A tectonic shift of money and power may be underway in college sports.
Big 12 powers Texas and Oklahoma, two of the richest and most popular athletic departments in the country, are inquiring about joining the SEC conference, according to multiple reports. Though it’s unclear how far along they are, it already appears more realistic than the conference realignment rumors that constantly loom over the NCAA.
The move would turn the SEC, already one of the richest conferences in the country, into the unquestioned nexus of power in college sports. The 16-team league would span the American south, and would be able to leverage the popularity and success of its members in myriad ways.
It also comes at a time of potential major governance changes. NCAA president Mark Emmert has recently begun advocating for a more decentralized system that would cede much more power to the conferences themselves. Should that happen, the influence of a super-league would be even larger.
Texas and Oklahoma declined to comment on what both schools called “rumors.” Representatives for the Big 12 and SEC didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment.
As it stands, Texas and Oklahoma are by far the two richest and most influential schools in the 10-member Big 12. Texas spent $204 million on athletics in 2019 (the year before the pandemic arrived), and Oklahoma spent $158 million. The next closest public school in the conference was Kansas at nearly $109 million. Nationally, Texas ranked second and Oklahoma seventh.
The two would fit right into the upper tier of the SEC, where 11 of the conference’s 14 teams—Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, Arkansas and Mississippi—spent more than Kansas in 2019.
Competitively, the move would also be a concentration of power in football, the cash cow of college sports. Since the College Football Playoff started in 2014, 12 of the 28 teams selected for the semifinals have been either SEC members or Oklahoma. In that span Oklahoma’s men’s basketball team has made two Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA tournament, and Texas’ women’s team has made five.
The SEC reported about $730 million in revenue in fiscal 2020, trailing just behind the Big Ten’s $769 million, but the SEC’s numbers are about to increase significantly (with or without new members). In December, the league signed a $3 billion TV deal with ESPN that will increase the payouts from its most-watched football package by five times.
TV money is one of the major revenue sources in college sports, and it will be one of the thorniest issues to untangle should Texas and Oklahoma look to jump. The schools are locked into the Big 12 through a grant of rights tied to its TV contracts that expires in 2025. Then there’s the Longhorn Network, the only major single-college network in the country, which ties Texas to ESPN through at least 2031. At least one outlet said Texas is willing to "say goodbye" to the Longhorn Network.
The financial fallout of the move would have impact beyond just these two conferences. Should the Big 12 look to replace those two schools, it will be poaching from another conference. It might spur a greater round of realignment, similar to what we saw a decade ago, as other Power Five leagues look to keep pace. As new Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff tweeted on Wednesday night, "Just when I thought my first month on the job could not get more interesting…"