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Conference realignment Q&A with Frank the Tank, Part 3: How Texas fared

After talk about joining the Pac-16, Texas stayed put in conference realignment. Good or bad idea?

Erich Schlegel

Find the stream of the three-part series here.

Speaking of Texas, you just wrote that UT "might be better off today". Could you elaborate on this and how you think Texas fared at the end of the day? From my personal perspective, even though I clearly wanted Texas to leave for the B1G or the Pac-Whatever, I was satisfied with how UT fared when our non-realignments in 2010 and 2011 were completed, given UT's alpha dog status in the Big 12 and the formation of a network with seemingly unlimited potential for exposure and revenue for the university.

But now that a couple of years have passed, I'm not so sure Texas made the best decisions. Perhaps I'm just jaded from witnessing all three of UT's major men's programs deciding all at once to stop competing at a competitive level over the past couple of years (we're a volleyball school now, in case you didn't know). I see a school stuck in what is now the runt of the major conferences while all of the energy and excitement seems to be everywhere else around us, in particular about 100 miles to our east. I see a school with a network which has become a laughingstock, albeit a laughingstock few can see with their own eyes, and which doesn't necessarily gain us that much more money compared to the schools in the conferences we could have joined.

At the end of the day, what's the real difference between what we get from LHN and what would have been our share of a renegotiated conference-wide television deal as part of the Pac-16/B1G/(sigh) SEC? Whatever the difference is, was it worth all of the damaged relationships? Cheer me up, Frank. Should I be this pessimistic about how this has played out for Texas?

It depends upon what Texas deemed to be important. If having de facto control over a power conference is what Texas desires over everything else, then the Big 12 is the only conference that can provide that (in which case, Texas fared very well in conference realignment). Control is quite important to alpha dog institutions - independence in and of itself is Notre Dame's clear goal even if they could make more TV money elsewhere and UNC will always be wary of leaving the ACC because of its own power base in that conference. The Longhorn Network is an extension of that in terms of branding and the concept of "eating what you kill" for third tier TV rights.

In terms of making the most TV money, though, I firmly believe that Texas would have made more as an equal member of the Pac-16, Big Ten or SEC. That $15 million per year for the Longhorn Network looks great on paper, but that's not taking into account the fact that a cut needs to go to Texas' media rights holder IMG and the rights fee is much lower in the initial years of the deal. The Big Ten Network is already distributing over $7 million per school with the risk being spread out over 12 (and soon to be 14) members -- just think of what that network would be worth with all of the households in the state of Texas added on top of that. The SEC made that same market-based calculation in choosing Texas A&M and Missouri for its expansion since it knew that it could leverage those states' households for a new network.

Putting aside the Big Ten and SEC, honestly, if I had been running Texas in 2010, I would have taken Larry Scott's Pac-16 proposal in a heartbeat (and I'm a Big Ten guy that became known for advocating for Texas going to the Big Ten). All of the elements that Texas could have possibly have asked for in an expansion plan were there: huge upgrade in academic prestige, access to demographically desirable and growing West Coast markets, sharing in a new cable network that would combine both California and Texas just as a starting point, and being able to take along six other Big 12 schools to create a geographically compact Eastern division centered around Texas. It was a brilliant idea by Scott and would have been a monster for everyone involved if it had been pulled off. Now, I know that A&M's reservations about heading to the then-Pac-10 were an issue, but Texas was also very clear about making a stand on third tier rights and the ability to create the Longhorn Network, which all of the parties knew would be a complete dealbreaker.

In essence, Texas very literally passed up on the best expansion package that it would probably ever receive in favor of starting the Longhorn Network. Sure, Texas could bolt to another conference in a decade in theory, but it will be tough to be able to bring the same number of friends in a way that would match what Larry Scott had offered in 2010 (especially since A&M has made a clean break since that time).

If the Longhorn Network was in every cable and satellite household in the state of Texas by this point, then passing up the Pac-16 proposal would have probably have been worth it. However, the longer the Longhorn Network languishes without basic carriage, the more it looks suspect that Texas put so much weight on its conference realignment decisions on that particular vehicle. To be clear, I thought that Texas was one of the few schools in the country that would make a school-specific channel work, but it was contingent upon getting enough viable content (beyond football, a critical mass of men's basketball games is actually very important as shown by how the BTN eventually got carriage in the Big Ten footprint).

Despite the recent announcement that the Texas game against Ole Miss will be on the LHN next season, that critical mass of content still isn't there and simply may never be available. It's tough enough to get enough ratings-worthy programming on the BTN despite currently having 12 schools providing content, so one can imagine the challenge that ESPN has in filling up the LHN and trying to get cable operators to pay a premium for it.

So, I would have done things differently if I had been running Texas, but I'm not going to begrudge the school for wanting to effectively control its own conference. The analogy that I've used is that Texas wants to own a huge estate with plebeians from Waco and Lubbock working outside, while Notre Dame just wants everyone to get the hell off of its lawn. It's just that the largest financial benefit for Texas to continue to be in the Big 12 (the Longhorn Network) may not live as long as either the school or ESPN had originally planned, so it wouldn't shock me at all to see rumblings that Texas wants to move conferences when we get close to the conference's grant of rights end date. I find that much more plausible than, say, Notre Dame ever joining a conference for football or UNC leaving the ACC.

Fast forward about 10 to 12 years. Texas will have almost certainly experienced significant regime change in the passing decade, with a new athletic director and other administrators perhaps not as tied into building LHN and controlling its own fiefdom in a lesser conference as Dodds has been. (As I type, DeLoss Dodds is 73; no one expects Mack Brown to still be coaching much past the next few years; and who knows which current community college president Rick Perry and his cronies on the UT Board Of Regents will have forced upon UT to serve as its president once they seemingly inevitably force Bill Powers [a big Dodds/Brown backer] out.) The grants of rights of the Big 12 and other major conferences will be nearing their expiration. How do you expect the national landscape to look then, and what would anticipate the next steps in terms of nations, major-conference realignment to be?

Probably the only thing I firmly believe that will be the case 10-12 years from is that the Big Ten and SEC will still be the two main power players, which means that the moves that they make will ultimately trickle down to the other conferences and schools, including ones that don't even play football. (See how the Big Ten "just" added Maryland and Rutgers, which caused the ACC to add Louisville, which then led the "Catholic 7" to split up the Big East, which has now impacted non-football schools in the Atlantic 10, Missouri Valley Conference, Horizon League and Summit League.)

What those two leagues want at that time could be dictated by some greater market forces beyond their internal conference decisions. For instance, will there be a greater move toward a la carte pricing for cable (where fan base intensity is more important than market size) that diminishes the power of those leagues' respective TV networks that are based on basic cable households (which inherently favor expanding into the largest markets possible)? Will the college football playoff expand to 8 teams and, if so, in what form would it take? Could there be a new "Super FBS" subdivision that's made up of the power conferences or even a complete breakaway from the NCAA?

If I had to predict (and this is a low confidence prediction), Texas is going to get itchy in 10 years, but I just don't see them pulling the trigger on leaving the Big 12 as a full sports member. It's very hard to imagine them being an equal member of the Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC after witnessing what has occurred over the past few years. There's a slight possibility that Texas could end up with a Notre Dame-type deal where it's a football independent and plays the rest of its sports in the ACC. The Big 12 will probably break down and add two schools -- I'd say some combo of BYU, Cincinnati and/or UConn would make the most sense revenue-wise, with the caveat that schools such as Tulane and UNLV that will have brand new stadiums in desirable markets can zoom up the list if they can have just a little bit of on-the-field football competency.

The Big Ten will try to get up to 16, probably with some combo of Virginia, Georgia Tech, Kansas and/or Oklahoma. (Yes, OU. Jim Delany didn't order a study of that school in this round of realignment by accident.) The SEC would like to pry UNC away from the ACC just like the Big Ten, but probably won't be successful. I don't think that they're as interested in Virginia Tech and NC State as a lot of fans seem to believe (and in turn, I don't think those schools are as interested in the SEC as those same fans think, either), so it's hard to see where else they go right now. It's even harder to envision who the Pac-12 would expand with unless it can resurrect a Texas-based Pac-16 proposal. I think the ACC will end up standing pat with only backfilling moves (i.e. slotting UConn in if there's an ACC defection). (Note once again that this fairly conservative prediction could be blown up with massive upheaval if a school like Texas, Notre Dame or UNC wants to move.)

Overall, the broader issues of how media revenue will be generated in an increasingly Internet streaming-based world, whether the current NCAA structure makes sense, and the way that the playoff system will look going forward are probably what conferences are going to try to wrap their arms around over the next decade as opposed to proactive conference realignment. If a school like Texas calls up another a conference and wants to join as an equal member, then sure, that conference is going to expand in a heartbeat, but the more "market-based" expansion of the power conferences that we've seen ever since the ACC added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College a decade ago seems to be on pause for now with the possible exception of the current 10-member Big 12.

Thanks for your time, Frank, I really appreciate it. Before you leave, I have one last question: if you couldn't get Texas for the B1G, adding an amazing school like Johns Hopkins, even if only for lacrosse, is almost as good and as exciting, right?

You know, I love the Johns Hopkins lacrosse addition. It obviously doesn't move the meter anywhere close to a football expansion (much less one involving Texas), but it's a way for the Big Ten to improve its branding academically and on the East Coast. Most of the general population might not care about lacrosse, but certain high impact groups for the Big Ten (i.e. leaders, bankers and traders on Wall Street, the people in Maryland that the Big Ten and Fox want to demand the BTN on basic cable) have played and care about the sport in a disproportionate manner.

I'm not a lax bro or anything, but for lacrosse fans, getting Johns Hopkins to drop independence was akin to convincing Notre Dame join a football conference. It was a matter of Johns Hopkins being in the right place (neighbor and archrival of incoming Big Ten school Maryland) with the right profile (academic powerhouse whose only Division I sports teams are men's and women's lacrosse) at the right time (the Big Ten needed one more school to have sponsor its own lacrosse league). I don't see the Big Ten using affiliate memberships in other sports, even though I wish there were some baseball equivalents to JHU out there to improve the depth in that sport for the conference (notwithstanding Indiana's amazing success this year).

All in all, though, Nebraska is a fun team to play and heading to NYC and DC for road trips to watch games is going to be pretty nice, so I'm happy with Big Ten expansion as a whole from a pure fan perspective beyond the business aspects.