In Response to CRFF: Why the Longhorn Network Won't Destroy College Football

About two weeks ago, while I was enjoying a third week in the Garden State, AUKingOState of the up-and-coming Oklahoma State blog, Cowboys Ride for Free, wrote a lengthy post positing that the the University of Texas' new TV network will destroy college football.

To be sure, allowing each school to keep its third-tier media rights to itself, for its own profit, is not my preferred model of conference revenue sharing. I've written extensively in the past that the Big 12 should follow the Big 10's model and share all conference revenue equally. However, UT's institutional philosophy seems to be that because it commands a greater TV presence than the other Big 12 schools, it will demand an unequal revenue share. The Texas approach stands in contrast to schools like Ohio State and Michigan, who share revenue equally within their conference, and Southern California, who recently signed over its third-tier media rights to the Pac-12 so the conference can launch a Pac-12 Network.

Texas would make all the other schools in the conference happier if it were willing to share equally conference revenue. But that's not the reason the conference nearly fell apart last year. Equal sharing would not have kept Nebraska, who benefited from the unequal revenue sharing, and Colorado, who wanted to go to the Pac-10 anyway and wanted to be damn sure it cut off Baylor's politicians in Austin. In the end, Texas' decision to stay in the Big 12 was based on its greed, and far from destroying college football, it saved the Big 12 and, in so doing, staved off the formation of superconferences.

So given all that, why does CRFF believe the Longhorn Network will destroy college football as we know it? As an initial matter, CRFF calls the decision by the Big 12's other schools to allow the creation of the Longhorn Network "foolish." Again, my preference would be that UT just play nice, but it's clear they won't. It's equally clear that they would have gone to the Pac-10 had they been permitted to keep their third-tier media rights. Therefore, of the alternatives available to UT, the Big 12 had one way to stand out, and it wasn't by pitching Stillwater and Lawrence and Manhattan and Ames and Columbia as exciting alternatives to Los Angeles, Seattle and Phoenix. Rather, it was by allowing UT to keep its third-tier media rights, and promising ever-increasing revenue for first- and second-tier media rights.

One theme I'm going to keep coming back to is that you always have to analyze these situations in terms of the alternatives. In a vacuum, I'd agree that it's foolish to allow UT to keep its third-tier media rights, because that's foregone revenue for the other schools. But the alternative to that concession, for K-State, KU, Missouri and Iowa State, was being in the Big East (if they were lucky) or the Mountain West. For Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, the situation was rosier, financially, in the Pac-10, but schools like OSU and Tech would be fish out of water with the folks on the west coast. 

So for the schools in the Big 12 with no good alternatives, the choice was either conceding third-tier rights to UT and getting more money off the TV contract renewals, or letting UT go to the Pac-10 and enter the brave new world of fighting to get into the Big East. That's a pretty easy calculus on my end, but K-State beats UT in everything, so maybe I'm biased.

Anyway, back to the specifics of CRFF's post. Later in the post, AUKingOState likens the current Big 12 to a holding company, with three greater partners and seven lesser partners. I prefer to call this something along the lines of a general partnership rather than a holding company, but that's semantics. I'll also note that legal partnerships often entail one partner who holds a greater stake in the company than the other partner(s). In any event, because the seven lesser partners have no opportunity to improve their standings, CRFF believes "resentment and jealousy are able to breed." This is probably true, but again, you have to consider the situation in terms of alternatives. If the jealous partners don't have any options, then who cares if they're discontent? They can be pissy all they want, but they're not going to leave unless they get an offer from the Big 10, Pac-10 or SEC.

So are there any schools that are likely to jump ship? Probably not, now that there are apparently stiff financial penalties for any school that leaves during the new TV contract. But let's put that aside for a minute. Who in the Big 12 has options? 

 

  • Texas: Any other conference would take them, but the Pac-10 and Big 10 aren't going to let them take their Longhorn Network with them. Academic and image concerns ensure Texas will never be in the SEC.
  • Texas A&M: With the new TV contract and the assurance of a high payout, the Aggies have no incentive to go anywhere. The Big 10 and Pac-10 won't want them without UT, and unless superconferences are inevitable, the SEC probably doesn't want them either.
  • Missouri: The Big 10 didn't call them last time, and there's no reason to think they would in the future.
  • Oklahoma State and Texas Tech: No other conference is interested in these schools unless Texas and/or Oklahoma are moving, too, and these schools aren't going anywhere.
  • K-State, KU, Iowa State, Baylor: LOL

 

The bottom line is that the seven lesser partners can be as jealous and butthurt as they want over not getting as much money as UT, OU and Texas A&M, but there really isn't much they can do about it, because the alternative is either the Big East or the Mountain West.

OK, so nobody is going anywhere. But is there an alternative? CRFF suggests there is.

If the members of the current Big 12 would have stood together and told Texas to cancel their network or leave, Texas would probably leave. And that, actually, would have been a good thing.

I can think of a lot of things that would have been, but "a good thing" is not among them. Back during conference realignment, if the conference had given Texas that ultimatum, do you think Dan Beebe would have been able to convince ESPN/ABC to honor its contract through 2015-16? I doubt it. Do you think the Big 12 would have been able to land a massive new TV contract for its second-tier rights? No. Texas Christian would not replace the Dallas market, and the University of Houston would not replace the Houston market. The Horned Frogs, in an undefeated season last year, filled an average of 42,466 seats at Amon G. Carter Stadium, which has a capacity of 44,358. Houston put an average of 31,278 fans in the stands at home last year, in a stadium that holds a woeful 32,000.

So that wraps up why the Longhorn Network is not a bad thing for the Big 12. But the point of CRFF's post was that the Longhorn Network will destroy college football. The reason CRFF believes the Longhorn Network will destroy college football is that eventually the UT will leave the Big 12 to become an independent, leading to the destruction of the Big 12 and the formation of superconferences.

But why would Texas go independent? The Longhorns have it as good as they're ever going to get it right now. Texas gets a conference to negotiate the TV deals for first- and second-tier rights, and the folks in Austin get a bigger share of that money than the other schools because they're on TV more often. And Texas gets to keep its third-tier rights, which wouldn't happen in any other conference that UT would consider joining. Beyond that, they have an automatic BCS berth, a conference that has traditionally been strong enough to ensure that an undefeated champion will play for a national title, and they don't have to worry about scheduling for long-season sports like basketball, and the non-revenue sports. Don't overlook that last point, as it would be an incredible headache to line up 35 teams to play in men's basketball, not to mention women's basketball and volleyball.

I hate to steal analogies, but in this case Frank the Tank is pretty close when he calls the Big 12 a maximum-security prison, where "[n]o one's getting out ... even if they want to very badly." Everyone in the Big 12 may not love the situation they've found themselves in, but there really isn't much any of them can do about it. We can talk all we want about how we wish the situation were different, but nobody is going to leave this conference, and in so doing, take a huge pay cut based on their frustration with Texas being a big bully.

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