News on Friday that Oklahoma and Texas have been looking to leave the Big 12 Conference for 6-7 months seemed surprising at first, but can easily be traced back to one thing.
The timeline over the past two years is clear and revealing.
In September 2012, the Big 12 signed what it called “monumental” agreements — 13-years, $2.6 billion — with ESPN and Fox Sports.
Those deals were applauded as it would pay each Big 12 school $20 million annually.
Commissioner Bob Bowlsby called it “a monumental day,” and for a conference that over the previous two years was on life support, it was.
But recently, as the end of that contract approached and other leagues began landing astronomical television deals, Oklahoma and Texas began asking themselves — and each other — if they could do better, a source told SI Sooners.
On Dec. 11, ABC/ESPN announced a landmark 10-year, $3 billion deal with the SEC, snatching away from CBS what little SEC inventory the Disney conglomerate didn’t already own. That's for one game a week in addition to the SEC-on-ESPN/ABC games already in place.
Oklahoma and Texas took notice.
That move had come on the heels of ESPN signing a new deal — a 20-year agreement — to carry Atlantic Coast Conference programming and the ACC Network. The network was announced in 2016 and launched in August 2019.
Over the course of those five months, Oklahoma and Texas realized what was happening and began to examine their options, an OU source said.
Those options included application for membership in the SEC and application for membership in the Big Ten. The source believed Texas' options also included independent affiliation as a third alternative, possibly even ahead of remaining in the Big 12.
Then came last May.
The ACC announced on May 21 a record $497.2 million distribution to its members thanks largely to the launch of ESPN’s ACC Network. Terms were not disclosed for that deal, which runs through 2036, but the league revenue jumped from $288 million the previous year to $332.8 million.
While that was happening, the Big 12 crossed its fingers and made a phone call.
As per usual with relationships between collegiate conferences and television networks, the Big 12 reached out to its media partners to initiate the renegotiation process ahead of the 2024-25 expiration of the league’s existing contracts. Historically, those renegotiations informally begin to take shape two to three years ahead of the expiration of the current deals.
But according to a May 25 report in the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, the Big 12’s TV partners were “not yet ready to discuss an extension beyond the current deal.”
With four years still remaining, ESPN and Fox didn’t find value yet in extending the existing contract with Big 12 schools.
The Avalanche-Journal reported that Big 12 presidents, chancellors and athletic directors attended a virtual conference with a “media consulting group” it had enlisted months before, according to Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec.
Schovanec was part of a three-man committee with Texas president Jay Hartzell and West Virginia president Gordon Gee that would determine “whether we should consider acting preemptively with regard to our TV contract, or just waiting and going into free agency when that contract is up in 2025.”
“Our partners, ESPN and Fox,” Schovanec told the newspaper, “are not interested in acting preemptively with regard to our contract. They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty.”
In February, the SEC had announced it was distributing a record $657.7 million for fiscal year 2019-20, or almost $47 million per school.
But on May 26, the Big 12 announced revenue distribution of $34.5 million per school — down for the second year in a row.
That was all Oklahoma and Texas needed to see, but it wasn’t necessarily the final straw for Oklahoma.
On May 27, Fox Sports and the Big 12 announced that OU’s Sept. 18 home game with Nebraska would kick off at 11 a.m., on the heels of the network’s “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show.
OU athletic director Joe Castiglione issued a statement saying he was “bitterly disappointed” that a non-conference game he had worked so hard to obtain and promote as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1971 "Game of the Century," was not accorded a prime time television slot.
In the span of five days in May, the ACC announced record earnings thanks to its partnership with ESPN, the Big 12’s request to open renegotiations was rebuffed, the Big 12 announced lower earnings for the second year in a row, and Castiglione’s impassioned plea to make OU-Nebraska a prime time event was shot down.
That was all Oklahoma and Texas needed.
The Sooners and Longhorns — already having begun the machinations of exploring conference membership elsewhere months earlier — saw that the existing TV partners would not overpay for a new deal in 2025 (if they paid at all), and immediately knew that the Big 12’s television inventory and media footprint would not command top dollar on the open market.
So a strategy for leaving the Big 12 was formulated, and came to a rapid conclusion this week when Texas A&M learned of the SEC’s plans and leaked the story in an effort to quash it.
It was reported Friday by the Austin American-Statesman that Texas A&M had been intentionally left out of the loop because SEC leadership knew the Aggies would object and might even try to block the SEC’s addition of OU and UT.
That came to fruition this week when A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told reporters at SEC Media Days that his school didn’t want to be in a conference with Texas.
When the Big 12 staged an emergency virtual meeting with ADs and CEOs on Thursday evening, and Oklahoma and Texas declined to attend, it was all but official: the Sooners and Longhorns were leaving and had no interest in trying to patch things up with the Big 12.
Now the college football world awaits what seems like the inevitable: OU and Texas formally applying for membership into the SEC.
It is widely speculated that the Sooners and Longhorns will gain the necessary 11 votes from the 14 SEC members. To block the move, however, A&M would need to flip only three schools.
OU and Texas are expected to formally apply by Monday or Tuesday of next week, although CBS Sports reported that the schools could “declare their intent to leave the Big 12 as soon as 24-48 hours.”