Texas shrugged, ESPN blinked and -- voila! -- we have ourselves the next great earthquake in conference realignment. Calm down, no teams changed leagues -- this week -- but the announcement of The Longhorn Network has us on alert.
At least it should.
For those initially worried that this gives Texas the money, power and ability to go independent in football, you're way behind. Texas already is an independent in football. Wednesday made it unofficially official. Texas now has its own network and $300 million from ESPN over the next 20 years to add to the already richest athletic department in the country. You know what it has with the Big 12? A scheduling agreement.
|Mack Brown's Texas program is going to get a lot more exposure with it's own TV network. (US Presswire)|
Feel free to tweet me your over/under on the number of years the conference stays together. That doesn't necessarily mean Texas is leaving. It means there has been a loss of faith in configurations we could count on for the past few decades. Things are changing fast in college athletics. The Big Ten has 12 teams. The Big 12 has 10. A year ago TCU was a minor player in realignment discussion. Since then, the school has won a Rose Bowl, embarked on $100 million in facilities upgrades and joined the Big East. There are now those slapping their hands to their foreheads, wondering how the Big 12 let the small private school in Fort Worth "get away."
Conference realignment has been redefined, replaced by broadcast fiefdoms. It's not so much what conference you're in, but what television partner you have. The SEC, Big Ten, Texas and Notre Dame all have their own networks. Those also happen to be the four most powerful entities in the sport.
When any one of the Network Four snap their fingers, people listen, things get done.
• Ohio State somehow had five key players get eligible for the Sugar Bowl. Auburn had Cam Newton on the field for a championship run. Both are members of the Network Four. More than one skeptic has asked: What if those schools were, say, Northern Illinois and Arkansas State?
• Texas walked into one of the first Big 12 meetings 15 years ago and demanded that the conference not take partial qualifiers. Done. The 'Horns have taken it from there in the Big 12. Soon, the athletic department will be bringing in $35 million a year just for rolling the balls out. You don't spell "unbelievably dominant" without UT.
"I've always thought from the very beginning that individual networks would sell far better than a conference network," Texas AD DeLoss Dodds said. "I just don't think people in Texas would subscribe to a network if it was -- I don't mean to be disparaging here -- Iowa State cross-country."
Not surprisingly, a day after TLN was announced, an Oklahoma spokesman said Thursday it was the school's "goal" to start its own network this year. The Network Four is about to become the Network Five. In the quick-change world of college athletics, you're either on the road to riches or laying in it -- waiting to be run over.
As recently as the 1980s, college football was considered a regional sport. Then the NCAA lost control of football telecasts in the landmark Supreme Court antitrust decision. A quarter-century later we're still in the shake-out stages of that decision. The sport hasn't reached its peak -- financially, marketing-wise, ratings-wise. Not even close. Those are reasons Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany gave for starting the Big Ten Network. Those are huge reasons Texas has for forming its own network.
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It's obvious the game hasn't found its true valuation yet. The Pac-12 is talking about a network. The Big Ten has yet to play its first championship game. The Big East is in the process of reviving itself as a football league. The Mountain West is shuffling members trying to stay BCS relevant. In the decades before around-the-clock football Saturdays, the Internet and Twitter we didn't constantly talk -- or frankly, care -- about the best player in the game. That was a baseball or pro football discussion. Now they're making documentaries about Tim Tebow, only to be replaced by season-long buzz about Newton.
It doesn't matter that Texas is showing only one football game a season on TLN. It can do pregame shows, postgame shows, recruiting shows, offensive coordinator shows, grad assistant shows. It's going to show Texas high school games -- a huge recruiting advantage. More than a few future Longhorns have attended local powers Lake Travis and Westlake high schools. Now they're going to be interviewed by TLN correspondents and broken down by TLN analysts.
"It's great for Texas," Kansas hoops coach Bill Self said. "What it's done is put pressure on other people -- our league office, the other respective schools, the ADs, the presidents, whoever, to say, 'OK, how can we really maximize our situation?'"
While the landscape seems to be changing fast, a basic tenet of college football TV has not. The rights holders are only interested in roughly the top 40 programs. Markets and brands sell. That has been the case for 60 years since the NCAA controlled those first football telecasts. Michigan sold in 1951. It sells in 2011. That roster of 40 may change slightly from year to year but we more or less know who they are. It is more than coincidental that the Network Four comprise roughly 40 percent of those schools the networks want to show the most.
In many ways this is the corporate/athletic equivalent of the age-old question: Why do these leagues/schools/networks merge to form their own conglomerates?
It's the same reason why rock stars date super models.
Because they can.
Longhorn Network Q&A
With all this talk of networks, the Big 12 is just now entering into the bidding process for its next television deal. Fox stepped up with a financial promise that kept the conference together last summer. Where does that stand?
Dodds says Big 12 teams are on track to make "SEC money." That's $17 million-$20 million per school per year. Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri may, if necessary, allow Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma a bigger share of conference revenue. Call it a sort of patronage to help make up for the money those schools would have earned had they gone to the Pac-10.
Is TLN a template for Notre Dame joining a conference?
In other words, the Big 12 is agreeable to Texas having its own network. What's to keep Notre Dame, which has been on NBC for 20 years, from joining someday? Turns out that in the heat of conference realignment last year Dodds offered the Big 12 as a spot for Notre Dame's minor sports if the Big East broke up.
"I just told Jack [Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director], the Big 12 would love to have everything from Notre Dame except football," Dodds said.
And if the circumstances were right, maybe football too?
Should the likes of Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State be putting out feelers to other conferences?
Let's not forget this conference realignment thing is still all about football. Self still remembers how close his national program came to being left out in the cold. As Texas and five other Big 12 schools came close to joining the Pac-10, Kansas faced the prospect of having to find a safe haven in perhaps the Mountain West.
"Last year, if it had gone different it would have affected the landscape for this university for the next 20, 30 years," Self said. "I think we would have been fine wherever we went but it wouldn't have been fine for our fan base going to another league outside your geographic area. This is perfect now."
Would the Pac-12 still take Texas right now -- network at all?
The answer is an unequivocal yes. It's Texas, maybe the shiniest of the Network Four.
Texas contended last summer that its desire to have its own network was a deal-breaker in going to the Pac-10. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott told a few of us in July that the network was not a deal-breaker. He blamed it on "Texas politics." In some small way, TLN has to separate Texas from those in-state "politics" -- being linked at the hip to Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor in any conference movement.