MORGANTOWN — When the Big 12’s top administrators and its football and basketball coaches met in Phoenix earlier this month, there was a pleasant and plainly obvious agenda.
“We really didn’t talk about speculation and what the future holds,” said West Virginia University Athletic Director Shane Lyons. “It was more about the normal, day-to-day business aspect of things. Nothing exciting came out of it.”
That description fits now. There was no place in reality for it a year ago. The conference was consumed by the specter of expansion. Then in July, the commissioner was empowered to explore additions. In September, the league decided to stick with 10 teams, and the Big 12 has followed that road since.
So the meetings this year were devoted to more mundane but nevertheless critical topics, like finances and football’s championship game, which returns this fall after a six-year hiatus.
“And the media wanted to write about the number of draft choices we had and what our schools did compared to Western Kentucky or what have you, and that became a story,” Lyons said. “Why did that become a story? ‘Well, there goes the Big 12 again, not producing.’ ”
That was not part of the dialogue when the doors closed, as if a seminar and some PowerPoint slides would show the coaches the light and teach them how to produce more NFL-ready players. But there was some time spent wondering about what’s coming toward the Big 12 and the rest of the college conferences.
Shortly before the NFL draft came and went and selected just 14 players from the 10 Big 12 teams, ESPN cut ties with around 100 employees. That came two years after unloading about 300 others. It’s a consequence of costs, and ESPN has spread itself out so it can rightly call itself the Worldwide Leader in Sports. Part of that invites gargantuan fees paid for broadcast rights for the NFL, NBA and MLB but also for college sports conferences.
Combine that with the trend of subscription losses as well as fans ditching cable and getting their sporting events and headlines from modern alternatives and you can understand why the Big 12 is, let’s say, leaning forward and paying attention. It counts ESPN and Fox as its media partners. They put Big 12 and WVU games on television, and there aren’t many other options — for now.
The current Big 12 contract pays schools a pinch more than $20 million per year. WVU can’t afford that to go away and probably can’t know that it won’t. ESPN is committed to a successful SEC network. In 2019, it’s unveiling an ACC network. There is no Big 12 network, but there is the Texas-specific Longhorn Network, and that, too, is an ESPN property. How far can dollars stretch when ESPN is condensing?
The Big 12 contract goes though the 2024-25 athletic year. That’s far off in the future — the senior class on WVU’s basketball team that year is in eighth grade today — and we cannot assume anything. Suppose an ACC network, which didn’t even seem like a shrewd idea when it was announced last summer, doesn’t launch. That doesn’t necessarily mean ESPN is interested in investing in other coverage, like the Big 12. It might mean ESPN doesn’t want to spend that money, period.
The Longhorn Network signed a 20-year contract in 2010, but it reportedly lost $48 million in its first five years, and current events don’t project a surge from red to black. Say ESPN gets out of it or doesn’t renew it. That again means the network might want to keep that money, and that may threaten the future of the Big 12, because Texas remains an elite property in the world of college sports broadcasting and competition.
If the roughly $15 million a year in exclusive revenue is no longer available, whether before or after the end of the contract, there’s really no stopping Texas from going to another league that can make up that loss of income. In February, USA Today reported the SEC paid Georgia and Alabama, schools Texas would be compared to no less than favorably, $41.9 and $39.1 million in conference revenue for the 2015-16 fiscal year. The Big 12 paid its members a bit more than $23 million. Take Texas away from the Big 12, and what’s left?
The Big 12 ought to know as well as anyone that the future comes fast. This would be a good time to use the past as a guide for the future, to be proactive instead of reactive, but that’s tricky when it comes to the technology of televised sports.
“If you and I had talked not even 10 years ago and I told you you’d be watching a football game or a basketball game on your phone, you’d probably say, ‘My flip phone? You’re crazy,’ ” Lyons said.
Fox and ESPN representatives were at the league meetings, and they attempted to reaffirm faith in the model and its ability to adapt and advance.
“They’re not pumping the brakes and having the alarms and red flags pop up,” Lyons said. “It’s just like anything else we do in the world. It’s changing. Viewership is changing. It’s a matter of how do you keep up with the viewership and how they want to watch events?”
A better question is whether the Big 12 or anyone else should be readying to rely exclusively on ESPN, Fox or any network in the future. It seems unreasonably risky, and it seems impossible to ignore the surge in the popularity of the streaming services, to say nothing of the quantity and quality and the possibilities they present.
The companies are giants with deep pockets, and they can throw big rocks to make a big splash. Amazon has pledged a reported $50 million for 10 Thursday-night NFL games. A year ago, Twitter paid $10 million.
College conferences have to track this, obsess over this and figure out how to get in early on this. The traditional over-the-air broadcast isn’t going away, but neither are streaming services. They accommodate fans, who long ago embraced the fact they don’t need to go to the game to watch it and have since enjoyed the freedom of knowing they don’t even have to watch it live or from a sofa.
That’s not changing, and conferences would be wise to figure out a way onto your devices.
“Nobody has the answer, but I do think there are new things and new ideas to explore,” Lyons said. “It may not all happen in one fell swoop, but does someone say, ‘Hey, let’s make a partnership deal with this company?’ Is the cable company that’s providing the network going to sit there and say, ‘We’re going to partner with these kind of companies now?’ Does Amazon or Hulu or Google go out on their own?’
“I think things are in the works, and we continue to go down that path with sports people, but I just don’t see people turning away from sports. They want it. How they’re going to receive it might change.”