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Big 12’s request to extend TV rights prompts Texas to look at all options, including SEC

Source: Longhorns expected to send letter to Big 12 office next week asking not to extend rights beyond 2025

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby thanked reporters last week for not asking about conference realignment at the league’s media days in Arlington. “I think I won five bucks on that,” he joked.

“Not to say it couldn't happen,” he added, “but it's not one of the things that keeps me up at night.”

Bowlsby must be restless now. The Big 12 Conference’s shelf life looks considerably shakier now that University of Texas and University of Oklahoma officials are exploring a move to the rival Southeastern Conference, a seismic shift that would rattle college athletics down to its core.

The University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma both appear to be considering a jump from the Big 12 Conference to the Southeastern Conference, which would create college football's first 16-team superconference.

It’s also complicated, a decision that would require serious backroom dealing, tacit state legislative approval and 11 affirmative votes from 14 current SEC schools — with Texas A&M already likely to vote no. 

Three Big 12 sources told the American-Statesman the major decisions could come quickly. The Big 12’s television contract runs through the 2024-25 athletic year. The league has asked its members for a five-year extension, pushing that commitment out to at least 2030, one Big 12 source said.

More:Are Texas and Oklahoma trying to join the SEC? Officials say 'no comment' on possible discussions

Texas does not want to extend itself that far in this environment. Players can now get paid because of changes in name, image and likeness rules, and conference commissioners are discussing an expanded 12-team playoff format. With the proliferation of cord cutting, it’s unclear what the TV landscape will look like in 2025, much less in 2030.

For Texas to make a move, UT officials believe they must send a letter to the SEC expressing interest in joining. The SEC would then vote on whether to approve the Longhorns — and take another vote about Oklahoma — for expansion.

Thus, Texas wants to step back and examine all options, one source said. The Longhorns are expected to send a letter to the Big 12 office next week saying they do not wish to extend their TV rights beyond 2025. A UT source called it "the first step" Thursday.

From there, UT officials believe they must send a letter to the SEC expressing interest in joining the conference. The SEC would then vote on whether to approve the Longhorns — and take another vote on the Sooners — for expansion.

Big 12 presidents and athletic directors were scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Thursday, CBS Sports reported.

More: Big 12 TV partners decline early negotiations

For UT, this is about moving the NCAA’s most financially lucrative athletic department into the most prestigious, most lucrative athletic conference in America. For Oklahoma, it’s about not getting left behind and about giving the SEC a 16th team, creating the nation’s first so-called superconference.

“I’ve been trying to tell people everybody wants to play in the SEC, man,” Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz said Thursday at SEC media days in Hoover, Ala. “If you can attract a couple of really good schools to come play, that’s great.”

From left are UT athletic director Chris Del Conte, UT System Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife, Longhorns football coach Steve Sarkisian and UT President Jay Hartzell, key players in a possible move to the SEC.

After issuing a nondenial statement Wednesday, Texas officials have gone silent. It’s believed this decision is being driven by three people working in tight-knit fashion: UT System Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife, UT President Jay Hartzell and athletic director Chris Del Conte. 

“At the University of Texas, we have a proud tradition of competing at the highest levels amongst the elite programs in college football,” Eltife said Jan. 2, when Steve Sarkisian was introduced as the new football coach. “And in honor of that tradition, we never settle for anything short of excellence. We don’t do things halfway.”

All three worked in conjunction to bring Sarkisian and Texas Tech men's basketball coach Chris Beard to Austin this year. Del Conte did the interviews and legwork with Hartzell’s approval, and Eltife signed off on the multimillion-dollar financial ramifications of both coaching changes. 

This type of harmony is a huge change from the previous decade, when UT regents were suing the president and fans loathed the athletic director. “When we’re all rowing in the same direction,” Del Conte has said numerous times, “it’s a sight to behold.”

Texas defensive lineman Keondre Coburn walks the field at AT&T Stadium in Arlington ahead of the December 2018 Big 12 championship game against Oklahoma. Both schools are reportedly thinking about joining the SEC.

For Del Conte, getting Texas into the SEC would be the biggest achievement of his professional life. The loquacious athletic director has not returned multiple calls or messages left by the Statesman. Other Texas administrators did not respond for comment Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 schools potentially getting left behind are scrambling.

“We are gathering information and will monitor closely,” Oklahoma State officials said in a statement late Wednesday. “If true, we would be gravely disappointed.”

Baylor graduate and state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, tweeted Thursday: “The lack of transparency by our flagship institution is wrong. Such a monumental economic and educational decision impacting the entire state must not be made in a bubble on the forty acres. Working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the BIG XII.”

Messages left with Leach’s office by the Statesman were not returned.

Texas running back Tre Watson is tackled by Oklahoma linebacker Curtis Bolton during the 2018 Big 12 championship game. The Sooners have won the past six league titles.

Financially, the SEC is in better shape than the Big 12. The SEC distributed $45.5 million to each of its 14 members from the 2019-20 fiscal year, the league announced in February. The Big 12 distributed $34.5 million to each of its 10 members for the 2020-21 fiscal year. 

Then in May, the SEC distributed another $23 million to its members to help offset losses from the pandemic. The league was borrowing from revenue expected from its new ESPN deal, which will start in 2024.

Television contracts are a driving force in all these discussions, but not the end-all, be-all, one league source told the Statesman. The Big 12’s TV contract runs through the 2024-25 athletic year, and UT’s contract with the Longhorn Network extends to summer 2031.

It’s believed that if Texas went to the SEC, the Longhorn Network would be wound down. Texas gets an extra $15 million annually from LHN that would have to be accounted for somewhere else in a new agreement with the SEC. 

In 2012, Oklahoma struck a 10-year deal with Fox Sports for the Sooners’ third-tier TV rights worth approximately $40 million over the life of the deal. In the SEC, all members have signed their third-tier rights over to the league, which created the SEC Network. 

The extra money Texas would get from going to the SEC would somewhat be secondary. The Longhorns are now losing competitive ground to the Aggies in recruiting as players view SEC competition as superior to the Big 12. Texas lost a recruit late Wednesday as four-star cornerback Jaylon Guilbeau from Port Arthur Memorial suddenly backed away from his commitment to UT's 2022 recruiting class.

Oklahoma has won six straight Big 12 football titles, but Texas has been competitive everywhere else. The Longhorns, who claimed three national team championships this spring, won the Learfield Directors’ Cup for the first time in school history during the 2020-21 athletic year. The Directors’ Cup goes to the most successful athletic program in the nation. 

Texas would still keep its annual football grudge match against OU at the Cotton Bowl every year. But UT officials would gladly trade home games against Kansas and Kansas State for dates with Arkansas and LSU, for example. 

How quickly all this would happen remains to be seen.

“I’m so nervous about the schedule we have coming up and all that, I haven’t paid much attention about it,” Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. “I know we’re going to play Texas this year. We play them Sept. 11, and we’re very excited for that.”

Contact Brian Davis by phone or text at 512-445-3957. Email bdavis@statesman.com or @BDavisAAS.