The Big 12, an athletic conference composed of 10 colleges from the Central U.S., may soon need to rebrand itself as the Big 8. The possible departure of two of its members — Texas A&M and the University of Oklahoma — may destabilize not only the Big 12, but also the college football landscape.
"There was a period of pretty intense speculation a year ago that there could be a seismic change in the makeup of college athletics — and then it didn't happen," says Malcolm Moran, director of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State. "One school — Texas A&M — has triggered all of this uncertainty and possibility of change again."
It's About Money And Status
At the end of the day, professors and sports commentators say, which conference a college aligns with boils down to money and prestige.
In April, Fox Sports agreed to pay $1.1 billion over 13 years to members of the Big 12 to air 40 football games. The deal placed it "at the highest levels in revenue streams in all of college athletics," Bill Byrne, Texas A&M athletic director, wrote shortly after the agreement was announced. Last July, three members of the Big 12 — Texas Tech, the University of Oklahoma and Texas A&M — demanded annual payouts of $20 million each.
It seemed that Texas A&M had been appeased by the Fox deal, but on Aug. 30, the president of Texas A&M, R. Bowen Loftin, issued a statement explaining that the school was leaving the Big 12 to "enhance [its] national visibility and future financial opportunity."
Texas A&M has been approved to join the Southeastern Conference, according to ESPN, though its admission is contingent on whether Oklahoma stays in the Big 12. On Monday, University of Oklahoma officials will meet to discuss whether the school will leave the Big 12 and what the legal risks may be.
What the University of Oklahoma decides in the coming days and weeks will affect not only Texas A&M's future, but the financial future of the Big 12 — if there continues to be a Big 12.
If Oklahoma decides to stay, the Big 12 is more likely to stay cohesive and able to recruit new members. Texas A&M's departure will be less of a blow — though maybe not a clean break.
The Big 12 will grant Texas A&M's request to waive legal claims for damages suffered from the membership change, according to a statement from Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe. However, he added, the Big 12 can't speak for its individual members, most of whom have yet to waive their legal right to sue Texas A&M and the SEC.
"If the departure of Texas A&M results in significant changes in the Big 12 membership, several institutions may be severely affected after counting on revenue streams from contracts that were approved unanimously by our members, including Texas A&M," Beebe wrote. "In some cases, members reasonably relied on such approval to embark on obligations that will cost millions of dollars."
'Geography No Longer Counts'
Athletic conferences, which originally began as a way to organize Division I football games by region, now look to expand their geographic reach to gain more viewers and favorable TV markets.
The addition of Utah and Colorado last summer, for example, gave the Pac-12 access to a different region and more viewers. The invitation extended to the University of Utah from what was then the Pac-10 was a historic move.
Meanwhile, the University of Colorado's departure coupled with the University of Nebraska's defection to the Big Ten left The Big 12 short two teams.
When the Pac-10 became the Pac-12 and colleges began to move to different conferences, the idea of superconferences with 16 or more members became popular. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott tried to create one in order to secure a lucrative TV contract. In May, Scott signed the richest deal in college sports to date: a $3 billion, 12-year deal with Fox and ESPN.
Observers like Moran say these moves represent a "giant mating dance taking place, except there's so much money at stake."
Now, everything is about positioning to get the best television and digital deals, Moran says, which "could be the difference between schools gaining or losing millions of dollars."
"The money is what's driving some of these schools and conferences," Frank Shorr, director of the Sports Institute at Boston University, says. "You saw it with Boston College moving from the Big East to ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference]. It seems as if geography no longer counts and traditional rivalries may very well go by the wayside."
The Big 12, Pac-12 and University of Oklahoma said they had no comment for this story.