Five years ago, Oklahoma president David Boren stood at the construction site of a new campus dormitory and declared that the Sooners would be no "wallflower "during this second round of conference realignment. Boren's comments sent a clear message that Oklahoma was no longer necessarily committed to making the Big 12 work in the age of the Longhorn Network. That sudden shift destabilized the Big 12, ignited a panic throughout the league and prompted Missouri to jump ship for the SEC.
Five years later, the Big 12 faces another fork in the road. Once again, the Sooners are on the spot. Only this time, Oklahoma is loaded with leverage -- to dictate what happens to the conference's grant of rights, its composition and its overall future.
Two weeks ago, the conference authorized commissioner Bob Bowlsby to begin exploring the league's expansion options and start negotiating with prospective candidates.
Texas immediately placed its expansion cards on the table, with president Greg Fenves seemingly endorsing the Big 12 candidacy of the University of Houston over Twitter not two days later -- launching the ball across the Red River.
Making the critical question now: What does Boren want? The answer to that could go a long way in determining the direction of the Big 12 in the coming weeks.
While Bowlsby has been examining expansion possibilities, the Big 12's television partners, ESPN and Fox, have anxiously been waiting to see what happens. Due to a pro-rata clause in the current contracts, the networks are on the hook for roughly $25 million for every school the Big 12 adds, regardless of the school, through the end of the deal in 2024-25. That could total up to $800 million if the Big 12 expands by four schools, an option Bowlsby and Boren have both stated is on the table.
That has obviously placed the networks in a precarious position.
If the Big 12 pulls the trigger on expansion, one recourse the networks would have would be to request an extension to the grant of rights, to at least gain long-term security for the league's live content. Recently, ESPN agreed with the ACC on a network, which will launch in 2019. In exchange, ESPN got the ACC to sign an extension of its grant of rights through 2035-36.
The difference with the Big 12 is that ESPN and Fox, contractually, have nothing to leverage the conference for the grant of rights extension -- the $25 million-per-school increases are already in the contract.
On this one, ESPN and Fox can only ask and hope.
The good news for them is that several of the Big 12's members might be incentivized to sign such an extension. In the event the Big 12 ever dissolved, it's not entirely clear that everyone in the league would have a Power 5 landing spot. The Big Ten has a track record of only inviting members of the prestigious Association of American Universities; two-thirds of the Pac-12, meanwhile, are AAU-affiliated. Other than Texas, Kansas and Iowa State are the league's only AAU members. And Oklahoma and Texas are the league's only national football brands.
Maybe Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and Kansas State would have a Power 5 home elsewhere. Maybe not. Big 12 survival is a safer route.
Because of its lucrative deal with ESPN on the Longhorn Network, which doesn't expire for another 15 years, Texas has 225 million reasons to stand pat in the Big 12.
Oklahoma's only motivation, however, would only be, well, an altruistic stance on greater Big 12 stability.
However, one industry insider, who worked directly with programming before recently leaving for another job in the industry, indicated getting the Big 12 schools to sign a grant of rights without offering anything in return will be a tough sell for the networks, even as they have to shell out up to $800 million to the league. More likely, to get a grant of rights extension, ESPN and Fox would have to put forward an immediate renegotiation of the Big 12's tier 1 and 2 deals, and pay the Big 12 up to the levels of the SEC and Big Ten. The Big Ten is now getting an estimated $250 million per year from Fox for only half of its rights.
If the networks put that on the table, the Big 12's viability for the next two decades would be virtually assured. But only if the Red River flagships signed off. If either balked against a proposal the rest of the conference supported, it could, once again, send a message to the other Big 12 members -- that the Sooners aren't completely committed to the conference.
"It might say, OU could begin flirting again," the insider said. "That they're not sure about the Big 12."
Of course, Boren could attempt to utilize this leverage for what's clearly become his white whale: a Big 12 network. The ACC previously implemented a clause in its agreement with ESPN that triggered the upcoming network launch. If the ESPN or Fox were unwilling to do yet another network deal now -- but still wanted a grant of rights extension to avoid competing with a Netflix or a Google for rights down the line in an ever-changing media landscape -- perhaps Boren could procure such clause on a future Big 12 network.
Still, given the current television climate, that could prove to be too ambitious.
Even then, Boren would still have the option to push back on Texas.
To get a new school into the conference, eight of 10 schools must sign off. It's hard to envision the Longhorns being able to get Houston into the Big 12 without Oklahoma's support. Boren could demand Texas sanction his expansion school of choice, in exchange for rallying northern support for Houston.
The Sooners have long believed to have had their eye on BYU, which has the strongest football brand of any non-Power 5 school. The Cougars also have a national following through the Mormon Church, and operate near Salt Lake City, a top-35 TV market. Boren also has shown interest in Cincinnati; he traded emails with then-Cincinnati president Santa Ono last year. Besides that, Boren could also press Texas to support a four-school expansion, which would net the conference an additional $50 million a year.
Just what lever will Boren pull? That remains unclear. What is clear is this -- he has a move to make.
Five years ago, those moves had a major impact on the direction of the league.
They figure to this time around once again.