For two weeks in June the entire country held its collective breath, waiting for a shift in conference alignment that could shake the foundation of college athletics.
When the dust settled, four conferences looked very different than they did going into the month of June.
The University of Nebraska left the Big 12 Conference to join the Big 10 Conference, the University of Utah and the University of Colorado left the Mountain West and Big 12 Conference respectively to join the Pac-10 Conference, and Boise State University left the Western Athletic Conference to join the Mountain West.
The conference affected the most by the shuffle of teams was the Big 12 conference, which at one point was on the brink of extinction, but ended up only losing two schools to other conferences after a merry-go-round of negotiations.
So why did this all happen in the first place? Travis Stewart, managing editor, new media for Texas Football Magazine, said that the main factor is money.
“I think one of the main factors behind it (realignment) is that more and more schools and conferences are finding there is a lot of money to be had in TV,” Stewart said. “The Big 12 is in an interesting geographic location where most of the other conferences can cherry pick out of there pretty easily. If the Pac-10, SEC, or Big 10 want to add a school, they’re most likely looking at the Big 12 because it’s such a close geographic partner.”
Stewart Mandel, a college football writer for Sports Illustrated, covered the realignment saga for SI.com and wrote in a June 15 column about how, while this was a very shocking development, it wasn’t a new trend.
“Granted, none of this is new,” Mandel wrote. “The dollar figures are higher today, but television has been driving conference alignments and realignments for more than two decades now. What's troubling, though, is that the way the sport's power brokers went about preserving the status quo revealed just how little they care about the average fan.”
A Near Death Experience
On June 3, a rumor was reported on Orangebloods.com, a website of the Texas Longhorns that is run through the larger group, Rivals.com, that there was a possibility that the Pac-10 was going to raid half of the Big 12 teams.
In one day, the Big 12 lost two of its members, Nebraska and Colorado, had confirmed reports that four others, Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State, were planning on leaving for the Pac-10 Conference, and had reports that Texas A&M was in serious discussions about joining the Southeastern Conference.
Two days later all the reports that had been so set in stone came crashing down. The schools that had been looking at joining the Pac-10 conference, led by Texas, came back to the table and began to discuss ways to preserve the Big 12 conference as a 10-team conference.
Mandel wrote in the aforementioned column that the fact that Texas would not have been able to start its own television network in the Pac-10 may have totally saved the Big 12 and thus prevented a huge shift in college football conference alignment.
“Think about that for a second: An extra few million in Texas' pockets could have been the difference between relative order and utter chaos for the entire college sports landscape,” Mandel wrote.
Texas Tech University was another of the schools that was at the forefront of the potential conference shift, but university president Dr. Guy Bailey said that the main goal was to stay in the same conference as their natural rivals.
“It wasn’t so much that we were pushing the change or at the forefront of it;” Bailey said, “we were simply, based on the instability of the conference at the time, open to hearing proposals of change. Our whole concern in all of this was preserving a conference structure where we played our natural rivals. The real money comes in when Texas and Oklahoma come here to play. We want Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State to come here every other year. That’s a big money deal for us.”
Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe had been working feverishly to save his conference since June 1 when he sent an email to all the conference members highlighting reasons to stay in the Big 12. Beebe hit the jackpot when ABC/ESPN agreed during the pivotal weekend of June 11 to hold steady in their television contract with the conference through its duration.
The ABC/ESPN commitment meant that the conference would still receive the same amount of money with 10 teams and no conference championship as it would with 12 teams and a conference championship. This meant an automatic boost in TV revenue for every school in the Big 12.
According to the Associated Press and Orangebloods.com, the five schools that had not been in on any realignment talks, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, and Baylor, all agreed to sacrifice their share of the buyout penalties that Nebraska and Colorado had to pay for leaving the conference to Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma.
This meant that, according to Orangebloods.com and other reports, with the buyout money and the TV deals, the three big schools would be making $20 million with the other seven schools making $14-$17 million, a substantial rise from the $8-$13 million each school was making at the time through their TV contract with Fox worth $78 million and ABC/ESPN worth $480 million.
However, after discussions with representatives of the five schools left out of realignment talks, it became apparent that these reports were not factually correct and a misinterpretation.
The Reaction of the Members
There were some serious discrepancies with the status of the schools in the Big 12 conference that were not being courted by other conferences in realignment talks.
“We were in constant touch with the people who mattered and our feeling was that there was no question that the University of Kansas was going to come out just fine in this and be part of a BCS conference,” Jim Marchiony, associate athletic director for external relations at the University of Kansas, said.
Kansas State athletic director John Currie said he was very confident that his university was not going to be lost in the shuffle and left without a home once all the dust had settled.
“There were institutions like Oklahoma that had more public options than Kansas State or Missouri, but we had options as well and our number one option the whole time was keeping the Big 12 together,” Currie said.
However, not all the institutions felt that way about the possibility of the Big 12 staying together. Jamie Pollard, athletic director at Iowa State University, spoke of a feeling of sadness that permeated everything on campus as they waited for the chips to fall.
“There was concern and disbelief that it happened so quickly,” Pollard said. “Overall, I would say sadness that this was happening and we didn’t really have control over it.”
During the realignment saga it was reported by much of the media that the Forgotten Five, Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, and Missouri, agreed to give Texas, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma their portion of the Nebraska and Colorado buyout penalty. That was not the case at all, contrary to nearly every report filed on the subject.
“What we did,” Pollard said, “was we looked at it and said if those schools needed money to be able to meet what they were getting offered from someone else, we would be willing to give up some of our revenue in order to keep the conference together.”
Stewart also added that sometimes it (the want to change conferences) boils down to the simplicity of two schools just not getting along, as was the case with Texas and Nebraska.
Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne had stated many times in the past that the power in the Big 12 had shifted south, both in performance and in commitment; he cited the Big 12 moving its offices to Irving and the Big 12 Championship being held in Cowboys Stadium in Arlington for multiple years in a row.
“I think over time Texas’ dominance in that conference wore on Nebraska who had previously been the top dog in the old Big 8,” Stewart said. “When those two personalities collided there was eventually so much friction that one or both were willing to do something major in order to fix that relationship.”
However, other people, including Iowa State’s Jamie Pollard, feel that the issue wasn’t a power issue at all.
“I don’t necessarily feel that the power shifted south, but I just think the southern schools had a run of significance,” Pollard said.
The Big 12 of Tomorrow
The future of the conference is very much up in the air. Many people felt that the Big 12 was a lot weaker on the other side of the realignment process because of the loss of a powerful school in Nebraska. Stewart said he feels that the conference will fragment within the next five years.
“There are not as many strong rivalries to hold it together,” Stewart said. “Eventually there will be overtures made from other conferences that people cannot resist. The Big 12, with all of its disharmony, would be the most likely to be cannibalized into other conferences.”
Members of the conference feel otherwise. Marchiony said that he and others within the conference are extremely optimistic about the future.
“I think the future is very strong,” Marchiony said. “We’re a tighter knit group than when this process started and I think everybody wants to see this conference succeed and we think there is no question that it will.”
Bob Burda, Big 12 associate commissioner for communications, said that the conference’s biggest focus for the immediate future is the formation of new television contracts in order to create greater revenue for the conference.
“One of the biggest things we have ahead of us is our future cable rights negotiation,” Burda said. “Our rights with FSN expire after the 2011-2012 season and our negotiations with them are in April. That will go a long way to determining our future revenues.”
Burda also pointed out that while the new contract with Fox was important, it was the current contract with ABC/ESPN that really saved the conference and brought members back to the table for discussions on its preservation.
“I think the biggest thing there was that ABC/ESPN said they would not ask for a reduction in rights fees from a 12 member conference to a 10 member conference,” Burda said. “So in essence our television rights for the 10 teams in the conference increased because there are now less dividers for the pie.”
As for the biggest question, the name of the conference, confusion reigns supreme. The Big 10 conference has 12 members now and the Big 12 conference will have 10 members beginning in 2011 now that Colorado and Nebraska have finalized the leaving arrangements.
The logical solution would be to switch names, but both conference names have become a brand over the course of their existence. Burda said that it was too early to tell if a change would be made.
“Obviously this will be our fifteenth year of existence,” Burda said, “so we have 15 years of equity in the Big 12 brand, so we will just be making a determination and hearing from our different constituents and focus groups as to how much equity is in the name of the Big 12 and if it warrants continuing under that name with 10 members or if there are more options that make more sense,”
Texas president Bill Powers has stated his confidence in the future of the Big 12 conference many times since this summer, but it was a quote of his that really defines what the status of the conference is.
At Texas’ press conference in June, at which the university announced that it would be remaining in the Big 12 conference, Powers said, "The way to make the conference stable is public, unequivocal statements of long-term commitment to the Big 12."
Nothing legally binds the conference together, so Powers statement truly is the only way to make the conference stable. However, after this summer there is obviously somewhat of a lack of a commitment from many of the schools in the conference.
The future of the Big 12 conference hangs on an edge. The edge of a fat television contract.