How the Big 12 was saved
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Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott’s background comes from running the Women’s Tennis Association, not working as a college administrator. College athletics is generally run by lifers, folks who came up through the system and learned the same way to think and manage the same way.
For decades the Pac-10 had been the nation’s most staid conference, so slow to adapt it even doubted the viability of ESPN into the 2000s. It hired Scott and his outsider mentality last year to change that. Over a breathless, ambitious couple-of-month run, he nearly did.
He proposed a massive expansion of the league with the addition of six schools, most notably Texas and Oklahoma, which with their national brand names and passionate, heartland fan bases could deliver major television dollars and power an in-house cable channel.
That’s how he found himself puddle jumping a private jet across the Lone Star State on Sunday, dropping off personal invitations to join the new Pac-16.
Little did he know the old guard of the status quo was about to fight back.
On Monday, Texas, Oklahoma and three other schools reaffirmed their commitment to the Big 12, albeit a downsized version of just 10 teams. That left Scott’s grand expansion plan dead in the water. It apparently ended months of speculation, brinkmanship, media accounts, backstabs and anonymous quotes in the great conference realignment of 2010.
[Photos: Conference realignment roundup]
In the end, the entire supposedly cataclysmic reshuffling of college athletics saw just three teams switch leagues.
Nebraska left the Big 12 for the Big Ten. Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-10. And Boise State moved from the WAC to the Mountain West.
The Pac-10, which now has 11 members, may still pick up the University of Utah. Other than that, everyone appears settled in for the time being – and make no mistake, the current calm is merely temporary because mostly broke college athletic departments remain desperate for revenue.
While Scott was making what looked like an aerial victory lap in a Raytheon Hawker 800 twin-engine jet Sunday, an informal, yet influential group had formed to help stop him, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.
As the Big 12’s impending death became increasingly apparent last week, a diverse group of leaders across college athletics decided to come to the league’s rescue. Athletic directors, business leaders and television executives all played a part in the league’s 11th-hour attempt to save itself from destruction.
“This is was a potential doomsday,” said one college administrator who offered the Big 12 assistance and sought anonymity for fear of backlash from the Pac-10. “This was moving too quickly. The collateral impact wasn’t being considered. [There was] a great deal of work to be done.”
Some were worried about the long-term stability of college athletics should an era of 16-team super conferences arrive. Others feared the potential wealth and competitive power of Scott’s league. Some just helped for the challenge of it.
With Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe in charge, a furious weekend of phone calls, planning sessions and analysis reports allowed the league to secure a potential television deal, a revenue sharing plan and new sales pitch that proved tempting enough to stop lynchpin Texas from jumping to the Pac-10.
The TV contract, which like some other details hasn’t been formalized, promises Texas and Oklahoma an oversized share of revenue that could reach over $20 million per year, on pace with the industry-best Big Ten. League schools are also free to start their own cable networks which could prove worth up to another $5 million annually for UT and OU, the league’s two most popular teams.
Armed with a strong position in the Big 12, Texas returned to the Pac-10 and asked for a similar deal – the right to its own network (not just part of a Pac-16 channel) and an oversized revenue share, according to a source familiar with the negotiations. Larry Scott turned it down.
With that, Texas was staying. Oklahoma, the rest of the potential defectors – Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State – fell in line, some of them stunned at the turn of events.
“When I woke up Sunday morning, I’d have given [the Big 12] a 5 percent chance [at survival],” one league AD said.
For the Longhorns and Sooners, there was little doubt that the best place in terms of actual football was the Big 12. There was never a reason to leave.
They already dominate, both in terms of on-field victories and in controlling the talent-rich local recruiting turf. The two schools have combined to reach five of the last seven BCS title games. It was almost impossible for the Pac-16 to offer greener grass than that, a point that was repeatedly lobbied to each school’s administration, according to a source.
Life is potentially even better now for Texas and Oklahoma. The loss of Big 12 North power Nebraska and an even greater revenue gap between them and the other eight league teams means their annual Red River Showdown game becomes even more of a de facto BCS semifinal. The league may even drop its conference championship game (which UT and OU never liked), eliminating a final roadblock to the BCS title bid.
Once the Big 12 – aided by its outside consultants and experts – was able to show a financial roadmap the decision was simple. UT and OU can keep on winning and keep on cashing checks. With the uneven revenue, they both increase their take and decrease their conference opponents – essentially playing offense and defense at the same time.
Texas, in particular, couldn’t have drawn it up any better.
The other schools may learn to regret the imbalanced deal, but in the desperate hours of the last few days, with Larry Scott literally circling overhead, the league had no other option.
It was deal or die. On Monday Scott’s plane flew west without a single Big 12 school in tow.
The decision by Texas caused a collective exhale across college athletics. Conventional wisdom was that as soon as the Pac-10 went to 16 teams, other leagues would be forced to follow. That meant a presumed raid of Big East schools by the Big Ten. Or the SEC, which was already trying to make a preemptive steal of Texas A&M, going after the ACC.
The schools that could’ve been left in the Big 12 were petrified they were about to fall into smaller conference irrelevancy – including the powerhouse Kansas basketball program and long-time major teams at Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State and Baylor.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, was monitoring everything to see if it would be forced to give up its proud independence.
Some even worried that if four 16-team leagues were formed, they’d eventually break free from the NCAA, putting the entire NCAA men’s basketball tournament in jeopardy and potentially crushing scores of excellent programs across the country.
That’s what motivated so many powerful people to call the Big 12 offices in Irving, Texas and offer help.
It’s open to debate whether super conferences would really “ruin” college athletics – most fans only care about the most major programs anyway and they would’ve continued to play every Saturday.
There is, however, some value in preserving college sports’ unique diversity – men’s basketball for instance is played at the top level in 49 states (only Alaska is without a Division I team).
So the “threat” of the super conference has been stopped; at least for the time being. The underlying problem for college sports remains – these schools have spent themselves broke on huge salaries, extravagant facilities and lavish benefits such as private planes.
In 2000-09, Division I schools needed nearly $900 million in student fees and taxpayer funded general university budgets to balance the athletic department books. Only a dozen or so departments break even each year.
This round of expansion hasn’t yielded a major financial windfall for anyone but Texas and Oklahoma. The Big Ten isn’t appreciably richer with Nebraska on board and the Pac-10 may wind up poorer with CU and Utah.
Meanwhile coaching salaries aren’t going to drop and soaring construction debt isn’t going to pay for itself.
That chase for money is what started all the speculation of bigger conferences, bigger cuts of the television revenue and the forever division between haves and the have-nots. The last two months were about television markets and population trends, not touchdowns.
Until college football taps into the near bottomless revenue well of a real playoff – rather than the financially underperforming BCS – this will remain a fight over television sets. A 16-team playoff would’ve prevented this round of nerves, flooding college sports with enough cash to diversify revenue streams and pay almost everyone’s bills. It could stop the next one also.
Without a playoff though, this season of minor expansion is but the calm before the storm.
“We will continue to evaluate future expansion opportunities,” Scott said Monday in a statement.
Financially college athletics can’t continue as presently constructed. If you aren’t one of the nation’s few truly powerful programs, this isn’t a time to relax. If Kansas basketball can almost get wiped out, so can almost any school.
It’s just a matter of time before Larry Scott or someone like him is crisscrossing the country looking to pillage one conference to turn a profit for their own.
And by then, there may not be a coalition that can stop it.