The Big 12 is in a crisis. The Sun Belt's survival may offer lessons for a way out.
Let’s begin with a layman’s analysis.
A cartoon dog sits at a table enjoying a cup of coffee. Never mind that the room is engulfed in flames. Our jovial canine subject sips away unbothered. The dog smiles and says, “This is fine.”
This is quite far from fine.
Welcome back to conference realignment. Where a two-panel meme perfectly sums up the future of the Big 12 without Oklahoma and Texas. Both schools announced their intent to leave the conference on Monday and have since applied for SEC membership.
Bleak as it seems, there is a path forward for the Big 12’s eight remaining members. Leadership at Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech and West Virginia should look at the Sun Belt Conference as a case study in how to turn back oblivion.
The Sun Belt was left for dead just a decade ago. A casualty from the Big East’s football schools rebranding as the American Athletic Conference and raiding Conference USA. Since realignment always rolls downhill, C-USA lured Florida Atlantic, Florida International, North Texas and Western Kentucky away from the Sun Belt.
At the time, new frontiers mattered most. The thinking was conferences could demand a larger subscriber fee from cable providers by getting their marquee brands on in other television markets. Hence the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers while the SEC brought in Missouri and Texas A&M.
It was more about increasing the visibility of schools like Alabama and Ohio State than what these new affiliations brought with them.
Except that logic didn’t hold up at the Group of Five level. C-USA found itself irrelevant in Florida and Dallas/Fort Worth while the programs in those markets played awful football. Even now, the league has no discernable identity post expansion sans a bewildering media rights package that leaves its teams toiling in anonymity.
Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson went in a different direction, adding two tradition-rich powers from FCS in Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. While the footprint expanded to include Coastal Carolina, entrenched members like Arkansas State, Georgia State, Louisiana-Lafayette and Troy maximized their locations and resources to build successful programs.
Benson retired in 2019, leaving behind a conference nipping at the AAC's heels as the G5's best. The Sun Belt boasted 21 nonconference wins, including a 3-0 mark against the Big 12, while Coastal Carolina and Louisiana-Lafayette were each ranked at the end of the season. Television viewership increased by 135% in 2020, with seven games surpassing 1 million viewers.
Now the landscape has changed again. Cable systems lose more subscribers each year while viewers migrate to different platforms for their college football consumption. ESPN and Fox realize this, which makes the Big 12 a potential casualty in the competition between these networks.
Disney, which owns ESPN and ABC, paid $3 billion in December for the exclusive broadcast rights for SEC football beginning in 2024. ESPN also operates the SEC Network, ACC Network and Texas’ Longhorn Network.
Fox has television agreements with the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and exclusive rights to the Big Ten and Pac-12 championship games. The Big 12’s deals with ESPN and Fox expire in 2025, leaving Oklahoma and Texas free to join the SEC on Disney-owned platforms.
ESPN is essentially using realignment to counterprogram Fox, leaving no doubt once again who really runs college football. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby even accused the worldwide leader of enticing the remaining Big 12 schools to leave the conference.
The Big 12’s best chance at survival is sticking together — at least for now. Unless the college football oligarchs decide otherwise, the league can backfill from the AAC and the Mountain West while maintaining Power 5 status. College football is largely a consumer product, but the Sun Belt has shown playing the sport at a high level still matters.
While Big 12 schools each received $37.7 million in television revenue during the 2019-20 school year, that number will undoubtedly plummet without Oklahoma and Texas. Even with the drop off, those payouts may still be more lucrative than the $5.3 million each AAC member received this year.
On the field, a reconstituted Big 12 with Boise State, Central Florida, Houston and possibly an independent like BYU would expand the footprint and preserve a conference identity centered on high-powered offenses. Not to mention create compelling TV, which is ESPN’s endgame to begin with.
Maybe everything will be fine after all.
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