|Even with the loss of Nebraska, The Big 12 could be making $20-$22 million per year. (Getty Images)|
Frustrated with conference defections and criticism of his school's stand-alone network, Texas AD DeLoss Dodds recently told CBSSports.com, "In the next five years, the Big 12 will be making as much [money] as anybody in the country."
That's as solid a statement as there has been about Big 12 stability since Missouri and Texas A&M left for the SEC. Those departures made it four teams leaving the league in less than two years. It's also another indication that any conference that contains Texas and Oklahoma is worth big bucks to television rights-holders.
And it's a message the conference has been trying send to everyone since the foundation began to shake under the league 18 months ago. It's the point former commissioner Dan Beebe continued to hammer home until he was forced out in September. Scrambling for those media rights remains a sport in itself in the BCS era (since 1998).
The Big 12 was saved for the first time in June 2010 when both Fox and ESPN agreed to maintain their payouts to a 10-team league even with the loss of Nebraska and Colorado. Less than a year after that near-fracture of the conference, the Big 12 agreed in April to a 13-year, $1.13 billion deal with Fox for the league's secondary media rights beginning in 2012.
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Since then, Oklahoma and Texas flirted again with the Pac-12. A&M and Missouri left the Big 12. They were replaced by West Virginia and TCU beginning in 2012. The Big 12 is bound together, for now, by a six-year grant of rights. During that time, the league's main media rights will be controlled by the conference office. In essence, if a school leaves for another conference during that time, the Big 12 will still control the schools' television rights. That doesn't include the Longhorn Network.
Those Fox Big 12 secondary rights alone project to $9 million per school in a 10-team Big 12. Industry sources say Big 12 schools currently collect $14 million to $16 million from those combined media rights deal. ESPN will get first crack at the Big 12's primary media rights that expire after the 2014-15 academic year.
Once ESPN (or another bidder) wraps up those primary rights, Big 12 schools could be making $20 million to $22 million per year. That's addition by subtraction with the league making more money with a net loss of two members, one of them (Nebraska) a national brand.
"Oklahoma State is playing a huge role. TCU is playing a huge role," Dodds said. "Kansas basketball, K-State is doing great. What we've got is really, really good."
Even with things somewhat settled, a battle of blame continues. Missouri left for the SEC because of Big 12 instability. But West Virginia welcomed the BCS power of the Big 12 and left because of perceived Big East instability.
A Texas source reiterated that the contentious Longhorn Network has not led to the Big 12 upheaval. The source said Texas A&M was looking for a reason to leave and that LHN was merely the reason needed at the time.
"There's nothing in our network that hurts anybody," the source said.
Privately, Big 12 and Texas officials remain frustrated that Missouri may have touched off conference realignment in December 2009. A few days after the Big Ten announced it was exploring expansion, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon disparaged the academics of some Big 12 schools, saying his alma mater was a better fit in the Big Ten. Shortly thereafter, Nebraska began talking to the Big Ten. When Colorado left, AD Mike Bohn was quoted as saying Missouri's Big Ten leanings had made those in the Big 12 nervous.
That was long before the Longhorn Network went on the air.
Those were mere skirmishes within the larger conference realignment revolution. The desire for live programming, particularly sports, has exploded in recent years. There are more channels that need more programming, and live programming is seen as a ratings winner. Sports are attractive because the outcomes are unscripted. Unlike network reality shows, viewers want to watch their events in real time. Advertisers love that. Because of modern technology, the results are usually known before a viewer can get to a DVR.
The Big 12 is expected to be the next major conference to tap into that jackpot. (The revamped Big East will renegotiate before then, but for significantly fewer dollars than the Big 12. Plus, there are questions whether the Big East will remain a BCS league.)
To combat conference realignment, there have been recent proposals by commissioners to get rid of the BCS automatic-qualifying designation. Those commissioners themselves have drawn an invisible line between BCS and non-BCS leagues. Above that line is automatic access to BCS bowls. Below is a giant scramble by the likes of the Big East, Conference USA and Mountain West to remain relevant to media rights-holders.
Without so-called AQ designation, there may be more equitable access for all schools to those major bowls and/or a modest plus-one playoff.
Dodds said Big 12 equal revenue distribution -- meaning more money for the conference's have-nots -- had been proposed before Missouri made it an issue in leaving for the SEC.
"We proposed equal distribution before they ever left," Dodds said of Missouri. "We made the motion for network and cable stuff to be divided equally. That was done way before they decided to leave. Missouri said they're going to make more money in the SEC. They're not. We're going to do our ABC/ESPN thing, and we're going to be making as much or more as the SEC."
The SEC is two years into a 15-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN and CBS that pays its schools an average of $17 million per year. That's a conservative number going forward. Most estimates put the SEC take at approximately $20 million per school.
That number figures to grow. With the addition of A&M and Missouri, the SEC fully intends to exercise its option to re-open at least the ESPN contract and could be adding a separate network that bundles third-tier rights. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott has potentially blown the doors off everyone for the moment. The $3 billion, 12-year contract signed in May guarantees league schools a base of $21 million per year through 2024. Pac-12 sources have long said that once its network gets up and running, schools could be earning $30 million per year.
"Something is wrong with your conference," a source told CBSSports.com in August, "when Washington State is getting more from its conference than the University of Texas."
For the moment, though, Dodds' claim is correct. In 2015, the Big 12 would right at the top based on estimates. The numbers are only averages because most deals are backloaded.
Dodds comments also don't include the Big Ten's primary deal with ESPN that expires after the 2015-16 academic year. By that time, the already-profitable Big Ten Network could be providing half of the revenue for member schools.
"The Big Ten Network is a cash machine," one industry source said. "They set the standard. None of the other conferences have been able to come up to it."
The Big 12 will operate with 10 teams for at least the 2012 football season. That is assuming that West Virginia is able to extricate itself from the Big East. There is still the future issue of another revenue generator -- a conference championship game. The league went without such a game in 2011 for the first time, playing a 10-team round-robin schedule.
Dodds has been against expanding back to 12 teams, while Oklahoma president Dave Boren reportedly prefers a championship game. Like it or not, those are the two most significant Big 12 power brokers. A case can be made that OU and Texas playing in the same league is the main reason the Big 12 continues to thrive.
"I like 10 [teams] but if the vote is to add some I'm fine with it. It's not the end of the world for me," Dodds said. "I like the idea of not playing a championship game. I like the idea of playing everybody. I like the idea of splitting the TV money 10 ways. If I can be convinced or outvoted, that's the way to be [12 teams], it's not that big a deal."
Dodds has concerns about a national championship contender being upset in a championship game. Oklahoma used the Big 12 league title game to win seven conference titles in 15 years. Texas was knocked out of a national championship shot when it lost a three-way Big 12 South tiebreaker to Oklahoma in 2008 despite beating the Sooners in the regular season.
No conference has been more successful with the championship game than the SEC. The league is so strong these days that its conference champion is virtually assured of being in the national championship hunt. The SEC already is assured of winning its sixth consecutive BCS title.
"You can be in a championship game with one team being defeated and other having four losses," Dodds said. "The pressure is all on the undefeated team. The four-loss team can knock the undefeated team out of a shot at a national championship. It happened when we were playing the playoff game. It just seems not fair to me."