Tough luck, Baylor.
Never mind that the school has become a model for what college sports ought to be by winning games, graduating athletes, and building state-of-the-art facilities. The Baptist university in Waco was once so knee-deep in scandal that it represented the worst of this thing sports fans adore so much. And these days, Baylor is proof that a school can run a responsible athletic program and still be successful.
Now a little more than three months since the school won its first national championship in men’s basketball, the future of Baylor sports could not be more uncertain. Wednesday, reports surfaced that Texas and Oklahoma could join the Southeastern Conference—a move that, if successful, would leave what remains of the Big 12 in tatters.
If there’s no place for Baylor in a major conference, then college sports is as rotten as many fans and the NCAA’s harshest critics have always suspected. Baylor has seen this side of UT before. The Longhorns were ready to ditch the Southwest Conference until Ann Richards and her lieutenant governor, Bob Bullock, stepped in and saved their alma maters, Baylor and Texas Tech.
Here we go again.
Texas is ready to walk because, apparently, it believes it can do better than the Big 12. If you’re wondering how this gets Texas any closer to winning another national championship in football … it doesn’t. But Texas appears to have tired of its association with Iowa State, West Virginia, and Kansas State, among others. And if Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU are collateral damage, so be it. That would be the end of the Big 12, which won’t be viable without Texas and OU. So a decade after the last big conference shake-up, the scramble for new membership would resume.
In hindsight, this day probably has been inevitable, as more and more power and money has been consolidated in fewer and fewer places. That’s particularly true of the Big 12. After the departures of Texas A&M, Nebraska, Colorado, and Missouri between 2010 and 2013, the conference became an awkward patchwork of schools scattered around six states, with most teams that lacking the national appeal to generate strong enough television ratings (and revenues) to sustain championship-caliber programs. Take away Texas and Oklahoma and the Big 12 has no chance.
Perhaps most revealing is that after the Houston Chronicle broke the story on Wednesday afternoon, no one appeared to be in a hurry to deny it. Texas and OU issued similar-sounding statements consisting of brief, non-denial denials, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey did nothing to slow the rumor mill with: “No comment on that speculation.”
Perhaps the only revealing comment came from A&M athletics director Ross Bjork, who told ESPN’s Paul Finebaum: “There’s a reason why we left the Big 12. We wanted to have a stand-alone identity in Texas.” Bjork repeated that sentiment to reporters yesterday during the SEC’s football media days.
This is where it gets interesting. Only eleven of fourteen SEC member schools have to approve the move to make it happen. But within conferences, there’s an unspoken agreement that the school or schools in your state must approve of your membership. In this case, A&M is a definite no, so don’t start looking for those A&M-Texas tickets just yet.
On the other hand, Texas and Oklahoma bring the kind of national brand—along with ticket and merchandise sales and television viewers—that would grow a conference that is already monstrously successful. Does the SEC need the Longhorns and Sooners? It does not. But if these reports set off the next round of realignment, the college football landscape is probably headed toward four 16-team super conferences.
If Texas and OU don’t wind up in the SEC, the Big 10—less appealing geographically—would almost certainly welcome both. The SEC is ultimately going to add two teams, and if it’s looking for new members who’re likely to make the conference even richer than it already is, then it won’t find two better candidates than these. Expansion is in the DNA of successful businesses, and the Longhorns and Sooners would enhance what is already one of the most powerful brand names in sports.
To counter that argument, the SEC Network already gets subscription fees from Texas because of Texas A&M. Would adding Texas draw more eyeballs? For Texas and OU, the math is simple. The SEC generated $729 million in revenue last year compared with the Big 12’s $409.2 million. The SEC paid out around $45.5 million to its member schools, compared with a range of $37 to $40.5 million in the Big 12. And that gap will grow even wider starting in 2024, when the SEC starts to collect on a ten-year TV rights deal with ESPN worth about $300 million annually.
For UT and OU, the answer is simple: Follow the money. But some fans are saying: “Wait, this makes no sense. Why would the Longhorns and Sooners enter a conference where the road to winning a national championship becomes much, much harder?”
Competitive considerations are secondary to the visibility, revenue, and heightened expectations for success that the SEC can deliver. Competing with Alabama, Florida, and LSU forces its member schools to commit ever more resources to building teams that can hold their own with the powerhouses of college football. Joining the SEC forced Texas A&M to open its wallet to make Jimbo Fisher, Jim Schlossnagle, and Buzz Williams—the school’s football, baseball, and men’s basketball coaches, respectively—among the best paid in the country. It forced Mississippi State to ante up for football coach Mike Leach and compelled LSU to make Kim Mulkey the highest-paid women’s basketball coach in history.
Texas and OU may have been motivated to explore alternatives after ESPN and Fox declined to discuss an extension of the current Big 12 TV deal, which expires in 2025. If they do leave, it’ll be terrible for many Texans who plan their fall Saturdays around college football. For fans and alumni of Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU, it’s a gut punch. It’s also bad news for SMU, Houston, and any other school that had been lobbying for Big 12 membership, which won’t be worth a warm bucket of spit without Texas and OU.
In the 24 hours since the Houston Chronicle broke the news, much of the coverage has focused on the three remaining years on the Big 12’s television contract and the costly buyout fees Texas and OU would owe the conference after departing.
That’s small stuff. If the SEC decides Texas and OU will make the SEC stronger and more profitable, then college sports will have its first sixteen-team super conference. The move will enrich the SEC’s existing and potential new members.
As for Baylor, Texas Tech, and TCU, this might be the time for university presidents, athletics directors, and die-hard fans alike to get every Texas legislator on speed dial—and, just in case, start checking membership requirements for the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It stinks in so many ways. Problem is, whether or not it happens now, this is where college sports is going.