Conference realignment five years later: Reassessing how former Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe truly fared.
The following passage came from a paper handed out on June 1, 2010 as multiple schools pondered leaving their conferences for other leagues …
A collateral consideration for all of us as national leaders in intercollegiate athletics is the creation of a few “mega-conferences” may result in more governmental, legal and public scrutiny. Pressure to compete may rise with resulting higher salaries and more churning of ADs and coaches. Clear identification of the highest level of intercollegiate athletics reduced to a smaller grouping of (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.
Who wrote this? Had someone perfected time travel and gone back to 2010 from today to warn of the consequences of large-scale conference realignment? If so, was that person also smart enough to go back to June ’13 and bet on Auburn to win the SEC title?
Though it reads like an I-told-you-so written in 2015, that passage actually came from a paper handed out to Big 12 ADs and presidents before their June ’10 meeting at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kansas City. The author: Dan Beebe.
That’s right. The former Big 12 commissioner and the butt of nearly every realignment-related joke basically predicted the future as he tried to make the case to keep his league from blowing apart. Conference realignment did reset the television rights market, which did make athletic directors and coaches a lot richer. At the same time, seeing people who insisted they weren’t part of a multibillion-dollar business acting exactly like they were part of a multibillion-dollar business turned public sentiment away from the schools and toward the athletes. O’Bannon v. NCAA was already in the pipeline, but these moves helped the plaintiffs’ attorneys to take the tack that would ultimately win them the case. Meanwhile, more lawyers smelled blood—or money, or both—and jumped in with suits of their own. Northwestern football players, aware of their role in the cable television universe, petitioned the National Labor Relations Board for the right to unionize. Under intense pressure, the wealthiest five conferences convinced the other Division I leagues to allow the richest to make rules for themselves so they could pay athletes more. (Leaders also acted as if this was charity and not a response to lawsuits.)
So, on the fifth anniversary of Nebraska’s move to the Big Ten and Colorado’s move to the Pac-10, maybe it's time to reappraise Beebe, who was forced out of the Big 12 in 2011 after Texas A&M departed and Missouri was on the verge of leaving. It was his quick thinking that kept the Big 12 from disintegrating in ’10. If six schools had left to join the Pac-10, as they were discussing with commissioner Larry Scott, the college sports landscape could look radically different. Though it’s impossible to tell what the Big Ten and SEC would have done in response to the Pac-16, both leagues’ eventual expansions to 14 members suggest they also would have grown. And, remember, university presidents at the time were quite jumpy; logic might not have applied. Maybe the Big Ten and SEC would have stood at 12. Or maybe they would have gutted the ACC to swell their ranks, forcing the ACC to gut the Big East. (Which it did anyway.) We don’t know what they would have done because Beebe helped make the schools press the pause button for a year after Nebraska, Colorado and Utah moved. More movement happened, but nothing as dramatic as what might have taken place had the leagues based east of the Mississippi stared west at a 16-team superconference.
Beebe now lives in Kansas City, where he runs a consulting firm that helps college athletic departments establish reporting protocols so they can avoid scandals such as the one that brought down Rutgers men’s basketball coach Mike Rice and athletic director Tim Pernetti. Beebe’s home isn’t far from the Intercontinental, where five years ago he asked for a commitment from 12 schools and got only lukewarm responses. “Every time I walk by it, I get hives,” Beebe jokes.*
*One of the more entertaining things to come out of conference realignment was the @DanBeebe Twitter feed, which lampoons the former commissioner, the Big 12 and all of its schools. The authors probably had no idea when they started the parody account how closely their comic sensibilities aligned with those of the feed’s namesake.
It was at that meeting Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds told reporters this with regard to realignment: “If we need to finish it, we’ll finish it,” Dodds said, according to the Associated Press. “We’re going to be a player in whatever happens.” The Longhorns were indeed a player, and probably the most important one. At about the same time Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman took a cloak-and-dagger meeting with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Longhorns officials were in talks with Scott and the Pac-10. The league was considering adding Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado.
That the Pac-10 was in contact with Big 12 schools didn’t come as a shock to Beebe. After all, he and Scott had put officials from schools in both conferences together in the same room in May 2010 during the leagues’ annual meetings in Phoenix. Beebe pitched pooling the media rights for the two leagues to sign a TV contract that would reset the market and dwarf the Big Ten’s deal and the deal recently signed by the SEC. The hook, he said, would be a virtual lock on the fan bases in every major media market west of the Mississippi. With NBC mulling bidding against FOX and ESPN, the numbers for such a deal could have been astronomical. The leagues would not merge, but they would use their combined inventory to charge networks a premium price.
But Beebe knew he had a problem. Like the Pac-10 at the time, the Big 12 didn’t share television revenue equally. Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Nebraska all received more because they were the schools the television networks held in the highest demand. For the plan to work, all the schools in both leagues would have to agree to split revenues evenly. Scott was in the process of getting his schools to accept such a plan. USC and UCLA were each promised an extra $2 million a year until conference income reached a certain threshold, and that quelled any potential rebellion. Beebe knew it wouldn’t be so easy in his league. He said he began to push a Grant of Rights—in which schools would sign all or part of their media rights over to the league, which it would then sell to the networks—in 2008, but members wouldn’t budge. “I would have had a fight within our own conference to try to do something with the Pac-10,” Beebe says. This was a constant source of frustration for Beebe, who suspects some lingering issues dating back to the formation of the Big 12 by the former Big Eight and Southwest Conference schools still hadn’t been fully resolved. The result was a fight to determine which media rights the league could sell, which stayed with the schools and how much money each school would get paid from the deal. “I just want to know the rights that I’m taking to the marketplace,” Beebe says, explaining his angst at the time. “No other commissioner goes to the marketplace with his barrel of apples empty and then has to negotiate with his institutions and the media companies.”
The Big 12 and Pac-10 deal never happened, obviously. But while the conferences were discussing the possibility, Scott gave a quote to Gary Klein of the Los Angeles Times that—given what we learned a few weeks later—was freighted with far more meaning than it seemed at first glance. Scott had been asked a question about the potential for a merger of the two leagues. “That is not the primary focus at this point in time,” Scott told the paper. “I think short term, it’s off the table. But in the little time I’ve been in college sports … I hesitate to say anything is off the table in the long term.”
A merger was off the table, but stripping the Big 12 of most of its most valuable member schools was very much on the table. Chip Brown, who was then working for Rivals.com network site Orangebloods.com, broke the news of the Pac-10’s pursuit of the Big 12 schools on June 3. Eight days later, Colorado had made the move. With Nebraska also gone to the Big Ten, Beebe had a huge problem and little time. Scott flew to Oklahoma on June 12 to visit officials from Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. Meanwhile, the SEC had gauged Texas A&M’s interest, and a faction of Aggies expressed its desire to go east rather than stay put or go west.
On June 13, a Sunday, Beebe was a frequent passenger in the elevators at the Grand Hyatt near the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. In a room on one floor was Beebe’s Big 12 management team. In a room on another floor were FOX executives. In a room on yet another floor were ESPN executives. Beebe buzzed between floors praying he could carve out a deal in time. Texas and Texas Tech had scheduled meetings of their boards of regents on June 15, presumably to empower their CEOs to accept an offer from the Pac-10.
First, Beebe tried to convince ESPN and FOX executives, who both had deals with the Big 12, to rip up the Big 12’s existing contracts and write new ones for the 10-school group. His logic? It could cost the networks far more if the Pac-10 destroyed the Big 12. Not only would they have to pay megabucks for the Pac-16, they would probably also have to rip up deals and pay significantly more for the Big Ten and SEC if those leagues responded by expanding more. “It behooves you to keep this conference together,” Beebe told the executives. Beebe’s request was rebuffed, but with a Tier 2 rights negotiation coming up the following spring, he knew he still had a chance to promise the remaining Big 12 schools more money.
Still, he needed a gesture of good faith to make them stay. And while ESPN and FOX weren’t willing to do new deals, Beebe was correct that letting the Big 12 shatter would ultimately cost the networks more in rights fees. So, they agreed to continue paying for 10 schools what they had previously been paying for 12. Third-tier rights, meanwhile, would remain the schools’ to sell individually. A certain school in Austin could go ahead with its plans for a cable network if it chose. The deal wasn’t all Beebe wanted, but it might be enough to hold the league together.
Beebe passed the news along to his member schools, and commitments trickled in. The schools left out of the realignment mix were desperate to keep the Big 12 together. “I’m not in panic mode yet, but I’m very concerned,” Kansas basketball coach Bill Self told SI’s Luke Winn during the first Big 12 Missile Crisis. “I believe that Kansas will be O.K. no matter what, but for us to continue to compete at the level where we've been competing, and recruit at that level, I really believe that we need to be aligned with a BCS conference. It would be very disappointing to me if a team that's won three national championships, and is one of the three winningest programs in college basketball, wouldn’t be a part of a BCS conference.”
Depending on whom you believe, Texas was either going to stay in the Big 12 all along or Beebe’s 11th-hour wrangling gave the Longhorns the deal they wanted and convinced them to stay. Those in what is now known as the Pac-12 insist Texas officials pulled an okey-doke, negotiating as if they would sign over their rights to the Pac-16 only to pivot at the last minute and ask to keep third-tier rights so they could form what became the Longhorn Network. No matter which side is telling the truth, we know Texas accepted Beebe’s deal, as did everyone else. About 24 hours before the Big 12 would have begun to dissolve, it was saved.
The following spring, the league quadrupled its Tier 2 money when it signed a new deal with FOX. In June 2011, it announced that it would move to an equal revenue-sharing plan for first- and second-tier media rights. Beebe figured he had piloted the league out of its darkest chapter. Then, in July ’11, a radio interview in which ESPN executive Dave Brown discussed televising the games of Texas recruiting targets on the Longhorn Network sparked a meeting of Texas A&M’s board of regents. The Aggies who wanted to go to the SEC in ’10 had added to their numbers, and suddenly another defection became a very real possibility. The SEC wound up adding Texas A&M in September ’11. By the time the SEC officially snagged Missouri that November, Beebe was living that buyout life. In September ’11, Beebe was forced out following another dalliance by Oklahoma and Oklahoma State with the Pac-12. On the same day Oklahoma president David Boren announced Beebe’s resignation, the league announced that its members had agreed to a Grant of Rights—the pledge Beebe sought back in ’08. Tellingly, Missouri didn’t vote.
Beebe remains disappointed he couldn’t hold the original configuration of the Big 12 together, because he believes some of the schools that left simply fit better in the Big 12. He also believes the purely financial decision-making that defined realignment did, as he predicted, put college sports on the radar of government officials and enterprising attorneys. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist,” Beebe says.
Still, Beebe is glad he played a role in keeping the core of the Big 12 together. He shudders to think about what might have happened had the league splintered in 2010. “This part of the country, all of its significant institutions would have belonged to conferences somewhere else,” Beebe says. “If it all fell apart, the sad part is the ‘Flyover Zone’ would have been a true flyover zone.”
The rest of the college sports map might also have been radically redefined. Instead, the Big 12 remains among the nation’s wealthiest conferences. Oh, it’s the most dysfunctional of the bunch. But thanks in part to Beebe, at least it’s still there.