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Who's laughing now? Beebe, Big 12 hit paydirt with Fox Sports TV deal

We laughed at Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe last year. We assumed he would preside over the downfall of a conference that should have printed its own money because he couldn't adequately manage the warring factions within. We lampooned him. Someone even started a Twitter feed claiming to be Beebe that gave life to the caricature we created during last year's conference realignment showdown. Even when he brokered a deal that kept the conference together, we gave no credit to Beebe and all the credit to Texas officials for their string-pulling skills. Then we immediately began predicting the Big 12's demise within a few years.

Wednesday, those of us who made Beebe the butt of our realignment jokes owed the man an apology. Because what he predicted came true, and his conference appears strong and stable.

"There were some in the public space who didn't believe those words I guess, no matter how many times we said them or how many forums we said them in," Beebe said Wednesday during a teleconference. "Having the institutions commit to a long-term agreement is a demonstration of what was stated last summer."

Wednesday, the Big 12 agreed to a 13-year deal with Fox Sports for the league's second-tier media rights beginning in 2012. And games won't appear only on Fox's sometimes hard-to-find regional sports networks. They'll also appear on basic cable's FX, which is available in 98 million households. That's only a million fewer households than ESPN and ESPN2. (In case you don't know where FX is on your system, find it and watch Justified, the best show on television right now.) According to Sports Business Journal, that deal will pay the 10-member league $90 million annually. That's $30 million a year more than the first-tier deal with ESPN/ABC that runs through 2016. Who could have predicted such a windfall? Dan Beebe, that's who.

In his "Case for the Big 12" white paper distributed on June 1, 2010, and obtained by SI.com through an open records request 13 days later, Beebe wrote this: "FOX was a serious bidder for the ACC rights and drove the fee up higher than expected. 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 agreement. A primary driver of higher rights fees are competitors for rights and all information is that there are more serious bidders about to enter the marketplace. NBC/Comcast has sent strong messages about wanting to obtain more college football and Turner Sports has committed to postseason college basketball."

The Big 12's current second-tier deal, signed in 2004, is worth $20 million. Beebe's claim of exponential growth may have been overstated, but when you're already dealing with eight-figure amounts, exponents are expensive. Certainly, the 10 member schools will settle for more than quadrupling their money on the deal. "This really validates why our media partners convinced us and encouraged us to stay together and stay committed to what we were doing," Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said Wednesday. "We will be funded at the highest levels in college athletics."

And they'll rake in even more in 2016, when the new first-tier deal kicks in. That deal, which launched in 2008, brings in $60 million a year now from ESPN/ABC. Imagine what a new deal will bring in five years.

Beebe made the correct argument last year when he claimed the Big 12 schools could stay together and still make the same money or close to the same money that five potential defectors would have made by joining a 16-team version of the Pac-10. It was Beebe and company's 11th-hour negotiating -- they got ESPN/ABC and Fox to agree to pay the same rights fees for 10 schools that they paid for 12 -- that allowed Texas to swing for the fences and demand that the Pac-10 allow the Longhorns to keep their local broadcast rights. Pac-10 officials, who had always planned on collecting local rights and starting a Big Ten Network-style channel, balked at the demand. The deal fell apart, and the Big 12 was saved.

Even then, it seemed Beebe had built his streamlined league on a foundation of sand. Could he actually produce the bloated revenue numbers he promised? And the Big 12 still faced the problem that had plagued it since its inception: unequal revenue sharing. Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M receive the most money because they play on TV the most. This beef was mitigated somewhat by the sheer terror Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Iowa State faced when they realized they might be left out of the BCS conference mix if the Big 12 folded. They're just happy to still be there, but the issue seemed like a potential bone of contention for other schools. The only way to eliminate the grousing would be to rake in so much money that Texas Tech wouldn't care if Oklahoma's pile of $100 bills was a few feet taller.

Beebe did that.

Does he deserve all the credit? Of course not. His staff deserves some, as do various factors outside any conference commissioner's control. After all, the Big 12 had the good fortune to have a rights deal expire just as several massive media companies are waking to the fact that they've nearly missed the boat entirely on college football, which by most metrics is America's second-most popular sport behind the NFL. For whatever reason, those companies needed two decades to figure out that ESPN had nearly cornered the market, save for the uber-valuable SEC real estate CBS has claimed every fall Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET. Fox had to pay, or NBC/Comcast or Turner would have. Add in the fact that live sports are the only DVR-proof programming -- people watch live, so commercials command higher prices than the ones that get zapped during an episode of Glee -- and it becomes clear the Big 12 walked into a perfect negotiating storm. (By the way, how happy is Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott? He currently is negotiating all of his league's media rights deals, and Wednesday's news all but guarantees an eye-popping dollar figure for that conference.)

He may not have done it alone, but Beebe took most of the heat last year, so he deserves a giant share of the praise now. Beebe took a league that had all but dissolved and held it together with the promise of a more lucrative day. That day came Wednesday.

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