| FTBL SEC could distribute as much as $1.3 billion annually to members


Fast forward five years. The expanded 12-team College Football Playoff is off and running, Texas and Oklahoma are fully entrenched in the SEC and the 16-team conference is generating between $1.2 billion and $1.3 billion annually.

Also imagine perhaps the rosiest 2026 scenario for the Big 12. After losing its two flagship schools, commissioner Bob Bowlsby stabilizes the league by adding Cincinnati and UCF and securing a media rights deal in 2025 that is relatively equal to the current one that expires that year. What’s the Big 12’s projected revenue under those conditions?

It’s $509 million — not even half that of the SEC.

The comparison puts a finer point on the remarkable unfolding machinations in the sport. The juiced-up SEC will continue to pull away on the financial front from almost every other Power 5 conference. And even in what many deem the most optimistic scenario for the diminished Big 12 — adding two American Athletic Conference schools and avoiding a plummeting media rights deal — the 10-team league would generate less than half the revenue of the SEC, which will be the most robust league in college sports’ history. (Here is a look at all the current conference TV deals.)

As conferences plot potential moves in response to the SEC’s coup, the landscape reveals a dearth of options that would yield significantly added value for Power 5 leagues. If Notre Dame football remains independent — and there’s no indication otherwise — there are only so many blue-blooded brand names to go around, and a lot will be in the SEC.

“How do you replace Texas and Oklahoma? I guess you could replace them with Georgia and Alabama,” Neal Pilson, CBS Sports president in the 1980s and ’90s, told On3. “But they are not going. Would Central Florida or Cincinnati or even Houston create significant increased value for the Big 12? Probably not.”

Navigate Research, a Chicago-based firm specializing in college and professional sports rights valuations, provided the revenue projections to On3 on the SEC and Big 12 (assuming the Big 12 survives). A caveat: The SEC’s new media rights deal with ESPN will pay the league $300 million annually beginning in 2024, but it almost certainly will be amended. And Navigate projects that a 12-team CFP could be valued at $2 billion annually, a figure reported by USA Today in June; it is unclear how the CFP would disperse baseline revenue shares to conferences. And it’s unknown how many schools from a particular conference would qualify for the CFP in a given season, which would affect additional revenue dispersed.

While stakeholders had been fast-tracking the process toward tripling the number of CFP teams, there are indications the process may turn more deliberate. New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told CBS Sports the movement toward 12 teams needs to “pause.” The other important note is that while the SEC’s revenue pie unquestionably will grow post-expansion — recent tax filings for the 2019-20 fiscal year show the league generated $729 million in revenue — it will slice up that pie to distribute shares to more schools.

“The SEC was already the powerhouse conference, so it just gets even stronger,” said Matt Balvanz, Navigate’s senior vice president for analytics and innovation. “It’s sort of earth-shattering for the other conferences to figure out what their place is. Of course (some) schools want to be in these other conferences, but it’s really the conference and the other members that have to make sure that pie is getting larger, even proportionally, before they let them in.”

Big 12 TV deal will diminish​

Even if the Big 12 survives, it faces fierce headwinds. The league’s current media rights deal with ESPN and Fox pays the conference some $200 million annually. Three sources — Pilson, a prominent longtime TV negotiator and a former Power 5 commissioner — said that without Texas and Oklahoma, the league faces the prospect of a new deal that could be 50 percent diminished from what it could have been. Balvanz said the figure the Big 12 receives annually in its next media rights deal ultimately could remain flat because of yearly industry appreciation in rights deals.

Earlier this year, ESPN and Fox declined to negotiate early with the Big 12. Asked if that signaled that ESPN knew significant change to the Big 12 was afoot, Pilson pointed to a few possible factors.

“I’m sure ESPN had awareness that there could be dilution or significant change in the Big 12’s composition,” Pilson said. “Number two, ESPN made the SEC (media rights) deal, and that I’m sure shifted their thinking in terms of dominant programming and scheduling. Third, quite a few Big 12 teams simply do not have a national footprint, and ESPN had already voted with its pocketbook to make the really big deal with the SEC.

“I’m sure ESPN said, ‘We don’t need to make a deal with you now. We will be here three years from now. We are not sure you will be here three years from now.’

The fate of the Big 12 is among the sport’s most pressing questions. The former Power 5 commissioner noted that maintaining Power 5 status is critical for the Big 12 because of the increased revenue share delivered from the CFP; each of the Power 5 conferences received $67 million apiece versus $92 million shared by the Group of 5 leagues. Maintaining autonomy also is important because it would enable the Big 12 to keep a seat at the table on legislative issues. The former commissioner said, “I’d fight like hell to keep that conference together,” pinpointing UCF, Cincinnati, Houston, Boise State and BYU as potential options.

As for the SEC, it agreed in December to a 10-year contract with ESPN that will make the network the exclusive home of SEC football and men’s basketball starting in 2024. Multiple sources said it is common practice in media rights deals to include a clause that returns both parties to the negotiating table if expansion occurs. Even if there is no clause, Pilson said, amending the terms is the likely outcome.

‘It takes two to tango here’​

For massive realignment moves like this to occur in the first place, Pilson said, “there has to be complete reciprocity. There has to be a complete understanding and a new financial arrangement. That doesn’t mean that ESPN and the SEC have an agreement at this point as to what that increase in value would be. The answer is I’m sure they don’t. But these are people that talk to each other every day. These are people that have multi-year relationships, both personal and business, so all of this is going on with the full knowledge and appreciation of the boys in Bristol (Conn.) and the guys in Birmingham (Ala.). It takes two to tango here.”

After Bowlsby sent a cease-and-desist letter to ESPN last week alleging the network has worked toward destabilizing his conference, ESPN executive Burke Magnus called the allegations “entirely without merit.” But questions persist about ESPN’s role. Before Bowlsby’s latter became public, the former Power 5 commissioner told On3, “You know and I know that ESPN was involved with this. I think they were what you’d call a silent partner.”

Media rights deals fuel college sports’ engine. The Big 12 (2025), Pac-12 (2024) and Big Ten (2023) soon face the expiration of rights deals amid this ever-evolving conference landscape, not to mention shifting viewing habits. First up will be the Big Ten, which generated $769 million in revenue in 2020. Sources say CBS may jump into those negotiations with the loss of its SEC deal. A new Big Ten deal’s value remains to be seen, as is whether there are any schools it can add to bolster the value of the league. Regardless, it seems as if further conference consolidation looms.

“There are going to be fewer and fewer major college football conferences,” Pilson said. “The big ones get bigger. The small ones don’t. Television is a big mirror. It reflects what goes on in the American public in terms of their appetite and their viewing habits. Whenever we in television make a move like this, we’re doing it not because we like the idea but we’re doing it because we think the public will embrace it, and the public will accept and enthusiastically support the choices being made by the leaders of sports and television.

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