Regents at the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma voted Friday to accept membership in the SEC, a seismic shift in the NCAA that could spur another full round of conference realignment. The SEC’s membership offer is effective July 1, 2025—that’s when the current grant of rights in the Big 12 expires—but it’s certainly possible, likely even, that the two schools negotiate an earlier exit from the Big 12.
“After thorough consideration and study, it became obvious that standing pat would mean falling behind,” Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said during the regent meeting.
Leaving prior to 2025 would presumably entail a hefty buyout. The Big 12’s bylaws state that exiting members must pay the equivalent of their final two years’ conference distributions, meaning Texas and Oklahoma would likely need to pay about $80 million each to leave early.
It’s a sizable chunk of money but likely not a prohibitive sum. Texas athletics reported $223 million of revenue in the year before COVID hit, and Oklahoma reported $163 million. The schools could also find cooperation from ESPN, which owns media rights to both the Big 12 and the SEC, and is a partner in the SEC Network and Texas’ Longhorn Network.
ESPN’s involvement, whatever it might be, was further complicated earlier this week, when Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN executives accusing them of undermining the conference’s business to benefit their own. ESPN responded Thursday, saying the accusations had “no merit.” That’s set the stage for potential litigation in the near future.
Hours after the regent votes, the NCAA’s board of governors announced that it would convene a constitutional convention in November to discuss radical changes to college sports governance. NCAA president Mark Emmert teased this news a few weeks ago, implying that the NCAA needed a more decentralized structure that cedes more power to individual conferences. The board said it hopes those changes can be approved by the full membership in January, which would further motivate the likes of the Big Ten or SEC to start moving toward "super conference" status.
It remains to be seen how much more movement follows Texas and Oklahoma. The Big 12 accused ESPN of speaking with another conference about at least one of its eight remaining members. The outgoing FSU president warned that while the team is currently happy in the ACC, it has a “marquee brand” and must be prepared to explore options. News reports have linked outreach from schools to other conferences, and vice versa.
Ultimately, money will be the driving factor, both for the schools and leagues, and also for the media companies that will inevitably be involved. Texas and Oklahoma are each receiving about $34.5 million in distributions from the Big 12 this year, while SEC teams are preparing to receive more than $66 million when their new TV agreement kicks in. The SEC clearly believes that adding two of the more recognizable brands in college sports will produce enough incremental revenue from TV and sponsors to offset the dilution of each member’s payouts from 1/14 to 1/16.
"Collegiate athletics is changing rapidly whether any of us wants it to or not," Texas president Jay Hartzell said during their regents meeting, citing new NIL rules, college football playoff expansion, COVID-19, changes to media consumption and a recent Supreme Court ruling that undercuts NCAA amateurism. "In a world of uncertainty and change, it is incumbent upon us as leaders to protect and enhance our athletic program and university. In order to do so, we looked at conferences across the country and concluded that the SEC was the best fit for our future."
(This story was updated to include details of the NCAA's planned constitutional reform in the seventh paragraph.)