The NCAA’s great summer of change has been nothing short of fascinating to watch play out. With the adoption of one-time transfer eligibility waivers, Name, Image, and Likeness legislation, and College Football Playoff expansion to 12 teams, the fundamental structure of the sport is shaking in the wind.
That foundation experienced another reverberating tremor following the news of Texas and Oklahoma delivering the Big XII a death knell by (potentially) joining the SEC. These additions will give the SEC 16 members and open the door for the largest round of conference realignment we’ve seen since 2013. As we saw in 2013, just a few schools exiting a single conference can considerably change the composition of the entire sport.
Before we begin issuing our armchair projections of how the Group of Five may change its alignment, it’s important we lay out a few reminders of how this round of realignment will differ considerably from 2013.
First off, it seems unlikely that conferences will be pursuing “media markets” once again, especially at the G5 level. Based off of the continual decay (AAC aside) of the G5 conferences’ media payouts, it’s clear that the strategy of gobbling up programs located in major metro areas at all costs did little to sway Fox and ESPN to stuff more money into the pockets of America’s mid-majors.
Furthermore, the explosive growth of the Sun Belt indicates that Karl Benson had it right by adding winning programs with robust fan support, facilities in place, and intense dedication from administration to compete at the highest level. It’s doubtful another conference would make the mistake of chasing the media market ghosts again.
Media markets aside, the most unique factor that will drive the next round of realignment is the anticipated format of the expanded CFB playoff. The addition of six at-large playoff bids decreases the pressure of winning a conference championship in the SEC and other major conferences. This increase of playoff accessibility will consolidate blue blood programs into conferences that will have TV executives drooling.
On the flip side, the proposed playoff expansion format providing auto bids to the six top-rated conference champions is a massive boon to the AAC’s stability in realignment. With the Big XII looking to be left with just Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia, it may not be a slam dunk to convince AAC programs to make the jump to the Big XII since such a move likely won’t move the needle for the programs’ playoff access. The remaining Big Eight is essentially a G5 conference. Their average SP+ ranking last season was 55, while the AAC’s was 59.
Given the competitive parity between the two conferences, the Big XII will have less to offer G5 programs than a Power 5 conference typically would. While some programs may be swayed by being associated with more recognizable brands, the on-field product won’t change all that much for schools like Cincinnati or UCF.
What the Big XII can offer, however, is a dump truck full of crisp hundred-dollar bills. The Big XII currently holds a Grant of Rights for each of its current members’ television broadcast rights. This GOR is worth a $30 million per year payout to each member of the conference, a stark gap from the AAC’s current $7 million payout. Best case, any AAC members that join the Big XII would see a combined $69 million increase in media payout rights over the final three seasons of the Big XII’s media deal before that contract likely gets slashed and burned to embers without UT and OU contributing to the valuation.
Of course, the reality of the situation probably won’t be as sexy. Lawyers are going to lawyer, and it’s likely the Longhorns’ and Sooners’ legal representation will cut the Big XII a hefty check that will nullify the schools’ GOR agreements at a heavily discounted rate. We haven’t seen a Grant of Rights challenged in the courts, but it’s likely all parties will want to avoid messy and extensive litigation.
Regardless, any program that joins the Big XII will likely see an eight-digit payday that could pay off an impressive indoor practice facility (lookin’ at you, USF) or increase coaching salaries.
That’s a good chunk of change that can make a real difference for a program, but short-term gains don’t always beat out measured investment. If an AAC program chased the short-term TV check in the Big XII, they would run the risk of the AAC actually surpassing the Big XII in stature in the future if the rest of the AAC decided to stay put. It’s not at all inconceivable to imagine the AAC actually having a stronger TV contract than the skeleton Big XII within the next five years.
The remaining Big XII programs may heavily struggle without the buoy of Texas and Oklahoma. Trips to Austin and Norman are a major recruiting tool for programs like Kansas State and Oklahoma State, and fan support at these programs could very possibly hit a sharp decrease with these marquee games off the schedule.
If the AAC really wanted to get aggressive, they could attempt to become the poacher rather than the poached. Could Mike Aresco convince some combination of Oklahoma State, TCU, or West Virginia to join the AAC? It seemed farfetched a few months ago, but I wouldn’t put anything past the shrewd and boisterous commissioner.
Adding any one of these programs would make the AAC statistically superior to the remnants of the Big XII overnight while expanding the incoming program’s recruiting footprint into Florida. The AAC may not have the legacy and historical tradition of the Big XII, but it does have innovative leadership, fertile recruiting grounds, and a clear path blazed towards incremental improvement as the conference’s programs continue to invest heavily in athletics.
Such a move may upset boosters upfront but would likely pay dividends over the coming years, especially if other Big XII members managed to flee to the Big Ten, Pac 12, or ACC. No one wants to be the last man standing on the Titanic deck as the life boats hit the chilly water. This message may especially resonate with TCU after they were left in the lowly WAC after the Southwest Conference fell apart in 1996.
Whether you’re a Big XII or AAC athletic director, you’ll likely have a difficult choice to make in the coming months. With the Big XII’s TV contract expiring in 2025, the financial gap between the two conferences may be short-lived. Momentum seems to be on the side of the AAC as programs such as Memphis and UCF continue to build on their success while the likes of Kansas State and Texas Tech flounder.
Turning your nose up at a large payday is extremely difficult, but athletic directors need to act in the best long-term interest of their programs. If a sack full of cash was sitting in a pool of quicksand would you dive in and grab it?