Strange Bedfellows

 

Strange Bedfellows

The Big 12 tries to keep its uncomfortable relationship together

At the downtown Dallas Omni Hotel at 8 a.m. on a Monday, animals crowd the concourse outside the third-floor ballroom. Kansas’ mascot, Baby Jay, rifles through a woman’s purse as she tries to eat breakfast. Later, Baby Jay will steal the prop gun from Pistol Pete, Oklahoma State’s mascot. Superfrog looks like a Pokemon character in a purple TCU jersey as he goofs around with Hook ’Em. Out here is the manifestation of the fan experience—the warm, lighthearted side of college athletics.

But inside the cavernous ballroom, where the state of the conference will soon be dissected from every possible angle, men in suits with enamel Big 12 pins on their jackets run the show. Everything feels oddly cold and distant from the frivolity outside. The Big 12 Conference Championship game, added in June for the 2017 football season, is referred to as a “13th data point.” The college presidents who compose the Big 12 board, meeting the following day, are called CEOs. Sexual assault at Baylor will later be termed “misbehavior” by the school’s new football coach Jim Grobe.

Big 12 Football Media Days is meant to be a kickoff before the kickoff, to get members of the media—and by extension the fans—ready for some gridiron action. But directly beneath the surface, shifting tectonic plates have the 20-year-old conference teetering on the edge.

As college athletics prepares for another possible realignment, the strife inside the Big 12 is made even more glaring. Old grudges between the Southwest Conference and Big Eight, which combined in 1996 to form the Big 12, remain unsettled. The smaller schools still lag behind in both revenue and influence. And Texas, with its own television network, stands in the way of an increasingly lucrative conference-wide network like the other conferences have.

With the Big 12’s television grant of rights expiring at the end of 2025, member schools will have a chance to re-evaluate whether to remain in the conference. That means there’s an expiration date on a conference that has already just narrowly escaped death.

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If any of this sounds familiar, it should. The Southwest Conference was born more than 100 years ago just three blocks away from where the Big 12 Conference is meeting. In the early days of collegiate athletics, universities fielded teams and scheduled games, meets, and matches without adherence to a single governing body. In 1906, with an assist from President Teddy Roosevelt, the organization that would eventually become the NCAA was formed. The fledgling body acted as a glorified town hall and rule-making entity for years (far from the draconian monolith it is today). As far as scheduling and championships went, colleges were on their own.

In 1914, Texas athletics director L. Theo Bellmont, eyeing an opportunity to band local universities together, did what great leaders did back then: He wrote a letter. He mailed it to major schools in Texas and its bordering states, enticing many of them to meet that May at the now-demolished Oriental Hotel. Together, a core group of Texas, Baylor, Arkansas, Southwestern, and Oklahoma met with Texas A&M, LSU, and Oklahoma A&M (now known as Oklahoma State) to set rules for their new group, called the Southwest Intercollegiate Conference. A gauntlet was thrown: no money for college athletes. None. In fact, Bellmont’s letter to the heads of these schools referred to the scourge of “tramp athletes” plaguing intercollegiate athletics at the time. On Dec. 8, the group met again at the Rice Hotel in Houston, and the SWC was officially formed, the charter members being all the schools from the Oriental Hotel meeting except LSU. Rice was granted conditional membership.

Over the next 81 years, teams came and went. But in the September 1974 issue of Texas Monthly, 22 years before the conference’s demise, the magazine had already declared the conference dead. The inequality between the state-school haves and the small private have-nots was ever-present by the early ’70s. The big schools were reaping the benefits of a more mobile society, recruiting athletes who strayed far from their hometowns. Attendance numbers dwindled at Baylor, Rice, SMU, and TCU, which drove a wedge straight through the conference.

“The Texas game, of course, is a gold mine for all of the private schools; A&M is a solid second, and Arkansas runs ahead of Texas Tech. But Texas is the big one,” Paul Burka wrote of the cash cow the state school matchups were for the privates. He went on to quote an unnamed Longhorn athletics department official as saying, “We’re subsidizing the conference,” a reference to the bowl game money Texas regularly split with the private schools who rarely, if ever, made it to the postseason on their own. Burka even foreshadowed something that, more than 40 years later, is still in the conversation.

“The search for more money, not a desire to play stronger opposition,” Burka wrote, “is behind the occasional talk of a Super Conference that would see Texas pulling out of the SWC to join an elite organization of the nation’s traditional football powers.”

By 1996, the last year of the SWC’s existence, the top three schools—Texas, Texas A&M, and the recently departed Arkansas—had won the same number of conference titles in football outright (41) as all other members combined, including shared titles. It was even more lopsided in baseball, with Texas winning the SWC 56 times outright in those 81 years, trailed by 10 wins for Texas A&M. The trend continued throughout most sports, both men’s and women’s. The conference was by then so top-heavy it had to come crashing down.

And it did, formally in 1996, though it was done for long before then. SMU’s so-called “death penalty” canceling both the 1987 season (by force) and 1988 season (voluntarily) was a major blow to an already limping SWC. Arkansas leaving in 1991 for the SEC didn’t help. Neither did rumblings that Texas was jettisoning the conference for the Pac-10—sound familiar?—during SWC meetings in 1993, according to former A&M coach R.C. Slocum in a 2015 interview. The latter caused A&M to ask SEC commissioner Roy Kramer to conduct a poll on its behalf. Turns out the SEC has been open to the idea of adding an agricultural school to its roster since Bill Clinton’s first term.

The Big 12 came about because of two very notable Texans meeting to make sure the rivals stayed together—and bringing some of their friends along for the ride. Spurred on by the request of then-Governor Ann Richards and Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, leaders at Texas and Texas A&M met on short notice, according to Slocum. By the end of the meeting it was decided that the two monoliths wouldn’t be going anywhere without Baylor and Texas Tech. Richards was a Baylor alumna. Bullock held degrees from both Baylor and Tech.

In March 1994, Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, and Baylor jumped off the sinking ship and landed safely with the Big Eight, which would expand to become the Big 12. The other schools, with nowhere to go, were relegated to the Western Athletic Conference and Conference USA.

“It’s like a good friend dying,” former Texas Tech coach Spike Dykes told the Dallas Morning News on the 20-year anniversary of the final SWC football season.

The writer of the piece, Brad Townsend, went a little further, calling the end of the SWC a “politically charged, backstabbing family feud.”

There are moments—some say it’s happening right now—when the Big 12 has been in a period of similar Shakespearean drama.

But it wasn’t always like this. From its inception in 1996 to the end of the aughts, things were relatively copacetic, with zero movement from member institutions. While not an overtly dominant conference, three Big 12 teams—Nebraska in 1997, Oklahoma in 2000, and Texas in 2005—took crystal footballs back to campus. Kansas overtook Memphis in thrilling fashion to win the 2008 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Texas continued to thrive under the tutelage of men’s swimming and diving coach Eddie Reese, winning a staggering seven NCAA titles since the Big 12 formed. Colorado dominated in both men’s and women’s cross country on a national level. Laugh if you will, but Nebraska established itself as a legitimate powerhouse in the field of women’s bowling.

“It would have been good to keep it all together,” Beebe says on the phone from the offices of the Dan Beebe Group, a consulting firm that works with athletic teams and organizations in the field of human relations risk management. “I don’t have any villains to point to.”

As a college sports lifer who got his start in 1982 as a member of the NCAA’s enforcement team, Beebe knows a thing or two about risk management. In 1987, as director of enforcement, he oversaw the levying of the harshest punishment in college sports history: SMU’s famed “death penalty” for maintaining a decade-long slush fund for its football players. The once-mighty Mustangs have never fully recovered.

He was also the commissioner of the Big 12 from 2007-11, presiding over the Power Five conferences during their most tumultuous period yet—the realignments of 2010-11. This was a dramatic change in the landscape of major college sports, from the deep-South SEC to frozen Midwestern tundras of the Big Ten. In 2010, six schools, including Texas, almost left for what is now the Pac 12, which would have ended the Big 12 in an instant. Only Nebraska and Colorado were lost. The following year, Texas A&M and Missouri joined the SEC, signaling perhaps another look at a mass exodus, another one that Beebe helped to avoid.

Former West Virginia athletics director Oliver Luck once likened this period to anarchy, a “free-for-all” with “scratching and clawing,” not unlike kids fighting on a playground without parental supervision.

Beebe seems resigned to the outcome. It happened. It almost worked out. It could have been much worse.

Whichever version is more true, to call what happened more than six years ago a “conference realignment” is like calling the San Andreas Fault a sidewalk crack. Century-old rivalries died when the Big Ten and Big 12 were violently shaken up. Strict geographical location no longer mattered, like, for example, when San Diego State accepted and later reneged on an invitation to join the Big East before that conference was lobotomized.

Once again, the Big 12 finds itself at the precipice of something—forgive me—big. And twice, the Big 12 has walked toward the light while on its deathbed, only to snap awake at the last second.

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This all has roots in—what else?—television money.

The Big 12 lagged behind in television money as the 2010s approached. Locked into a $480 million deal with ABC/ESPN that was set to expire after 2015-16 year, teams looked at the SEC’s recently signed multibillion-dollar deals and hungrily awaited the next cash windfall while also weighing their options in other conferences.

In 2007, Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg stepped down after years of trying—and failing—to sell the conference on a television network. Weiberg left the Big 12 to help launch the Big Ten Network, followed by the Pac 12 Network.

“In the Big 12, there wasn’t a willingness to participate in the common conference approach,” Weiberg told The Oklahoman in 2015. “You lose a little bit of the glue that holds a conference together.” Existing television revenue at this time was also split unequally, with four schools—guess which—demanding more money because, naturally, they were bigger draws.

His successor, Beebe, tried the same and failed. Texas struck a deal with ESPN in 2010 to form the Longhorn Network, the only single-school network in the nation besides the school-owned BYUtv. The deal was for 20 years and $295 million. It is now lopsided considering that, as of December 2015, it’s reported that LHN had lost an estimated $48 million. Additionally, it has positioned Texas as a villain to the rest of the conference. Once again, Texas came out on top (financially, at least), and this time, it may have killed the dream of a conference network once and for all.

“I knew then that conference-wide was not going to happen, but it wasn’t just Texas that was wanting to distribute games by its own vehicle,” Beebe says. “LHN wasn’t there yet, but those schools all were wanting to have their own institutional distribution systems. We had to accommodate that.”

Beebe acknowledges the benefits of a single-school network—that Texas can control the distribution of its own athletic content, for example, choosing to highlight the less-popular Olympic and women’s sports on a major network—though he also mentions that the conference-wide networks have become very lucrative in recent years. All 14 schools in the SEC received $31.2 million in television money in 2014—up $11 million from the previous year, and $9.4 million more than Big 12 schools each got. In May, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the two-year-old SEC Network is valued at $4.77 billion. At this point, in order for the only major college conference without its own network to get in on the big money, Texas would have to end its agreement with ESPN. As per the terms of the contract, Texas cannot license content to another network, thus any Big 12-centric network would have to survive without the biggest team in the conference. And with a royalty owed to the school averaging at least $15 million per year until the early 2030s, that’s incredibly unlikely.

Another major sticking point is expansion, an issue over which Texas and Oklahoma had been at odds this spring. Oklahoma president and Big 12 board of directors chairman David Boren has been the most vocal proponent of adding more teams to the conference.

The way it works in the Big 12 is that the member presidents sit on the board of directors and cast votes themselves. While Greg Fenves has final say in Texas’ vote in those meetings, Texas AD Mike Perrin says that the two are very collaborative and that Fenves has always been available to him.

While Fenves and the rest of the board are not talking about the specifics of expansion right now, the UT-Austin president did agree to speak in general terms about what the Big 12—and Texas—is looking for in potential new partners.

“It’s a decision you don’t want to enter into lightly,” Fenves says. “There are major implications. We’re taking a deliberate approach.” He rattles off what he calls “not even an exhaustive” list of criteria, including academic quality, support for athletics, market share, athletic budgets, and facilities. “Any decision on expansion has long-term consequences. It’s not just what’s good for the next year or two,” Fenves says. “It’s the next 20-30 years.”

With a vote—and an influential one at that—at the table in Dallas the week after our conversation, Fenves and the board granted permission for Bowlsby to contact schools interested in joining the Big 12—and not just to make the “Big 12” a literal term. A 14-team Big 12 is also on the table, though a UT source indicated that expansion is no guarantee. The same source also said that if expansion happens, it could happen “very quickly.”

In May, Perrin was quoted as saying, “I think the prudent thing for us to do as a conference is stay where we are.”

In his office on the seventh floor of DKR–Texas Memorial Stadium, Perrin clarifies what he meant back then.

“I’m not in favor of expansion just for expansion’s sake. If we expand, I want it to be additive to the conference, but certainly in the best interest of the University of Texas,” Perrin says. “I’ve got to worry about the students. I’ve got to worry about the parents, fans, faculty, alumni, coaches, and players. What if we draw someone who only has a 40,000-seat stadium? What about the television contracts?”

Perrin is also a bit more careful on expansion because, while the big money is in football, he’s responsible for an entire athletics department.

“Everybody focuses on football. Look at basketball. Seven of our men’s teams and six of our women’s teams made it to the (NCAA) tournament because we play a double round robin each season. If you expand, it’s hard to do that,” Perrin says. “Baseball, if you’ve got a three-game series at the end of a week, that’s hard. It’s not just a calendar item like some people think it is.”

Perrin gives me an extreme example of the myopia of the common fan. He got an email in the middle of a game week last year from a man who was dismayed that the Formula 1 race and Texas football games were occurring at the same time. It was only Wednesday, the letter read. Couldn’t he simply move the game to Saturday evening?

“The casual fan says, ‘Schedule them!’ It’s much bigger than that,” Perrin says. When it comes to expansion specifically, Perrin is concerned with academics, fanbases, seating capacity, revenues on a repetitive basis, and travel, among other things. And he doesn’t even have the strongest voice at Texas.

Supporters of expansion argue that it makes sense for the Big 12 for a few reasons. One, it can deliver certain markets to the conference. Houston is the fourth-largest city in America. UConn gives the Big 12 a presence in the northeast. Another is the prestige other schools can provide to the conference. BYU resembles something of a football powerhouse among the schools rumored to be interested, having won a national championship as recently as 1984. Tulane, though small (13,449 total enrollment in fall 2015) is academically the best fit, and would give the Big 12 its fourth member of the Association of American Universities, joining Texas, Iowa State, and Kansas in the organization of leading research institutions. Other universities, like Cincinnati, SMU, Memphis, and Central Florida, among others, have either shown interest or been linked as possible new members.

The main reason, as it always does, pertains to money. With 10 teams in the conference, the Big 12 plays 75 football games per year. That number rises to 90 games with 12 teams, and 105 if the Big 12 adds four new teams to the conference. The grant of rights deal that the Big 12 extended in 2012 with ABC/ESPN and Fox will need to be renegotiated before the end of 2025. With a larger inventory of football games, the first-tier television rights numbers can balloon to larger numbers per school. Quantity trumps quality here. That eight-year window also—purportedly—keeps the Big 12 together, as teams leaving before the grant of rights expires lose their share of the pie. One consideration—a big one at that—is Fox and ESPN’s apparent reluctance to shell out an estimated combined $40-80 million per year to an expanded Big 12 without any new Power Five conference teams, according to a recent story in the Sports Business Journal. At press time, no schools from the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, or Pac-12 have been linked to Big 12 expansion.

Days after the vote, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted that he wholeheartedly supported adding old Southwest Conference pal the University of Houston to the Big 12: “Big 12 expansion is a non-starter unless it includes University of Houston,” Abbott wrote. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Houston native, chimed in with support as well. Fenves later tweeted that he supported “considering” Houston for the conference, calling UH “a huge asset for Texas.” This is astonishingly similar to Richards and Bullock’s meeting in the mid-90s on behalf of Baylor and Tech.

In November of last year, the UT System announced a purchase of 332 acres of real estate in southwest Houston, angering UH officials. A story in the Austin American-Statesman the same day alleged that the support for the Cougars could be part of a deal between the two universities—UH gets entry into the Big 12, and UT gets to build a campus in the fourth-largest city in the country without opposition from UH. State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) said “hell no” to that notion, however, in the same article. “[UT and UH] are separate and apart.”

It’ll be difficult to prove which is true. Either way, Texas is showing that it supports the state’s political leadership. As history has shown, in the world of football, if that’s what Texas ultimately decides it wants, it’ll get it.

For now, at least, the Big 12 lives on. Bowlsby tells me that the perceived gap in television money from the SEC and Big Ten is overblown—each Big 12 school received more than $30 million per institution from football rights last season, he says—though this doesn’t take into consideration the new ACC Network and a windfall of cash coming to Big Ten member schools after renegotiation of its first-tier television rights in April. Oklahoma made the college football playoff in 2015, adding a bit of clout to the conference. The conference championship game will add even more revenue, in the neighborhood of $2-3 million per school per year, and, everyone hopes, will help avoid a reoccurrence of the situation in 2014, when both Baylor and TCU missed out on the college football playoff as co-champions of the conference. They’re small victories—the Longhorn Network still blocks a conference-wide network, Baylor’s future is still uncertain, and the Big 12 hasn’t won a national title in football since Texas in 2005—but they’re victories nonetheless.

On the second morning of Big 12 Football Media Days, the animals band together to make an entrance. Bounding out of the elevator and into the ballroom concourse, all 10 mascots cheerfully stroll past the onlookers. From Baby Jay to Willie the Wildcat, they’re all wearing matching white robes, as if the 10 of them rolled out of a giant bed just minutes beforehand. Whether or not there’s room for more in a bed that is already pretty uncomfortable remains to be seen.

Illustration by Zohar Lazar

Photos (from top): Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowslby speaks with reporters at the Big 12 Football Media Days on July 18 in Dallas; © Ron T. Ennis/TNS via Zuma Wire

Sean Hollister puts up the final mannequin as event staff break down the 2015 Big 12 Football Media Days on July 21 in Dallas; Credit: G.J. McCarthy/The Dallas Morning News

 

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