Well now, this is something.
Adding insult to injury, the other conference supposedly is… the AAC.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby alleges conference media rights partner ESPN conspired to damage the league by luring Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC as detailed in a cease and desist letter sent to the network on Wednesday. Bowlsby also tells CBS Sports that ESPN has actively engaged the American Athletic Conference (AAC) to pursue “3-5” Big 12 members join the league, suggesting it would be rewarded with “future television proceeds”.
The letter alleges ESPN “has taken certain actions that are intended to not only harm the Big 12 Conference but to result in financial benefits for ESPN.” The network currently shares Big 12 rights with Fox.
Bowlsby told CBS Sports that ESPN’s actions are equal to “tortious interference”.
Ooh, check out the big brain on Bob! He be mad, peeps.
In response, ESPN yawned.
While Bowlsby was on a roll, he cast a little shade in the direction of his departing members.
… He identified clear enemies in ESPN and the departing schools. Bowlsby only sent that letter with presidential support, which means this will end up bonding the eight schools remaining in the Big 12. And part of that is due to the distrust of Texas and Oklahoma.
“We still don’t have the information we need from them and they’re largely unresponsive,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports about OU and Texas. “How many years do they plan to play. When are they planning on transitioning? We can’t get any answers out of them.”
He knows damned well the conference, having already received notice from the two about their departure plans (properly within the bounds of Big 12 rules), isn’t entitled to those answers. And there’s where we enter the realm of negotiating ploys. As you might expect, there are wheels within wheels with this.
“I have every expectation that Oklahoma and Texas will do whatever they can to not meet their [contractual] obligations. That’s what they’ve done so far. … One of the ways the two schools and ESPN will seek to absolve themselves of the obligation is to destabilize the league and cause an implosion of the other eight members.
“I am absolutely certain ESPN employees have discussed and provided incentives for at least one conference to raid 3-5 members from the Big 12. In doing so, they are prepared to reward them with future television proceeds. If the conference goes away as an entity, Oklahoma and Texas could be relieved from their exit obligations. Those obligations at this time would include the payment of $70M to $80M — two years full revenue — per school and leaving their media rights with the Big 12.
Is ESPN operating behind the scenes to grease the skids for Oklahoma and Texas? You’d have to be an idiot to expect otherwise. Is Mickey doing so in a way to create legal liability for itself? Well, I’d bet their lawyers are smarter than Bob’s, so whatever they’ve been doing, it’s been carefully crafted.
The money factor cuts both ways here. Yes, if the conference dissolves, that ends the obligation to pay exit fees. But Bob’s got a problem, too.
The difference between what the Big 12 is being paid now – more than $35 million in TV – and what it’ll be paid without OU and Texas is an estimated $20 million. Dropping a stinkbomb on the doorstep in Bristol, Connecticut, is a negotiation ploy to assure you will no longer be negotiating. But Bowlsby is too smart to have done this without some type of TV partner fallback.
That strikes me as wishful thinking. If the broadcast rights drop in value significantly for ESPN, they’re not going to be more valuable for another TV partner.
What is more likely is that Bowlsby is trying to force ESPN to leave the existing contract structure in place after Oklahoma and Texas leave. If you think about it, there’s probably an exit strategy that saves all sides a little — the schools are allowed a departure earlier than 2025 and ESPN doesn’t penalize the Big 12 when that happens. It’s not a perfect solution for the conference, but their fate was sealed the moment the schools announced they were hitting the road. At least it gives Bowlsby time to see what he can salvage before a mid-major conference picks over the bones.
Keep your friends close and your TV partners even closer, in other words.
UPDATE: Drop dead, Bob.