Conference Realignment: The Big 12 Fires Back

Well, I thought that yesterday was going to be boring.

This is from SI’s Wilton Jackson and Ross Dellinger, where the Big 12 released a letter yesterday evening alleging ESPN of destabilizing the Big 12 Conference.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby claims that ESPN—a current media rights partner of the conference—has taken actions to not only “harm” the league, but actions that “result in financial benefits for ESPN.”

The letter also states that ESPN is currently violating Section 20.2(c) of the Telecast Agreement with the Big 12 that states the network will not “take any actions likely to impair, or [that are] inconsistent with the rights of the league under the agreement.”

ESPN has denied the allegations.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby was a bit more clear in additional quotes to Pete Thamel:

“What pushed me over the top was a couple of days ago when it became known to me that ESPN had been working with one or more other conferences and even providing incentives for them to destabilize the Big 12 and approach our members about moving away and providing inducements for the conference to do that. That’s tortious interference with our business. It’s not right. I wouldn’t state this if I didn’t know it was absolutely true.

There’s a lot of attorneys who make a lot more money than me that know a lot more about this stuff, but generally speaking, I think ESPN has issues with how this has been handled. The news has always been that UT and OU have been negotiating with ESPN for the better part of the year and we also know that UT and OU have been part of Big 12 meetings for that year.

If it is also true that ESPN approached a Big 12 university to become a member of the AAC, which is possibly Kansas State, but we’ve been told it was 3 to 5 schools, enough schools to terminate the ability for the rest of the Big 12 to receive damages from UT and OU for getting out of their grant of rights before 2025.

Additionally, this essentially also creates issues for ESPN if they facilitated these conversations and if the Big 12 member then confirmed it or has emails, materials, etc. from ESPN, then this is pretty problematic for ESPN.

Late last night CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodds reported that the AAC was actually trying to poach all 8 remaining institutions. In fact, The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach actually reported that this was going to happen 5 days ago (you can read the free portion that gets the idea of it).

Why would ESPN do this? Basically, we know that the AAC makes a fraction of what the Big 12 or ESPN makes. Let’s say that the per team payout for AAC members is $7 million. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but let’s just say that it is. While the Big 12 pays out $35 million per school (again, these are just figures out of the air, I’m not looking up these figures). What if ESPN told the AAC and these Big 12 schools that they would increase the payout to the AAC schools to $15 million per school. ESPN saves money because OU and UT can move to the SEC quicker and mitigate the damages because the Big 12 is no longer in existence and pay out less to the remaining Big 12, which I’ve read reports that the penalty is basically going to be paid by ESPN and the leftover money paid owed to Texas for the Longhorn Network.

I’d also add that there are some anti-competitive practices going on with ESPN (perhaps) in addition to breaching any contractual rights with UT and OU and of course tortious interference with contractual rights, which I think is a very valid cause of action here.

Although Max Olson’s article is behind a paywall, Bowlsby was very clear:

I understand the pressure that the broadcasters are under. they have huge rights fees and they have a cable architecture that is crumbling. it’s gone down 3, 4, 5 percent a year and it’s gonna continue until it gets way lower than what it is today. What has been a very lucrative financial model is now declining rapidly. So I understand why they’re trying to get out of rights fees and trying to look for economies and maybe even why they might be articulating moves like OU and Texas to the SEC. But there’s certain things you can do that are right and there are certain things you can’t do that are wrong. This is across the line. They’ve been accused of it previously and bristled. But I can tell you, I wouldn’t be saying these things if I wasn’t absolutely certain

You’re likely saying that if it gets to that point, everyone will just lie, but there will be Freedom of Information Act requests and if things are in writing through emails obtained through discovery, then perjury becomes an issue and none of this is worth going to jail over.

If this post is all over the place, that’s because it is. I’m sure that Texas and Oklahoma thought that they would be playing in the SEC by next year, pay the exit fee with ESPN”s money, ESPN is paying the remaining 8 teams less money as is FOX and everyone goes on their merry way. The remaining 8 aren’t having any of that and my expectation is that they’ll come to a figure and then basically wait it out until then. UT and OU can’t technically go until 2025 unless they pay damages and now that the Big 12 has ESPN in their crosshairs (who is probably out as a television partner moving forward), it’s going to be interesting to say the least.

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