That collective groan you heard on Wednesday afternoon was coming from college football writers and fans reacting en masse to the zombie-like resurrection of conference realignment speculation.
Playing the part of the Night’s King: University of Oklahoma president David Boren, who just couldn’t resist telling reporters that he thinks the Big 12 should add two more schools. (The “right” ones, that is.)
Of course, “remind” might be a more appropriate choice of words in this case, as Boren has made his desire to get the league back to 12 teams known in the past. What makes this time different, however, is that the Big 12 allegedly loved its sleek size of 10. No TV deals are set to expire. The conference shuffle was supposed to be over and done with for the time being.
OU’s head honcho — a former U.S. senator who goes by DBo — is again sounding the alarm just as everyone was finally settling back in from the last realignment fire drill.
Maybe Boren was just talking to talk. As a politician by trade, though, he usually makes these kinds of statements for a reason.
So, what’s Boren’s play here? Here’s some conjecture and speculation for you:
*The Big 12 Golden Rule
Keep in mind that any discussion of conference matters in the Big 12 has to start with one question: What do Texas and Oklahoma think? (It usually ends there, too.)
*U.T. A.D. F.U.B.A.R.
Five years ago, Texas drove the Big 12’s realignment story and got the Longhorn Network as a result.
A peek at the news now, however, reveals a power vacuum in Austin. The Longhorns have a new administration in place at the school’s top levels and an athletic director with dwindling support among the school’s alumni base.
By getting out front now, Boren has an opportunity to frame the debate over the future of the conference much the way ex-Texas AD Deloss Dodds did during the chaos of the past.
*OK, so what does Boren want?
Calm. Stability. A future.
The Big 12 as it currently stands remains vulnerable to getting picked off by poachers to the east, north and west when its current TV deal ends. Additionally, the league’s history and current configuration don’t offer much assurance that its two big dogs won’t either bail at the next sign of a better offer or use it to extract concessions out of the rest of the league. (Obviously, Boren did plenty to fuel that idea with his Pac-12 gambit in 2011.)
For some reason, 12 is seen as a magical number for conference stability. Throw in a conference network, and it likely cements the Big 12 for the long haul.
*What doesn’t Boren want?
Boren probably senses the uneasiness among his constituency over the future of the Big 12.
Conventional wisdom is that Boren adamantly opposes the Sooners joining the SEC.
Boren will likely be gone at the end of the Big 12’s current TV deal. If the Big 12 falls apart then, what would be the most likely landing spot for OU?
All the more reason for Boren to make a power play now.
*What’s up with the timing?
There’s probably some wisdom in talking about expansion during a period of realignment dormancy. Anxiety played a large role in how the last round of conference shuffling shook out. Going through the process of evaluating expansion without imminent deadlines takes the pressure off the shot-callers to get something done.
Also, with the Big Ten’s new TV negotiations coming up, who’s to say the tectonic plates of college athletics won’t shift again? If so, there might be other Power 5 programs looking for new homes. Best to have a plan in place in case.
*Why the hints about a conference network?
Starting a conference network would take about as firm of a commitment to the Big 12 as you can get. In this market climate, ESPN and Fox will pay premiums for long-term deals, which are sweetened if accompanied by a grant of rights.
In other words, having a viable Big 12 network would ensure the league’s viability for the long haul.
*Why take shots at the LHN?
Quite simply, the LHN is the biggest obstacle to creating a conference network for the Big 12.
Unlike the rest of the league’s third-tier rights contracts, the length of Texas’ deal with ESPN extends beyond the life of conference’s primary TV contracts with the Worldwide Leader and Fox. Hence, creating a Big 12 network with the current membership isn’t as easy as just waiting out the clock on their current third-tier deals or trying to buy those rights back.
Making a conference network a reality would require that the powers that be in Austin work with ESPN to unwind BevoTV. Is that more likely now than in the past? With Dodds and the previous regime out of the picture at Texas now, that’s certainly possible.
The LHN has great production values and is a financial win for Texas. On the other hand, it’s tough to argue so far that the network has been the branding juggernaut that was promised by its chief architect. Even if the Longhorns surge on the football field and basketball court, it seems increasingly clear that supporting a 24-7 channel with such a limited range of content is a tall order.
*Could the Big 12 survive intact without a conference network?
Sure. But if you’re Texas or OU, you also have to consider what the league might look like in 15 or 20 years without one.
*Does Boren have an ulterior motive that’s not related to the Big 12?
I guess you could read this as a long con to get the conference to disintegrate. That would take a lot of dominoes falling the right way, and unless Boren has a rock-solid guarantee of an invitation to join the Big Ten or Pac-12 under his hat, it would be exceedingly reckless.
*Would expanding with non-Power 5 teams make the Big 12 more stable?
As I mentioned, for some reason, people seem to think bigger is better. I don’t get it, but 12 is supposedly a ground floor.
One wild card: In the near term, schools such as Memphis and Cincinnati may up their program-building efforts with the carrot of a Big 12 invite hanging out there. Frankly, Bob Bowlsby and Co. are probably hoping for a couple TCU-like mid-majors to rise up and make a compelling case for inclusion. (Note: A public invite now might make that easier.)
*What’s going to happen?
The biggest issue will be what Texas wants, and the Longhorns have fewer outs than many realize. Their pact with ESPN likely limits them to joining the ACC or SEC if they want out of the Big 12. ESPN would likely be pretty agreeable to forming a Big 12 network, though. A conference network would likely mean less money for UT, but that might be preferable to the alternatives.
Whatever the case may be in Austin, if Boren is sincere about wanting to set a foundation for the Big 12 to thrive, getting proactive now can only help.