would certainly take heavyweights like USC and UCLA from the Pac-12, but that’s the West Coast equivalent of trying to say the B1G should add UNC and UVA: that’s way easier said than done.
The bottom line: a new Big Ten school would need to deliver at least $70 million per year just for the league to not lose money on expansion. Notre Dame could do that along with UT and OU (who are now off the table) and some of the aforementioned options in the ACC and Pac-12, but it’s otherwise hard to see anyone else. (Plus, any “expansion plan” that is predicated on Notre Dame joining isn’t an expansion plan at all since they are committed to independence as an institutional identity. The ACC needs to be reminded of this just like the old Big East football conference.) The only Big 12 school that even has a chance at the Big Ten is Kansas (and that’s assuming that its basketball program is so uniquely and singularly valuable a la Duke/UNC/Kentucky that it overwhelms its football issues). As I discussed many years ago with the original Big Ten Expansion Index, a new school needs to be an academic and cultural fit, bring in a new market and/or national brand and, above all else, make a lot more money for the conference. At the end of the day, the Big Ten isn’t going to expand just for the sake of expanding.
(Image from Wired)