In a hotel meeting room in Scottsdale, Ariz., in April, SEC commissioner MikeSlive essentially promised that if the tectonic plates beneath the college sports' landscape began to shift, Slive's league would not sit on the sidelines.
A source confirmed to SI.com late Wednesday that emissaries from the SEC initiated discussions with Texas A&M athletic director BillByrne months ago, and while the SEC is just one of several potential options for the Aggies, it remains an option heading into Thursday's meeting between Texas A&M and Texas officials. At the meeting, power brokers from both schools will discuss a last-ditch effort to save the Big 12, even if Nebraska's Board of Regents votes Friday to leave for the Big Ten. "It's on life support," the source said of the Big 12. "But people have come off life support before."
Officials also will discuss a potential invitation from the Pac-10 that also would include four other Big 12 schools. Presumably, they also will discuss the SEC's talks with Texas A&M.
What is unclear, however, is which other school or schools the SEC might also be interested in to keep an even number should it decide to expand. Last week, the league split a record $209 million among its 12 member schools. Slive has been tight-lipped in public concerning expansion, and he drew giggles last week during a press briefing following the league's spring meetings when he said this: "We have maximum flexibility in how we approach this issue ranging anywhere from nothing to something."
That narrows it down.
An SEC spokesman didn't return a phone call, an e-mail or a text message Wednesday night, and Slive declined last Friday to answer whether he or a representative of the league had contacted any schools about potential expansion. Late Wednesday, Texas A&M athletic department spokesman AlanCannon said President Bowen Loftin is the only Texas A&M official authorized to speak about expansion. Still, it seems the SEC has been up to more something than nothing.
Slive didn't take the SEC to the top of the college sports world by doing nothing. It was his league's two 15-year contracts with ESPN and CBS (totaling more than $3 billion) that convinced the other leagues they needed to ramp up their revenue. Those contracts give the SEC security. It can still thrive as a 12-team league even if the Big Ten and Pac-10 supersize to 16, but a component of Slive's success is his ability to read the tea leaves. After years in the new landscape, would the SEC be positioned to command a plum deal when next it sits at the negotiating table?
Another executive we may have underestimated in this shuffle is Texas A&M's Byrne. Byrne said last week that the best move for Texas A&M is staying in the Big 12. His Texas counterpart, DeLoss Dodds, has said the same goes for the Longhorns. But even if Byrne joins the Austin contingent in saving the Big 12 or departing for the Pac-10, by making the Aggies an attractive candidate for the SEC, Byrne has altered the power dynamic in the Lone Star State. Texas, the nation's most lucrative athletic department, still holds most of the cards, but it isn't Dodds and the five dwarves. Texas A&M is a player in this.
It should be. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, in the 2008-09 school year, Texas A&M ranked third in the Big 12 and 22nd in the nation in athletic revenue with $73.4 million. That figure would have placed the Aggies third in the Pac-10, fifth in the proposed Pac-16 and eighth in the big-money SEC.
That number will rise whether the Aggies stick with their Big 12 south brethren in the Pac-16 or strike out on their own in the SEC. Schools such as Miami, Florida State, Georgia Tech and Clemson have been tossed out as possible SEC targets. Those schools don't make sense, because the SEC already has a stranglehold on the markets they would deliver.
Texas is an untapped television market for the league, which already enjoys national distribution, but could make more money by guaranteeing more viewers. Though the Aggies wouldn't bring as many eyeballs as the Longhorns, significant chunks of viewers in Dallas (the nation's fifth largest television market), Houston (No. 10) and San Antonio (No. 37) would tune in to watch them. How many top-37 markets are currently in the SEC footprint? Just six. If the SEC does decide to expand, the change in membership number would trigger a clause that would allow the league to renegotiate its TV deals. Adding those markets, plus the markets of any other new member, would allow the league to command a higher price.
Texas A&M also is a member of the Association of American Universities. Only two SEC schools (Florida and Vanderbilt) are members. Plus, Texas A&M has grown from about 25,000 students in 1976 to about 47,000 now. That means more alumni than ever are about to enter their prime giving years.
Whether a move to the SEC would benefit Texas A&M's football team is questionable. The Aggies almost certainly would wind up in the SEC west with former Southwest Conference rival Arkansas. They'd probably have to play Alabama, Auburn and LSU every season. That's tough for any program. Still, the league would allow the Aggies to offer an interesting alternative to Lone Star State recruits enthralled by the SEC schools they grew up watching on television.
Such practical discussions are probably better left for another day. Byrne and Texas A&M president Loftin have options to examine. Do they help save the Big 12 by bringing new blood into the fold? Do they split from the Big 12 but stay with their in-state rivals? Do they split from their fellow Texas schools and put in jeopardy rivalries that date back decades?
If they choose the SEC -- and the SEC subsequently agreed to choose them -- entry would be simple. Texas A&M would need approval from nine of the 12 SEC presidents. It also would have to pay $50 in annual membership dues.
Judging by its recent revenue figures, A&M can handle the fee. But does it need to bolt or remain with its Lone Star brethren? The answer isn't clear.
Still, in uncertain times, it's nice to have options.