In the end, it was money and Texas that saved Big 12 from extinction
A week before his conference stood on the brink of annihilation and two weeks before the 11th-hour gambit that saved it, Big 12 commissioner
"The attached confidential 'white paper' was distributed to the other governance groups today," Beebe wrote on June 1. "As I was listing the reasons for the Big 12 for myself, I decided it would be appropriate to share my thoughts with the leadership groups of the conference."
The attached white paper,
Beebe could not have predicted, however, that the factors everyone always assumed would destroy the Big 12 -- the outsize influence of the University of Texas and the Longhorns' desire to get richer -- would wind up saving it. Because when Texas officials asked Pac-10 officials at the last minute if the Longhorns could retain their local television rights, that's when the Big 12 finally got the upper hand. The Pac-10 wanted to start a cable network similar to the Big Ten's. To do that, it needed to retain its member schools' local TV rights.
So even though television revenue still won't be split equally in the Big 12 -- a major bone of contention since the conference formed in 1994 -- the league promised its remaining 10 members that everyone would get more. Local television rights, as before, would remain property of the schools. That was enough for Texas, which now can explore the idea of starting its own cable network.
In the white paper, Beebe hinted at the possibility of a far more lucrative deal with Fox, which to this point has carried Big 12 games only on its regional cable networks. Though the Big 12's larger ESPN/ABC contract doesn't expire until 2016, the Fox deal is up next year. That allowed Beebe to float the idea of an almost immediate shot of new revenue.
"Conversations with Fox indicate their bullishness about competing in the future for our rights, and they have already made overtures about their willingness to pay exponentially higher rights fees than those in our current agreements," Beebe wrote in the paper. "A primary driver of higher rights fees are competitors for the rights and all information is that there are more serious bidders about to enter the marketplace."
Beebe also warned that the move to superconferences in a blatant cash-grab would have invited "more governmental, legal and public scrutiny" and could have resulted in athletic programs losing their tax-exempt status and possibly the payment of athletes for their services.
"Pressure to compete may rise with resulting higher salaries and more churning of ADs and coaches," he wrote. "Clear identification of the highest level of intercollegiate athletics reduced to a smaller grouping of schools (e.g., four 16-member conferences) could cause eventual tax consequences and tremendous pressure to pay those student-athletes responsible in programs driving the most revenue and pressure, and whose coaches and administrators are receiving more and more financial rewards."
That wasn't enough to stop Colorado, which moved to the Pac-10 last week in spite of Beebe's criticism that the league's "facilities and fair weather fans are a disappointment." It also didn't stop Nebraska, which moved to the Big Ten last week in spite of Beebe's warning about "linking the future with a part of the country that is losing population and tax base relative to the Sun Belt."
Still, the decision by Texas and the other Big 12 South schools to stay should stave off any further radical realignment. If the Pac-10 doesn't expand to 16 and Notre Dame sticks to its stated goal of remaining independent in football, the Big Ten may opt to remain at 12 teams. That would keep the Big East safe. With Texas A&M still in the Big 12 and no obvious reason to get bigger, the SEC likely will remain at 12 schools. That would keep the ACC safe.
In the end, arguments and threats didn't keep the Big 12 together. Money and Texas -- which essentially go hand over fist -- kept the league in business.
The tower on the Texas campus stood bathed in white light Monday night. Over in College Station, they're probably wondering why the tower wasn't lit entirely orange. An orange tower, in the Longhorns' parlance, signifies a major athletic victory, particularly one over Texas A&M.
But Texas didn't win everything it wanted Monday, even though it wound up squarely in charge of a BCS conference with the promise of a higher annual payout from the league and the potential financial juggernaut of its own cable network. Had the Pac-10 given in to the Longhorns' demands, it would have allowed the nation's richest athletic program to start its own cable network and at the same time enjoy the largesse provided by a 16-team superconference whose footprint included five of the nation's top-10 television markets. The only problem? That never was part of the deal. The Pac-16 would have used the model that has worked so well for the Big Ten.
The Big 12 still lost Colorado and Nebraska, but it may have emerged with a lineup that can better coexist in the long run because the schools involved -- with the possible exception of Texas A&M -- can accept the fact that Texas runs the show. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would have been fine in either the Pac-16 or the Big 12. Texas Tech probably would have as well. But Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri faced a fall into a conference outside college sports' power structure. For keeping them afloat, they owe Texas everything. The only place where debate will rage is College Station. The Aggies were targeted by the SEC, and some believed they needed to emerge from the long shadow cast by the Longhorns.
The choice to save the Big 12 will reverberate far beyond its geographic footprint. The sudden flurry of realignment possibilities rang alarm bells at the highest levels of college athletics. Suddenly, the idea of even fewer conferences holding most of the power seemed quite realistic. Even the possibility of the most powerful conferences breaking free from the NCAA didn't seem so far-fetched anymore. We always knew money drove the decisions in big-time college sports, but never had that fact been so nakedly obvious. "There was no way," one high-ranking NCAA source said, "to tell how far this thing was going to go."
Now, thanks to Texas and Beebe and the conference that wouldn't die, the rolling ball of butcher knives has stopped. Are college sports better off? Maybe. That remains to be seen. But at least they're stable.