University of Oklahoma president David Boren says the Big 12 Conference should vote on implementing a league television network before considering expansion or a football championship game.
Isn’t that going about it backwards?
How can the Big 12 put forth a network if ESPN and Fox and other media partners considering a long-term investment in the league don’t even know which schools are in the league?
“I would say many members will see if there’s a great financial value to the network,” Boren said Thursday following a scheduled meeting of the OU board of regents in Norman. “If there is, then we have to expand. Then we start looking at how different things fit together.”
That sounds contrary to how the sports media business has evolved.
Which networks would be willing to spend millions of dollars on a television infrastructure for a 10-member conference in the current economic climate, especially knowing that those 10 members are actively exploring an expansion that could shift significantly to the west, to the east or to the southeast?
Boren said he thinks the Big 12 stands to make a lot more money with a Big 12 network beaming its programming into local cable systems, and he could be right.
“There’s the possibility,” he said, “we could be leaving substantial amounts of money on the table by not having a Big 12 network.”
But he could be wrong, too.
ESPN’s recent financial struggles have been well documented, so a Big 12 network is unlikely to be quite the cash cow that has dominated in the Southeastern Conference or the Big Ten Conference. Even if Fox is hiring away ESPN talent and the “Worldwide Leader” continues to make cutbacks, it’s safe to assume that Fox and NBC and others will cautiously examine the ESPN example and will be hesitant to throw around dollars just to broaden their own brand.
But even beyond a possible sports television recession, how could industry executives think it prudent to say yes to a Big 12 network if the Big 12 intends — someday soon, at that — to add BYU or Cincinnati or Connecticut or Colorado State or Memphis or Central Florida?
And why would Big 12 leadership accept the terms of a contract to carry programming in the Big 12 footprint if the Big 12 footprint is close to expanding into Salt Lake City or Cincinnati or New England or Denver or Memphis or Orlando?
Those are six of the top 50 television markets in the United States. Bringing two of them in — or four, or even all six — only adds to what TV networks can charge cable or satellite subscribers for a Big 12 network, and Big 12 schools are richer for it.
“Where do we stand on expansion? It depends on the answer to the first question (about a network),” Boren said. “… Then it comes down to what schools are available.
“We have another consulting group looking at all these schools — 80, 50, it’s a large number. All the schools that might be available — even some that probably wouldn’t be but might be, if you could find someone that wanted to change conferences that’s out there.”
Boren said he has received material from probably 25 schools about joining the Big 12.
Unless there are candidates from other Power 5 leagues — Arizona and Arizona State, for instance, or Florida State and Clemson, or maybe Notre Dame — then there are simply no ideal candidates for expansion.
“I, personally, don’t have any candidates if we reach that point,” Boren said.
So Boren wants a network first before diving into expansion. To that end, there remains a burnt orange elephant in the room: how to handle Texas’ contract with ESPN and the Longhorn Network.
Boren’s suggestion in January seems simple enough.
The implementation of a Big 12 network, he said then, could add $4-6 million to each school’s coffer. To “make Texas whole” — that is, to get Texas to agree to anything and join forces with the rest of the membership and partner on a Big 12 network — the other league members would earmark $1 million of their new revenue stream to give to Texas for the duration of the school’s contract with ESPN, which runs through 2031.
So add two schools to get to 12, give Texas $11 million a year off the top and the Longhorns’ own $4-6 million equals or surpasses their current LHN income of $15 million annually.
A bitter pill for the rest of the Big 12 swallow, yes, but one that gets Texas on board — if that’s the goal.
Keep in mind, every other Big 12 school also has a third-tier rights arrangement currently in place that would need to be untangled in order to form a more perfect Big 12 network. Boren said OU’s deal with Fox Sports pays about $5 million a year.
So everyone spinning their current deals into a Big 12 network comes with significant hurdles.
“I haven’t done research on the bylaws to know what can be forced,” Boren said, “but I know you can’t force any schools to give up their contracts with ESPN or FOX. They have those contracts and they’re enforceable.
“I love to do things quickly. I try to be decisive if I can be. But there are times you have to say, ‘Let’s gather all the information. Once we have all the information, let’s make an intelligent decision.’ The data is going to speak to me. My hunch is a Big 12 network will be advantageous to everybody in the conference. But my hunch might be wrong. You have to let the facts change your mind.”
Boren said the Big 12 won’t decide anything at its annual spring meetings in Irving, Texas, May 31-June 3. But league athletic directors and CEOs will attend more data presentations from consulting firms.
And no doubt at least one of those firms will say it’s a bad idea to put together a Big 12 network without knowing who, exactly, is in the Big 12.