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The Big 12 Expands: Making Sense of the Timeline

The media failed you by just parroting every source without considering those sources’ motivations.

Arizona president Robert Robbins, masked, with Arizona head coach Jedd Fisch from September, 2021
Robert Robbins had had enough before the Pac-12 even had a deal presented.
Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah are joining the Big 12, and the national media spent last week telling you all sorts of things.

Many of those things weren’t correct, and today we’re going to outline what actually happened as far as we’re aware.

On Saturday, July 29, the 13 presidents of the schools which would have been in the Big 12 Conference from 2024 onward held a conference call to discuss various matters.

Sources informed us that day that there were three guests on that conference call: the presidents of the Universities of Oregon, Washington, and Arizona. Oregon and Washington dropped off the call first, after which we’re told Arizona verbally expressed their intention to join the Big 12, and after that we’re told the 13 presidents concurred that inviting Arizona was in their best interests.

That’s right, Arizona had already made their decision, and over the next week Arizona president Robert C. Robbins did a lot of work on the benefit of the Big 12 to discuss matters with various other school presidents. We can’t confirm whether that included Oregon and Washington, but we can confirm that they were still in the ball game as late as Friday morning — even as the national media was vacillating between “Oregon and Washington are definitely joining the Big 10” and “The Pac-12 is getting a better offer and will be staying together” and “Oops, nope, Oregon and Washington are definitely leaving, but we’re not 100% sure where yet.”

But Robbins was definitely working on Arizona State and Utah. The latter apparently wasn’t that hard a sell, but Arizona State president Michael Crow was reportedly so ambivalent to the move that his attitude was described by multiple sources as “deliberately obstructive” while at the same time refusing to rule it out. Those sources indicated that even members of his own circle were urging the move.

Over the course of the week, writers reported that the remaining four corners were “exploring” a move to the Big 12, and that they were joined at the hip. But this was not accurate. Multiple reports emerged from writers who are not part of the national media sector (and thus with much smaller audiences) claiming that Arizona State’s position was that they were perfectly fine with Arizona leaving without them, a position which would have made the Arizona Board of Regents blocking Arizona’s move almost unthinkable.

Further, had Oregon and Washington applied, the Big 12 certainly would have extended offers to those two schools and Arizona, leaving Arizona State and Utah to hope some media outlet was willing to give the Big 12 even more money to expand to 18 teams.

The money, of course, was another widely under-reported aspect of this week’s drama — at least so far as the money to be paid to the Pac-12’s departures was concerned. Multiple schools in the Big Ten were opposed to inviting Oregon and Washington unless money could be found to pay them; that’s why the Big 12 was still in play for the northwestern powers. In the end, the Big Ten was reportedly able to find another $70M a year, forcing their two newest schools to take a partial share for the next six years until a new deal is on the table and beating the Big 12’s offer by... not much at all in the here and how, but likely by a good bit in 2030.

As for the corners, the writing hit the wall on Tuesday for Utah and Arizona State when George Kliavkoff finally presented the terms of Apple’s deal. Most sources now acknowledge the deal was only in the teens, with escalators that would have required the conference to get to 10 million subscribers just to come within shouting distance of the Big 12’s offer.

Absent USC and UCLA, the Pac-12 didn’t even come close to 10 million viewers weekly on regular television that you don’t have to subscribe to. There was no way this deal would be acceptable to any member who had any other option. Even as Arizona’s soft request for admittance on June 29th wasn’t binding, the Apple deal absolutely sealed their departure.

It was fortunate for Arizona State and Utah, then, that Arizona State fully got on board on Friday morning after the second pass at an Apple deal was still found wanting — because sources tell us that the Big 12 was perfectly willing to just stop at 14 if the matter continued to drag out. Utah had already conceded, but without a 16th team to pair with, they may have been left in the cold since — again — Arizona had already been accepted by the “Big 13” presidents.

(One source suggested that another Pac-12 school which had reached out might have taken Arizona State’s place in that scenario, but they were unsure whether FOX would sign off on another $11M for that team; that in turn would have lowered everyone’s take by a few hundred thousand a year.)

During all this, we remained silent because the only thing we knew for certain was that Arizona was in barring a denial by their board of regents. Despite reports from certain Pac-12 reporters, there was absolutely no chance of Arizona backing out and remaining in the conference unless they were forced to.

Oh, we were hearing other things — including a wild suggestion that the Big 12 was going to 20 with the five Friday defectors plus Oregon State and Washington State with the payout for everyone going up to $35M or even $38M — but sources were wildly conflicting, so instead of just throwing it out there, we just... didn’t. Also, that made no sense because there’s no way FOX was going to cough up another $340M, you see?

But the reporters on Twitter who make their livings by constantly having things to tweet about? Oh, they were having a heyday reporting everything anyone with any connections would tell them on the phone. And through all this, for some reason, no major “non-aligned” reporters were calling any of them out on it.

But if you look at who was reporting what and when, some things become plainly obvious.

For months, even as more credible reporters were being accused left and right of being paid-for shills of Brett Yormark and Endeavor by suggesting the Pac-12 was in trouble, Pac-12 reporters were continually reporting what they were hearing from their contacts at Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, and the Pac-12 offices — including repeatedly claiming that nobody was going to leave the conference. What might all of those sources have in common?

The national writers, for the most part, stayed clear of this until the news broke that the Big Ten was seriously vetting Oregon and Washington. At that point, every single rumor was blasted to and by every single national reporter covering college football — and in each case, if you carefully observed every new wave of news, it started with “this is a done deal” and then slowly morphed into “unless there is an obstacle” until finally settling to “well, this is what we heard but it’s not a lock” — with one exception.

It happened with the “Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten” news early in the week. It happened with the “Arizona’s out” news mid-week, which was amusing since people tried to walk it back after talking to Arizona State sources. The exception was Thursday night, when everyone had conceded that the five schools would be announcing their departure as early as Friday morning, but the cycle began again on that morning with the “Kliavkoff has a new deal that will hold the league together” rumor.

That caused utter chaos on social media for about two hours, until the Pac-12 meeting in which he was to present this deal ended with nobody accepting it, and then Oregon and Washington were suddenly locks again, until they quietly weren’t again.

Finally, in the end, Oregon and Washington accepted the low-ball offer from the Big Ten, knowing it would lead to more money down the road. Arizona State and Utah accepted the Big 12’s deal, joining Arizona in formally requesting admission to the Big 12.

And even now, certain reporters are still leaking propaganda from their sources. One reporter is even claiming that the deal everyone rejected on Friday morning was actually acceptable, and that the departing schools just rejected it anyway; no other reporter has even suggested the real deal was for anything higher than $22M, and even that would have required escalators the conference had absolutely zero hope of attaining.

There is a reason why we don’t normally get into trying to break news: we have enough dignity to avoid being wrong. The only thing we ever let slip from all of this over the last week was that Arizona was a lock unless they were prevented from moving, because — and this is very, very important, readers — we understand that things change drastically and rapidly in these situations. Also, we understand that the person who’s talking to us also has an agenda. Had we merely been told “Arizona’s in” by two sources without any details, we wouldn’t have even had enough faith in that to be certain of it.

Had you asked privately on July 30 what was going to happen, our answer would have been “think Arizona, Oregon, and maybe Washington are heading to the Big 12.” That’s what our sources were saying, and there was more than one saying it — but it was an ongoing situation, sources were telling us slightly different things, and we’d rather just report news than engage in clickbait.

And that’s what this commentary is really about, readers. People want to know what’s happening, what’s going to happen, before it happens or before it’s even set in stone. They are ravenous for this information, for reasons which utterly escape us. You, reader of stories on web sites and tweets, can’t do anything about it. Not knowing until a deal is finalized doesn’t affect you directly. All caring about it enough to engage with these people does is increase your stress levels and get you into fights on the internet.

These people know this, so they feed you. They don’t care about being right anymore; very few of them will ever write an article examining how wrong they ended up being. Most of them are already doubling down to defend their coverage of this process.

(By the way, a mea culpa, in part: we have said for months that there was no way Oregon and Washington were worth enough to the Big Ten to warrant an invitation, based on the fact that the Pac-12 wasn’t even able to swing a deal paying each school $30M and how little the remaining schools would have to be worth — an average of about $15M a year — to make the value of Oregon and Washington attractive to the Big Ten. Well, they were apparently attractive enough... at a 40% share of everyone else’s revenue. Make of that what you will.)

The important thing for everyone to understand, going forward, is this: you have to ask yourself whether things make any sense. If someone suggests the Big Ten is going to invite Oregon, Washington, Cal, and Stanford, ask yourself if Cal and Stanford even have enough value to make that work at half shares. If someone suggests that Oregon is at the bottom of the Big Ten’s list among those four schools, ask yourself who might be suggesting that. If a reporter is saying something that sounds goofy, ask yourself who their sources are or might be.

Always. Always question. And if you’re going to trust someone, make sure it’s someone who’ll tell you “this could be complete BS.”