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Big 12 on the brink: Texas’ cash grab, the Pac-12’s next move, the CFP’s future and ESPN’s master plan

It has been four days since the thunderous news from the Southern Plains. Texas and Oklahoma appear SEC-bound sooner rather than later; the Big 12 churns toward liquefaction; and the Pac-12 is open for business — “We’d be foolish not to listen if schools call us,” commissioner George Kliavkoff said — but seemingly without any A-level options.

What does it mean?

Here we go …

— While jumping to the SEC makes perfect sense for Oklahoma, it would be very un-Texas for Texas.

The Longhorns are better suited politically, culturally, academically and competitively for the ACC, Big Ten or Pac-12 than they are for the SEC.

But in this case, money doesn’t talk; it screams.

Yes, the Longhorns could bask in a similar jackpot by joining the Big Ten. But that doesn’t suit ESPN’s master plan, and ESPN is the key player in this transformative event. (Much more on that in a moment.)

— On the surface, a lockstep move by the Sooners and Longhorns to the SEC would be good for the Pac-12.

Why? Because its relative position within the Power Five hierarchy improves.

The Pac-12 was never going to catch the SEC competitively or financially — the stronger conference would simply increase its advantages. (And become a greater threat on the West Coast recruiting trail.)

But a peer league, the Big 12, would be immeasurably weakened, leaving the Pac-12 still standing as one of the Power Four.

Whether the Pac-12 benefits in the long run, however, depends on what comes next.

— While Kliavkoff is absolutely right to consider all options, the Pac-12 should not expand for the sake of expanding,  because other schools need a lifeboat … because the SEC has grown to 16.

Bigger is absolutely not better if the result is a devaluing of the Pac-12 brand and the formation of a fragile mishmash of universities that are scattered across half the country geographically and across multiple universes culturally and academically.

The financial component is a key piece, of course: Expansion is not about increasing the size of the revenue pie; it’s about increasing the size of the revenue slices for the existing members.

Any newcomer would have to add value for the collective, over and above what could be generated by the 12 schools in their next media rights negotiations.

That value is almost exclusively tied to one sport: Football accounts for approximately 85 cents out of every dollar paid out in media rights.

None of the remaining Big 12 schools make sense for the Pac-12, in our opinion.

The only viable option for the conference is a football-only alliance with some combination of schools (or conferences) that creates media value by scale.

— The strengthening of the SEC and kneecapping of the Big 12 is, in our view, entirely about ESPN.

Specifically, it’s about ESPN’s master plan, as directed by the Disney overlords, to reallocate resources within a changing media landscape.

As ESPN chairman Jimmy Pitaro told Variety before the Texas and Oklahoma news broke:

“We have a five-year plan and also, we have a ten-year plan, and we are actively looking at our rights and evaluating what’s coming up, and what we can go after.”

That plan obviously includes college football, but with a laser focus on total ownership of two immense properties: The SEC regular season and championship game; and the expanded College Football Playoff.

ESPN already controls the former, thanks to the recent acquisition of the SEC’s ‘Game of the Week’ package (formerly owned by CBS).

And ESPN is hoping to acquire the latter, if the CFP decides to renew its agreement instead of taking the expanded playoff package to the open market.

With those two properties locked up, ESPN could simply dabble in everything else, including the Pac-12, based on the need to fill ESPN+ programming needs and specific broadcast windows on the linear network, such as 10:30 p.m. Eastern on Saturday nights.

(Were Texas and Oklahoma to join the SEC, then ESPN could abandon the Big 12 altogether, since the only brands worth owning would have become part of the network’s golden goose. From the perspective of Disney’s ROI, the resource consolidation makes perfect sense.)

For years, there have been not-so-quiet whispers of college football morphing into English soccer, with a group of 30-32 schools creating a version of the Premiership and the other 90-something programs existing on the second tier.

One could argue that the SEC, with Texas and Oklahoma and Alabama and LSU and Georgia and Florida, would be that very Premiership.

Or framed differently: Competitively and economically, it would be a mini-NFL.

The revenue and cross-promotional opportunities for Disney — we have long envisioned the Houndstooth Hatterhorn ride at Disney World — would be limitless.

— All of which places immense importance, for the Pac-12 specifically and the sport generally, on the timing of playoff expansion.

The current contract with ESPN expires after the 2025 season.

Contractually, expanding prior to that point would force the playoff to renew its rights with ESPN.

Only by waiting for the current contract cycle to expire could the CFP take its rights to the open market and potentially lure multiple bidders to the table. But five years is a long time to wait for the 12-team event.

ESPN and, by extension, the SEC, undoubtedly want the CFP rights locked up as soon as possible. That would secure a monopoly on two of the sport’s three key media properties — the other being the Big Ten, of which ESPN currently owns a portion.

The long game is easy to spot: Disney would control the rights to the expanded CFP, the SEC, the ACC and part of the Big Ten.

At that point, it could have tepid interest in the Pac-12, which has placed itself at risk by deliberately not partnering with ESPN on long-term Tier 1 rights or the Pac-12 Network.

Such a shift might push the Pac-12 into a deeper partnership with Fox or motivate the conference to pursue agreements with CBS, NBC, Turner, etc.

Except that ESPN’s monopoly of the expanded CFP could dampen the interest level that other media companies take in the sport.

Why would Fox, CBS, NBC, Turner, etc., shell out hundreds of millions annually in media rights payments if there is no possibility of promoting their coverage of the sport’s biggest event (the CFP) and no opportunity, ever, to broadcast the sport’s biggest brands (the SEC).

There would be no end game to justify their cash outlay.

It’s all interconnected, all the pieces — the present and future, regular season and postseason, Group of Five and Power Five.

And right now, ESPN is designing the board, in addition to playing both sides of it.


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Source: Orange County Register

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