A college sports conference realignment wave starts in one of two ways. The first is the most organic: A handful of schools start talking, and they realize they have both common interests that are most easily achieved together and some touchpoints of cultural similarity. That’s how the Big East came about in 1979 and grew over the coming years into a beloved basketball league that also played football and other sports. It’s also how the Big Eight and top half of the Southwest Conference joined forces in 1990s, forming what came to be called the Big 12.
The second way to jumpstart conference realignment is for one or two schools to light a stick of dynamite and throw it through the rest of college sports’ collective window. That is a better way to describe what is unfolding now between three powerful entities: the University of Texas, the University of Oklahoma, and the Southeastern Conference.
Sooner than later, both Texas and Oklahoma will leave the league they founded, the Big 12, and move to the SEC. It looked likely last week, when word leaked that UT and OU were exploring SEC membership and nobody involved denied it. But it’s now close to a certainty, as the Big 12’s two most powerful schools have officially informed the rest of their league that they won’t extend their media rights arrangement with the conference beyond its expiry in 2025.
It won’t take that long for the Longhorns and Sooners to exit. They are betting that the Big 12’s eight remaining schools will prefer some kind of settlement to end their relationship early to the embarrassment of spending four years as conference realignment cuckolds, with the two biggest brands in the conference serving as lame ducks. When UT and OU leave, they’ll set off cascading changes all over college sports. Every sports talk radio host from Morgantown to Lubbock can theorize about what those will be, and some will even be right. Maybe the Big 12’s remnants will add BYU, currently an independent! Maybe the ACC will turn up the heat in an effort to annex Notre Dame! Maybe Iowa State will join the Big Ten! The particulars are forever debatable and dissectable. Message boards will live out their halcyon days.
But what’s good for message boards isn’t necessarily good for college sports. There is nothing to celebrate about the Longhorns and Sooners’ impending move. It will enrich a few schools that do not need it, and in the process, it will entrench some of college sports’ worst traits in ways that cut even deeper than they have before. The result will be a lesser experience for scores of people well beyond Norman and Austin—though the athletes and fans in those places might find that they are not any better off in the SEC than in the Big 12, either.
Money drives realignment in modern college sports. Specifically, TV money, and even more specifically, TV money generated from football. That was the impetus that pushed a big handful of schools to new conferences early in the 2010s: Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers defected to the Big Ten; Colorado and Utah to the Pac-12; and Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC. Each of those leagues was on the verge of launching or expanding its own TV network, and they sought a footprint in places where cable providers would pay up. There’s no particular virtue in money-driven decisions in an industry where the labor goes unpaid, but the last wave of realignment at least made sense as a necessity on financial grounds. Maryland is no longer cutting a bunch of varsity programs, as it was doing before it boarded the Big Ten lifeboat. Big Ten schools now make more than $50 million per year in media money.
The Texas and Oklahoma moves are not exactly like that, though cash is the driving factor again. The SEC just struck up a mammoth TV deal with ESPN, which starts in 2024. Either that deal was made with the Texas and Oklahoma news in mind, or the conference will want to renegotiate. Otherwise, the SEC would be agreeing to split TV revenue 16 ways rather than 14. For their part, Texas and OU both think they’ll get a larger piece of that 16-team pie than of the 10-team pie they currently share in the Big 12. (That’s even with Texas getting special rights to have its own ESPN-operated TV channel, the Longhorn Network.) The math seems sound. A Big 12 revenue share is now around $40 million per school per year, while the SEC’s number is around $45 million and about to shoot way, way higher than that.
What sets this exodus apart from the early-2010s realignment is that UT and OU clearly don’t need to chase a few million extra dollars per year. Texas’ athletic department is the most lucrative in college sports at well over $200 million in annual revenue, and Oklahoma is typically in the top 10. Go through both schools’ recent financial reports with the NCAA, and you’ll find that conference TV money isn’t even an essential line item for these schools. Both have larger revenue sources like fundraising, ticket sales, and licensing, and both would be among the richest athletic departments in America even if they never made a cent from their conferences. Both have enough to do whatever they want, whether that’s UT coming up with $25 million to fire its football coaching staff or OU throwing nine figures into facility upgrades. Money isn’t either team’s problem. Texas’ issues are internal politics and self-sabotage. Oklahoma’s is that winning national championships requires playing a little bit of defense. Pursuing more money is their right, but nobody has to cheer it or pretend it will meaningfully improve anything.
What Oklahoma, Texas, and the rest of the SEC get out of this is clear: marginal improvements to their cash flows, and for the Sooners, a chance to get a four-touchdown loss to the SEC’s best team out of the way before the College Football Playoff. The rest of college sports, on the other hand, only gets instability and further regionalization. College sports deserves instability on many issues—its player compensation model, for instance—but the sort of shakiness this move will bring will not help anyone. By further concentrating power in the South, it will further regionalize a sport that hasn’t felt truly national since USC was building a mini-dynasty in the mid-aughts. The Big 12—a league that has never won a playoff game and has only had one team (Oklahoma) appear in the event—will be irrelevant to wide swaths of casual fans. There will be increasingly little reason for new fans outside the South, Midwest, and parts of the Atlantic coastline to fall in love with the sport. This, again, is not Texas’ or Oklahoma’s problem, but it doesn’t mean anyone else should be happy about the effect.
There’s nothing inherently special about the status quo, and the current Big 12 is not all that worth missing, at least as a football property. For one thing, it has not been around long, and for another, it has gotten a bit stale in the only sport that drives realignment decisions at this level: football. A couple of participants in the league’s best old series (Colorado and Nebraska) have already left, and it’s not like college football needs Oklahoma to keep anticlimactically beating Oklahoma State every single year in the weirdly named “Bedlam” rivalry game.
But the Texas and Oklahoma departure will filter down and threaten the good stories that do emerge from the league’s lower and middle class. Take Iowa State, a historic doormat that made a smart coaching hire a few years ago in Toledo’s Matt Campbell and just won the Fiesta Bowl to cap its greatest season ever. The Cyclones have so far been able to hang onto Campbell despite it being an open secret that some of the sport’s biggest brands would love to hire him. That resistance may not hold when the Big 12’s leftovers are relegated to something less than the status of a full power. However the realignment chips fall, numerous schools will find themselves in similar situations.
Once again: None of this is Texas or Oklahoma’s problem. Their fans will come around to the move, because that’s what college sports fans do in these situations. Disagreements will sometimes spill out of the family and into public, but fans will learn to love a new league. It’s exciting to join the far-and-away best football conference, where two blue-bloods will swim in the sport’s biggest pond. In a game so reliant on shared group identities, the fanbase eventually follows the leaders.
But these particular fanbases will not necessarily be better off in the SEC. An extra $15 million in television money every year will not filter down to cheaper ticket prices. Actually, it will probably result in a more expensive viewing experience, because all the money that TV partners will pay the SEC has to get recouped somewhere, whether that’s in higher fees to cable providers (who pass the costs on to consumers) or a pricier streaming subscription. The players, the most important constituency in college sports, will in effect generate more money for their schools while continuing to get paid none of it. The schools will pay lip service to how iron sharpens iron and competing at the highest level benefits the student-athlete, and that will be cute. But the fundamentals of the school-athlete relationship will not change, even if the time it takes to travel from campus to a conference road game will get longer. There’s some notion that being in the SEC will improve both programs’ recruiting, but both Texas and Oklahoma are already in the sport’s elite recruiting tier. It’s not clear how they’ll rise to the mega-elite tier unless the solution is just to win a lot of games, which Oklahoma already does. There’s also the point that both schools will be able to give their fans better home games to attend, but both UT and OU have enough status that they can find plenty of great games on their own. The Longhorns already have a home-and-home with Alabama on the books.
Ultimately, the dollars and cents are the most exhausting facet of this forthcoming wave. College football has more or less always revolved around schools making and keeping as much money as possible. This is no different. But until Texas and Oklahoma started their break for it, it was possible to hold the illusion that some level of financial comfort was enough to dissuade the richest schools from tampering with structures that hold up the rest of the sport. UT and OU already had enough to run a fiefdom in the Big 12, a conference that went out of its way to make both of them feel special. (There is a reason the Big 12 makes a federal case out of how it might penalize Texas’ opponents for using the Horns Down hand gesture, and it is the same reason the conference has let Texas operate its own television channel.) The idea was that at some point, schools like Texas and Oklahoma would have enough to not want to bring down the entire house. It’s the same idea that made it a little shocking when rich European soccer teams tried to destroy international club competition earlier this year, even if no one was naive about club owners’ intention to prioritize their own profits above anything else. The same sensation exists now. If Texas and Oklahoma can’t be satisfied with having everything, then which schools can?