However this explosive new wave of college football conference realignment plays out, the television networks paying the giant media rights deals will be at the center. ESPN, which came to a massive new deal with the SEC late last year, is notorious for having its hands in these deals, especially when it comes to the conferences in which it is most heavily invested. They certainly have a keen interest in what happens with Oklahoma and Texas‘ impending defection to the SEC, and what becomes of the Big 12.
ESPN is set to take over 100-percent of the media rights for the SEC in 2024-25. As currently constituted, Oklahoma and Texas would be able to leave the Big 12 in June 25, after the league’s Grant of Rights deal expires. Of course, if the league blows up, it could happen sooner. ESPN currently splits Big 12 rights with FOX, so there is definitely incentive for them to have the SEC bring on the two most valuable Big 12 entities by a large margin.
At the same time, it looks like they could be making a play for some of the leftover Big 12 schools as well. We’ve seen plenty of rumors about how the remaining eight Big 12 schools will rally, with some—notably Iowa State, Kansas, and Oklahoma State—potentially in talks with the Big Ten. West Virginia reportedly has interest in a jump to the ACC, while there are even wild reports that the existing Big 12 schools could look towards some sort of full “superconference” merger with the Pac-12, which has struggled of late.
One wouldn’t assume the AAC is in a position to “poach” the Big 12, but if schools like Baylor, Kansas State, or TCU don’t have other options, joining a pretty impressive Group of Five league, which will be able to compete for the College Football Playoff in the near future assuming the 12-team expansion passes, might not be the worst thing. According to a report by Nicole Auerbach of The Athletic, that may just play out, with ESPN pulling some strings in the background.
If they stay together as a separate league, the eight leftover Big 12 schools probably want to poach AAC teams.
I'm not sure people realize yet that the AAC, as a conference, wants to poach leftover Big 12 teams.
Why the AAC plans to be an aggressor: https://t.co/LxrGDUkh87
— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) July 24, 2021
The AAC signed a 12-year, $1 billion deal with ESPN back in March 2019. The Worldwide Leader is the biggest media partner of the league, which also has a smaller deal with CBS. Improving that league, and effectively killing off the Big 12, could be in the network’s interest.
“The Big 12 appears to be weakened and in a state of panic because their two anchor schools are gone and can’t be replaced,” one AAC source said Friday night. “I do think we can be an aggressor. I feel like our league is pretty stable.”
After Oklahoma and Texas officially declare their intention to leave the Big 12, the source expects the remaining eight schools to gauge interest from the Pac-12. The AAC could get its own crack at the eight leftovers if the Pac-12 opts against making any additions, or it could try to grab whoever is left if the Pac-12 does pick off a few.
One source believes that the AAC’s relationship with ESPN should help, assuming the league can pull in a few teams and get up to a 16-team conference. “We’ve already got ESPN at the table,” the source said, adding that it would be easier to engage media partners for a league that has one exclusive partner.
Just weeks ago, the AAC poaching the Big 12 would seem ridiculous, but it does seem like the more stable league at the moment, and adding a few more big name schools may allow Mike Aresco and AAC leadership to expand on the existing media rights deal. The seat at the table might be smaller for any schools that make that move, but it is better than no seat at all, and it is very unclear how many other spots in what may become the Power Four will be available.