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Today's Developments: What I Think We Know

Today, the plot thickened as 810 WHB in Kansas City reported that the Big 10 had made "initial offers" to Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame and Rutgers, according to anonymous sources.  It seemed like a slightly more reliable report than the "done deal" we heard out of Columbia, Mo.'s KOMU last week, if only because it was reported by 810, a heavy hitter in local sports, and because there was no way to listen to what the sources had actually said and realize that there was no way any rational person could have come to the conclusion that anything was a "done deal."

First of all, the article called the offers "initial."  It didn't call them "formal" offers or "final" offers.  Maybe that means something, or maybe it doesn't, but I found it an interesting choice of words.

Not long after the article was posted, the standard denials were issued that always accompany a news report that is either wrong or is premature and not broken on the interested parties' terms.  Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman claimed the report had no validity, more specifically stating as follows:

The University of Nebraska has not been offered any opportunity to move from the Big 12.

That's pretty unequivocal language.  It does not say they haven't been "formally offered" or "finally offered."  It says they haven't been offered "any opportunity" to leave the Big 12.  If Perlman was going for a denial that could be construed as not being a falsehood later if an offer really had been extended, he failed.

Missouri's response was also a denial, although it was more interesting than Perlman's.  Mizzou athletic director Mike Alden made the following statement:

“There’s nothing there at all,” said the source, who said he had spoken with MU athletic director Mike Alden on Monday. “Not yet. … nothing has changed.”

Of course, Missouri officials are taking part in "internal discussions about the Big 10 Conference."  Why on earth a university would waste its high-level administrators' time with discussions about something that was nothing more than the basest speculation is beyond my comprehension.  And you'll notice that Alden said "Not yet" toward the end of his quote.  That was probably a slip of the tongue, although it's open to interpretation what that slip means.

The Big 10 also has offered a denial, with a spokesman saying "nothing has changed," which seems to be the Big 10's Mission Statement.  With the denials from all parties involved, it would take a lot of reading between the lines and looking for what you want to believe this is any closer to reality than it was, say, two weeks ago.  So what more do we need to know?

First of all, we need someone to go on the record, and that someone needs to be in a position to know.  I'm growing weary of the reports that someone at ESPN heard from a Pac-10 athletic director that maybe Jim Delaney likes corn on the cob and watching tigers in magic shows, ergo it's clear that Nebraska and Missouri are soon to be absorbed.  Likewise, it's against my training as a journalist to throw much faith into stories based on anonymous sources.  I really miss the days when "news" outlets reported something that was backed up by the quotes of John "Diddly" Dick, president and CEO.  It really is a shame when you can no longer be sure that what's reported on the news is real, and today's news reports often are not worth diddly dick.

That said, I would also be making a serious accusation if I said I think Keitzman merely made all this up.  Ratings whore though Keitzman is, nobody with half a brain would throw away their credibility by making up a story as big as this and attributing it to anonymous sources "close to the negotiations."  If the story ends up outed as untrue, we can fairly accuse Keitzman of poor judgment in his choice of sources, but I find it hard to believe that he simply fabricated this story of whole cloth.

Today's intrigue is only going to exacerbate the sniping that's beginning in this conference.  Missouri governor Jay Nixon started it by sticking his foot squarely in his mouth by badmouthing Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, and it continued in the media today when an anonymous (!) Big 12 official said Missouri's and Nebraska's "act" is starting to "tick people off" and that equal revenue sharing "isn't going to happen" because of the Tigers' and Cornhuskers' saber-rattling.

Is this fair?  My first reaction was "absolutely not" when I wrongly assumed that this anonymous source might be a Texas official, although I guess we can argue whether a "Big 12 official" is really distinguishable from a "Texas official" in any meaningful way.  But the more I thought about it, the more I questioned whether the criticism of MU and NU is fair. 

Clearly, the Big 10 represents a financial windfall to either school.  But as we've asked with UT in the past: do they really need it?  Nebraska generates a ton of revenue -- thanks in part to the fact that it benefits from unequal revenue sharing -- and has facilities that rival those at Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma.  Missouri's facilities as a whole don't measure up, but their Cracker Barrel Mizzou Arena is as nice as any other basketball arena in the league, and their other facilities would easily compete favorably in the top half of the conference.

Using UT again as an exemplar, we've seen the power of keeping the alumni happy.  Texas makes less money from the Big 12 than Northwestern does from the Big 10, and yet its athletic department revenue is up 32 percent in the last two years, and is the top revenue-producing AD in the nation.  Selling tickets, selling merchandise, and raking in donations more than make up for the $10 million or so Texas spots schools in the Big 10 and SEC in TV money.  It's one reason some have questioned whether it makes sense for UT to consider jumping to the Big 10 or the SEC.  Would they still win at the rate they do, and would their alumni have the same passion for games against these new opponents?

The same goes for Missouri and, to a (possibly) lesser extent, Nebraska.  Mizzou doesn't exactly run with the big dogs when it comes to filling its stadium and arena on a regular basis, and what if nobody in the Big 10 generates the same buzz among MU alumni that century-old rivals in the Big 12 generate?  Nebraska will probably always sell out Memorial Stadium because I grew up there, and I can attest that there's nothing else to do on fall Saturdays even if you want to, because the state practically shuts down to watch or listen to the games.  But will games against Michigan and Ohio State replace the cherished rivalry with Oklahoma, weakened as it has been by the Big 12?  Will there be anyone they hate as much as Colorado or K-State?  What if they become -- gasp! -- just another run-of-the-mill Big 10 team, in a state nobody cares about, running an offense that is in no way unique?

I guess it boils down to the following question.  If we could guarantee both Nebraska and Missouri that the Big 12 will continue to be a powerhouse athletic conference, will get an improved TV deal in the next few years, and may be able to generate new revenue streams -- perhaps with a Pac-10 alliance for media rights -- would they give up what they know for nothing other than money, the marginal utility of which could be questionable?  My guess is that all parties fear that some other school is going to bolt, and that eventually Texas will decide it's not worth sticking around anymore, at which point the conference will no longer be viable.  In that situation, you have to protect your interests and make the preemptive move if that is available to you.

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has stated in the media that Texas is committed to the Big 12.  Perhaps at the Big 12's upcoming meetings, all the school representatives need to have a brutally honest discussion of their positions.  If the media-rights alliance with the Pac-10 is really going to happen and it really is going to increase TV revenue, and Texas really is committed to remaining with the Big 12, then perhaps Nebraska and Missouri need to be given an ultimatum to either be a part of the team or get out.  Otherwise, I can't fault them for protecting their interests.