The University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas on Friday defied the Big 12’s fury and agreed to defect to the Southeastern Conference, college football’s mightiest league and a juggernaut with few equals in American sports.
The eventual moves by Oklahoma and Texas will increase the size of the SEC, which already includes powers like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana State, to 16 universities and ultimately drive tens of millions of new dollars into the league. But the repercussions are already being felt well beyond the conference, upending the tenuous landscape of big-time college athletics by reshuffling the broadcast, competitive and political alliances that are the industry’s underpinnings.
During separate board meetings on Friday, Oklahoma and Texas formally accepted the invitations they had sought from the SEC, whose presidents and chancellors voted Thursday to offer them membership. Although the Sooners and the Longhorns are not scheduled to join their new league until July 2025, many college sports executives believe they will negotiate a settlement with the Big 12, or see that conference collapse, and make the switch years earlier.
The N.C.A.A.’s roughly 1,100 schools regularly “realign” sports programs into other conferences, but decisions to abandon one Power 5 league for another are rare. That Oklahoma and Texas — big brands with loyal followings and national stature — are at the center of this year’s moves will make this round the most consequential in roughly a decade, when Missouri and Texas A&M ultimately departed the Big 12 for the SEC.
In that multiyear stretch of musical chairs, which also, for instance, saw Nebraska head to the Big Ten, Oklahoma and Texas contemplated going to what is currently known as the Pac-12 Conference. They stayed put only after frenzied negotiations.
“What’s changed between 2012 and today?” Joseph Harroz Jr., the president of the University of Oklahoma, asked rhetorically before the school’s board voted. “The answer is everything.”
The influence of the SEC, which has won six national championships in football over the decade, grew in parallel. In December, the league announced a $3 billion deal for 10 years of its television rights.
The league was flush even before that agreement, scheduled to begin in 2024. For 2018-19, the last full fiscal year before the coronavirus pandemic, the SEC divided $651 million in revenues among its members, one of the largest distributions in college sports. The additions of Oklahoma and Texas, industry officials believe, will allow the league to command even grander sums, some of which will be routed toward the newcomer schools in Austin, Texas, and Norman, Okla. (The Big 12, which had four fewer members, said it had split about $388 million for 2018-19.)
The SEC also stands to gain no small amount of athletic tradition, in part because of the ties between Oklahoma and Texas, whose ritual entanglements include the Red River rivalry football games that have been played annually since 1929.
Although Oklahoma has not won a national championship in football since the 2000 season, it has reached the College Football Playoff four times since 2015. Its men’s and women’s gymnastics programs are some of the country’s most formidable, and the university won this year’s national title in softball.
Texas football has had a checkered 21st century. Although the university won a national championship at the end of the 2005 season, the Longhorns have not earned even a conference title since the 2009 season, when they last played for a national championship. This season will bring the debut of Texas’s fourth head coach in less than a decade.
But Texas has thrived in other areas. The men’s swimming program is revered, and the university also won titles this year in women’s rowing and women’s tennis, propelling the university to win the 2020-21 Directors’ Cup, awarded annually to the country’s top college athletic program.
The flirtations of Oklahoma and Texas with the SEC, which is based in Alabama, became public just last week, when The Houston Chronicle reported the schools’ interest in changing leagues. Neither university denied the report. More tellingly, neither pledged allegiance to the Big 12, and instead insisted they would not respond to, as Texas put it, “rumors or speculation.”
Few people had been aware of the extent of the schools’ interest — even some SEC athletic directors said they knew nothing until the Chronicle’s article appeared — and predictable eruptions followed.
The athletic director at Texas A&M, Ross Bjork, for example, loudly argued that the Aggies wanted to be the lone Texas team in the SEC.
On Monday, as A&M’s frustrations faded — they ultimately voted to extend invitations to the Big 12 defectors — Oklahoma and Texas gave the Big 12 the college sports equivalent of divorce papers: notices that they would not renew their conference-connected media rights deals upon their expiration in 2025. The notices were crucial steps in a fraught process that can offer star turns to administrators, politicians and, of course, lawyers, who may very well just be getting started in the unwinding of the Big 12’s ties with Texas and Oklahoma.
Leaving a conference like the Big 12 was designed to be particularly tricky, or at least particularly expensive, because of the structure of the television deals that are its lifeblood. Under the Big 12’s system, member schools cede control of their most lucrative television rights, including those for football and most men’s and women’s basketball games, to the league. The Big 12 sold those rights to ESPN and Fox in a $2.6 billion deal that goes through the 2024-25 school year.
Although Oklahoma and Texas said this week that they intended to “honor their existing grant of rights agreements,” the Big 12 became openly angry. Its commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, lashed out at the schools and at ESPN, which he believed was helping to orchestrate a raid on his league and was destabilizing it. Bowlsby even sent ESPN, which pays the Big 12 over $100 million a year for television rights, a cease and desist letter, to which the company responded by denying any wrongdoing.
The planned switches by Oklahoma and Texas have created intense pressure on other conferences. The American Athletic Conference, which, like the Big 12, is based in Irving, Texas, may bolster its roster, which includes top Group of 5 teams like Cincinnati, Central Florida and Houston. The Big Ten, the powerhouse with programs like Ohio State and Wisconsin, has been the richest league in college sports and was already grappling with how it would counter the SEC’s mounting power. The Pac-12, spurned 11 years ago by the Sooners and the Longhorns and now routinely excluded from the football playoff, could look to sweep in new members.
Some could be drawn from the Big 12. The remaining eight schools — Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Christian, Texas Tech and West Virginia — have stellar athletic programs in their ranks, especially in men’s basketball, but are unlikely to draw as much attention and money as they did when Oklahoma and Texas were a part of the conference package.
Whether the conference will ultimately respond with a public legal battle is not yet clear, but officials around the league have made their disgust plain. Kayse Shrum, Oklahoma State’s president, complained this week that any talks between the SEC and Texas and Oklahoma amounted to “a clear breach” of the Big 12’s rules.
“It is difficult to understand how an Oklahoma institution of higher education would follow the University of Texas to the detriment of the state of Oklahoma,” she said.
But in the hours after the SEC’s vote Thursday night, Bowlsby adopted a tone that appeared more resigned.
“Despite our concerns for the process and for the overall health of college athletics,” he said, “we will do everything possible to make sure that the student-athletes at both universities enjoy an excellent experience throughout the remaining four years of their participation and competition in the Big 12 Conference.”
Just a few weeks earlier, he had declared that “a lot of the motivation for realignment is no longer there.”
“Not to say it couldn’t happen,” he added on July 14, “but it’s not one of the things that keeps me up at night.”
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