Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC: What it Means for College Athletics
The conference realignment carousel has been spinning rapidly for some time now: from Colorado and Utah making their way to the PAC-10 in 2011, to the formation of the American Athletic Conference (AAC) in 2013, to Notre Dame leaving the Big East for the Atlantic Athletic Conference (ACC) in the same year. However, 2021 may mark the most noteworthy shift in recent memory.
This past summer, Oklahoma and Texas rocked the college football landscape by deciding to move from the Big 12 to the SEC. The move is noteworthy because schools moving from a smaller conference to a larger one as their athletic departments develop is generally common but moving from one "Power 5" conference to another is rare. The last two teams that fit this description are Missouri and Texas A&M back in 2011. Oklahoma and Texas’s move this year clearly surpasses the magnitude of the 2011 moves, in terms of the overall success of the respective programs, national brand recognition, and revenue generated by athletics.
While the Missouri and Texas A&M moves were seen as huge, landscape-shifting developments at the time (due to the success of each program and the level of conferences they moved to and from), it pales in comparison to the realignment unfolding this year. Oklahoma has been in the College Football Playoff (CFP) four times since the 2015-16 season and is seen as one of the juggernauts of modern college football. Texas, while not as dominant in football recently, has emerged in other sports such as swimming, women’s rowing, and tennis, the latter two winning national championships in 2021. Last year, Texas’s athletic department brought in revenue of over $200M, and a profit of $22.1M.
In terms of profitability, the rich get richer here. The SEC was already head and shoulders above all other conferences prior to this news breaking last summer. During 2019 fiscal year, the conference generated $721M in revenue, with each member receiving a split of roughly $45M. In comparison, the Big 12 split $388M among its ten members that same year. Moreover, the SEC’s revenue will likely keep increasing at a steady pace, as the conference has agreed to a new television deal with Disney that will pay them about $300M over 10 years.
The Big 12 does not have a television plan to rival the SEC. In the spring of 2021, ESPN and FOX declined to sign an extension on the current deal running through 2025. This decision is not necessarily surprising, due to the fluidity of conference alignments, and the drastic shift to streaming services over traditional cable television services. Members of the Big 12 negotiating committee acknowledged that the conference is not in a position of power at the moment. The committee expressed they believe the conference would be better served waiting until “free agency” when this deal is up, and taking its time until then to consider the options.
The process of leaving a conference is no short, spur-of-the-moment decision a school can make whenever it feels the need to change things up. Oklahoma and Texas will not be fully integrated in the SEC and separated from the Big 12 until 2025 when the Big 12’s current TV deal expires, though it could come sooner. If the schools give the league 18 months of notice and pay a fee that amounts to two years of their revenue split (roughly $80M each), they may expedite that 2025 timeline.
With the Big 12 losing two of its largest players, there were obvious concerns about the rest of the schools in the conference separating. However, the conference opted for another course of action to prevent a dissolution, adding four new teams: Cincinnati, Houston, Central Florida, and BYU.
The first three universities are the clear cream of the crop from the AAC. Cincinnati is a CFP contender and a consistent tournament team in men’s basketball. Houston has made recent deep runs in March Madness. And UCF recently enjoyed an undefeated season in football and regularly makes high-level bowl games. All three schools will all have to pay a fee to leave the AAC, as well. For comparison, when Connecticut left the AAC for the Big East for all sports except football, it paid a fine of $17M with 12 months’ notice. This trio leaving for the Big 12 will be required to pay a fee of $10M with 27 months’ notice. The notice period can likely be moved up if the athletic departments are willing to pay a more substantial exit fee, something which will continue to be weighed in the coming months and years.
BYU, a football Independent coming from the West Coast Conference (WCC) for all other sports, will not be subject to nearly as hefty a fine, only having to pay an exit fee around $500,000. BYU’s lower fee being can be largely attributed to its lack of a football program being associated with the WCC.
The fallout of these moves is felt most heavily by the AAC, though the repercussions of realignment will likely end up touching all corners of collegiate athletics. Once on the brink of obtaining the Power Conference label, the AAC has had to recover by luring six teams away (UT-San Antonio, North Texas, Rice, Florida Atlantic, Charlotte, UAB) from the Conference USA (C-USA) to join them. These teams will have to pay an exit fee of about $3M to leave C-USA. With far less revenue coming from these schools compared to Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF, the AAC will have its work cut out for them as it tries to maintain not only its status within the conference hierarchy nationwide, but also as a business trying to be as profitable as possible.
Another rung down the food chain sees the C-USA needing to shuffle to recover from its top schools leaving, and its attempt to recover has led to adding Liberty, Jacksonville State, New Mexico State and Sam Houston State in 2023. There is a rivalry between the C-USA and Sun Belt conferences, with recent history and successes favoring the Sun Belt in major sports and, in turn, profitability. The most recent pendulum swing can be seen through Marshall leaving C-USA for the Sun Belt last month, becoming the third school to make the move from C-USA to Sun Belt this year.
Because of this recent swing in favor of the Sun Belt, C-USA had to get creative in a similar manner to the Big 12 in that its best teams “traded up” into a bigger conference, and it was left to pick up the pieces. Malleability and creativity in expansion ideas appear to be becoming almost prerequisites for any conference who wants to be around for the long haul, as these changes can happen quickly.
Realignment is common and happens more and more frequently, but a complete top-down shuffle with changes to a top Power 5 conference and nearly every conference between them and the bottom of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) is largely unheard of. This can all be traced back to the massive Texas-Oklahoma move, which sent all ranks of the FBS scrambling to reassess and recover. While clearly too early to tell, it will be interesting to see how this affects the two already wildly successful teams joining the SEC, and how the damage control from both the Big 12 and AAC plays out in their attempts to recover from their most lucrative programs being poached by larger conferences.
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