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Notes From a Big Week on the Conference Realignment Fron

As long as media rights revenue continues to be the driving force behind the business of college athletics, conference realignment is never going away. Sure, many of the big-time brands across the country might be settled comfortably for the foreseeable future. But schools are always looking to move up the food chain into a bigger conference with bigger media deals.

With that being said, the past week featured a couple of significant developments on the realignment front. One was about a move we’ve already known about for a while and the other pertained to a potential expansion candidate for a power conference.

First, let’s hit what we already know. In the summer of 2021, it was announced that Texas and Oklahoma would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC no later than the summer of 2025 (when the Big 12 media at the time deal expired). In the ensuing 18 months, there was optimism that the two schools could negotiate an exit deal to join the SEC a year early in 2024. That seemed to make sense, given 2024 will be the first edition of the expanded 12-team College Football Playoff and the first year of USC and UCLA in the Big Ten.

However, just because something “seems right” or “feels right” doesn’t mean it can easily happen, especially when television networks, media contracts, and grant of rights are involved. As recently as last week, cold water was thrown on the possibility of Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC before the conclusion of the expiration of the Big 12’s current media deal with Fox and ESPN. Reports suggested that Fox was demanding a return to make its future programming whole, including a top-tier selection of games years into the future given the attractive inventory of Texas and OU leaving its airwaves early.

With hindsight being 20/20, it appeared like those rumors of negotiations being “stalled” were just action items to push the agreement over the finish line because it was recently announced that Texas and Oklahoma will in fact be joining the SEC in 2024.

According to Ross Dellenger of Sports Illustrated, as part of the agreement, the two school’s annual distributions from the Big 12 will be deducted and “be distributed to the eight Big 12 legacy universities to offset an expected decrease in their 2024 conference revenue.” In addition, while “details of any Fox and ESPN agreement were unclear, Fox is expected to receive additional inventory or compensation for the loss of the two schools in ’24.” In fact, Dellenger later clarifies that “in the end, the deal did include a previously scheduled non-conference match-up swap between Michigan and Texas. Texas will now play at Michigan in 2024 (which presumably will air on Fox) and UM will play at Texas in 2027. They were originally scheduled the opposite.

Many lawyers were involved, but give credit to the two schools, Fox, ESPN, the Big 12, and the SEC for finding compromise amid the complexity. It’s best for all the involved parties to move on and begin planning for the future. The SEC’s focus will be onboarding the two schools and adjusting their scheduling model. The Big 12 will be welcoming in their new members (BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF) and potentially exploring future expansion. More on that in a moment.

The other significant development this week was that George Kliavkoff, the commissioner of the Pac-12, visited SMU in Dallas. Compared to the other power conferences, the Pac-12’s future is the most uncertain. With a new media deal yet to be announced and the two Los Angeles schools departing in 2024, what the Pac-12 looks like in five years is up in the air.

I wrote back in October that “The expectation of many is that the Pac-12 will stay intact, but until a media rights deal with a strong grant of rights is signed, nothing is 100% certain” as it pertained to the threat of Big 12 poaching the “four corners” schools (Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah) along with Oregon and Washington being potential Big Ten candidates down the road. Four months later, nothing has changed on that front which has raised the level of urgency out west.

So what does Kliavkoff’s visit to SMU mean? Well, it’s a pretty strong indication that the Pac-12 feels like they need to expand to garner a more lucrative media deal. In addition to San Diego State (another rumored expansion target), which would get the Pac-12’s footprint back into Southern California, the potential addition of SMU would break into the Dallas-Fort Worth market.

In addition to all the eyeballs and television sets in the DFW metroplex, SMU brings strong academics and a wealthy alumni base that’s shown a willingness to invest in facilities and NIL initiatives. Yes, the football program hasn’t been quite the same since it unjustifiably received the “Death Penalty” in the 80s, but coaches like June Jones, Chad Morris, Sonny Dykes, and now Rhett Lashlee have rebuilt SMU into a strong Group of 5 programs in the country over the past fifteen years.

Although the Mustangs would likely jump at the chance to join the Pac-12, it’s no secret they’d prefer the Big 12. The geography makes sense and the opportunity to compete against former Southwest Conference foes like TCU, Baylor, Texas Tech, and Houston would draw bigger crowds for a program that struggles to fill its stadium on a weekly basis. However, the Big 12 has thrown the cold shoulder at the Mustangs ever since its founding in the 1990s.

All of this is connected though, because according to Dellenger’s SI article, after negotiating OU & Texas’ exit, the Big 12 and commissioner Brett Yormark are expected to ‘aggressively pursue’ further expansion. Expansion is the third of three goals that Yormark set for his first year in office: 1 TV deal; 2 OU/Texas exit; 3 Further expansion.” He’s accomplished the first two. Now it’s onto the third. Does the Pac-12’s lack of a new deal to this open the door for Yormark to convince Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah to jump to his league that already has a solid media deal? Does he go big and talk to Oregon or Washington? Did negotiating the Texas/OU early exit help in those pursuits? That’s yet to be seen.

Conference realignment is inherently a topic that generates no shortage of rumors and speculation. At the end of the day, there are very few people that know what’s going on at any given point. Instead of scrolling through Twitter or message boards, I would encourage everyone to follow great writers such as Jon Wilner, John Canzano, Ross Dellenger, Dennis Dodd, and The Athletic college football staff. The future of the Pac-12 hinges on their ability to ink a strong media deal in the immediate future. Let’s see if George Kliavkoff and the company can do it.

Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5

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