Since 2014, major conference realignment in college athletics has been pretty quiet. If and when things open back up, the Texas Longhorns could be at the center of things.
That might not be the most surprising revelations. Texas was featured in plenty of rumors when the leagues were shaking things up a few years ago. The most notable had the Longhorns and a few others packing up and heading West to the Pac-12, leaving the Big 12 in disarray.
Instead, Texas has the Longhorns Network partnership with ESPN. While few people can watch LHN, and most of the team’s games remain on the major networks like ESPN and FOX, Texas does have a level of autonomy that is more or less unmatched this side of Notre Dame.
Sports Business Journal‘s Michael Smith and John Ourand think that could come to an end when the current Power Five media contracts come to an end, if the Texas Longhorns have the opportunity to make more money elsewhere.
Instead of the Pac-12, Smith and Ourand think that the ACC and Big Ten would be the most logical suitors. BTN hauls in money for its member schools and those numbers could be on the rise, while the ACC Network is set to officially launch next summer, tying the ACC even closer with ESPN.
Athletic director Chris Del Conte said that things seem calm now, when contacted for the piece. Smith and Ourand’s speculation seems pretty logical though.
If Texas looked for another conference, the ACC and Big Ten loom as the most likely landing spots. Remember, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and ACC Commissioner John Swofford were the first movers during the last round of realignment, both making surprise moves that put Nebraska in the Big Ten and Notre Dame in the ACC.
But what would happen to the Longhorn Network? Texas’ contract stipulates that the network must live on, even if UT leaves the Big 12.
The ACC’s alliance with ESPN makes the ACC a potential destination if the Longhorns go looking. ESPN owns all of the ACC’s media rights, which would make it easier to either absorb the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network or develop another option. If the ACC wanted to get creative, it could offer Texas the ability to keep the network, or even agree on a Notre Dame-like independence in football with membership for the rest of its sports.
…and if Texas leaves, so goes Oklahoma, in all likelihood. OU was involved in those Pac-12 rumors before, and the SEC would probably love to add another power like the Sooners, especially in a state that is not currently in the league’s footprint.
Without the Sooners and Longhorns, the Big 12 would have trouble holding on to “Power Five” status, and you could see a few other prized programs, like Kansas basketball and Oklahoma State football, get gobbled up elsewhere.
The Big 12 isn’t the only league at risk, though. The SBJ report notes that if the ACC Network doesn’t deliver in making member schools more competitive monetarily with those in some other leagues, Clemson and Florida State could then be targeted.
Another potential trigger for change is the ACC Network, which is scheduled to launch in August in an environment rife with cord cutters and dwindling subscriber bases. ESPN fully owns the channel and was able to secure the right to launch it on Altice’s New York-area systems and nationally on at least one digital multichannel video provider.
If the channel is successful in signing more carriage deals, the conference’s makeup will remain the same. If not, some of the ACC’s stronger programs — Florida State, Clemson — could become targets for the SEC and Big Ten. Sources say success in terms of revenue falls somewhere between the thriving Big Ten Network and struggling Pac-12 Networks.
Time will tell if the ACC Network will be a success. Its long term viability could be directly tied with that of the ACC as a whole, based on what Smith and Ourand have written.
The Big Ten is the first P5 league with its deal to expire, coming up in 2022-23. The Pac-12 and Big 12 come up in each of the two years following, respectively, while the ACC and SEC are locked in with ESPN through the mid-2030s. The SEC’s CBS deal is up in 2024-25, though.