An A&M secession theory

Aggie Secession License PlateThe appropriate but not-as-funny-as-it-should-be image you see to the right here comes from NBC Sports’ impressive College Football Talk blog, which has never given up on the idea that Texas A&M is going to leave the Big 12 in favor of the SEC.  They were rightt: A&M informed the Big 12 this morning that the charter Big 12 member (and 1996 BIg 12 football champions) think it’s in their best interest “to make application to join another athletic conference.” Should said application be approved, A&M will exit the Big 12 on June 30, 2012.

I have no inside sources, no moles, no insiders whispering in my ear.  I’m only connecting dots as reported in various publications and not denied by those mentioned, something anyone could do.  But doing that, I’m confident that the reason A&M wants to bolt to the SEC boils down to just two words:

“DeLoss Dodds.”

If you’re fortunate enough not to know, DeLoss Dodds is the athletic director at the University of Texas. Throughout his tenure, he has persistently pushed for changes in contracts and events that would heavily favor Texas at the expense of both tradition and the other Big 12 member schools.

Dodds was the one who flexed muscle to get Texas a lion’s share of the Big 12′s television revenue, a huge factor in Nebraska and Colorado deciding to leave the conference effective this year.  Nebraska went to the Big Ten, the “only conference that shares revenue equally among its schools.” The Big 12 divides everything evenly except television money, according to ESPN’s Tim Griffin.  “Half of the TV money is divided evenly. The other half goes into an appearance pool. The schools that earn the most money are the ones who appear for football TV games and basketball nonconference games. Credits are also issued for NCAA tournament appearances.”  Griffin’s breakdown of the 2007-2008 academic year showed Texas earning $10.2 million, OU getting $9.8 million, and down to Baylor that got $7.1 million.

Note that difference: just by splitting half the television revenue and sharing everything else equally, Texas pocketed over $5 million more than Baylor in one year.  Texas got nearly $1 million more than A&M, more than $1 million over Nebraska’s take, and more than $2 million over Colorado’s share.

OU was just $400,000 behind Texas, but this doesn’t matter as much to A&M, I think, because A&M competes much more directly for athletic recruits with Texas than with Oklahoma. Reports last summer indicated that to get the biggest four teams in the Big 12 South to stay with the Big 12 rather than consider other conferences after Nebraska and Colorado left, the penalty payouts from those two original Big 8 schools were not divided evenly among the remaining 10 institutions, but went primarily to Texas, OU, OSU, and Texas A&M.  I’ve always hoped this wasn’t true because I would hope OU would not try to take advantage of conference partners that way.

Yet it never crossed my mind that DeLoss Dodds would do anything else. Dodds is the one who spent much of the past decade pushing to move the Red River Rivalry to a home-and-home series, something no one else wanted, because he felt it would make Texas more money.

The straw that broke Reveille’s back, though, was the television network.

The Big Ten has its own network as of a few years ago, in partnership with Fox Sports. This is a great thing for the member schools, not only in terms of advertising dollars but exposure. It fills the non-football months with basketball, baseball, gymnastics, track and field, and all the other sports that are crucial to a vital athletic department but that get no love from the sports channels (excepting basketball). This week it’s all football, as you might imagine with openers this weekend, but the Big Ten Network is showing Youngstown State vs. Michigan State live at 6:30 PM on Friday night.  I doubt another network would have picked that up. They’re also showing UT-Chattanooga at Nebraska on Saturday at 2:30 PM, not exactly your ABC “game of the week” caliber broadcast, and Tennessee Tech at Iowa at 6:30 PM Saturday. It’s hugely beneficial to the member schools.

When last year’s rekajiggering came about, the remaining Big 12 members could have started forming a Big 12 network to do the same thing for this conference. But Dodds made sure that would not happen by insisting that Texas get the rights to form its own “Longhorn Network,” just for University of Texas athletics, as a condition of staying in the Big 12.  It’s the kind of jerk move that not only gives Texas a huge advantage, but makes sure the conference as a whole will never get the benefit of a Big 12 Network because Texas has already committed all of its own athletic programming to its own network.

You better believe that rankled members, but most of them took a “wait and see” attitude. The waiting didn’t take long. A month ago, Texas announced that it would be broadcasting several high school football games, mostly those featuring “top recruits” that Texas wanted to sign. Dodds tried to evade NCAA responsibility for this huge conflict of interest by saying that its network partner, ESPN, would be responsible for scheduling all the games and Texas would have no input into it.  Even so, ESPN would want to show the state’s very top athletes (and Dodds confirmed this), meaning those high school kids would see that Texas has the power to get them on TV and other schools do not.

Both the Big 12 and the NCAA put the kibosh on this, at least for this year, but that was the last straw for A&M.  With this background, it doesn’t take much to see why exiting the conference could be in A&M’s best interest.

The Big 12 is heavily weighted towards the Longhorns—not just financially but in status.  Texas got a deal for its own network, so there’s no Big 12 network. Other schools are free to do the same thing, but A&M knows full well it will never get national distribution of a “Texas A&M Network” even if they spend the millions to start one up (and Texas gets extra millions every year thanks to the conference revenue sharing). Heck, even the Longhorn Network wasn’t on any national carriers upon its debut last week—no Comcast, no Charter, no DirecTV or Dish Network—so smaller schools have zero chance. Kansas State is making its own HD Internet network to get around this, but you can imagine that this will get less than 10% of the viewers of an actual television channel, even in this age.

If A&M stays in the Big 12, it will always be Texas’s little sister. A&M’s message to recruits involves playing against the same conference teams that Texas does, with a shot for the same bowls Texas can get to—all without as much television exposure or the same love that national sportswriters give to Austin (cf. “Kirk Herbstreit”). It boils down to “we can almost give you as much as Texas does, but we also have military cadets and less prestige, though our fans and alumni are more enthusiastic.” It’s not a winning message to high school students who think the world is their oyster.

If A&M bolts to the SEC, though, they get a completely different story for recruits.  “Sure, if you go to Texas you can play against Oklahoma and Texas Tech. And Iowa State. And Kansas State. Do you get the picture, son? At A&M, since we’re in the SEC, you’ll play in the Western Division every year against Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and Arkansas. Oh, and you’ll play some teams in the other division, including Florida, South Carolina, and Georgia.” The weakest football schools in the SEC West are Mississippi and Mississippi State.  In the SEC East, they’re Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt—and two of those have been powerhouses in the past. That’s also a really strong basketball conference, in case you hadn’t noticed.

In the SEC, A&M can break out of Texas’s shadow—a shadow that grows longer with each questionable move by DeLoss Dodds.  I believe the high school football games were the last straw because that made it clear to A&M that even if this proposal was defeated, Dodds was just going to keep it up—using every loophole, every bit of leverage he can find (even against tradition) to give Texas every advantage, even if it destroys tradition or significantly weakens other Big 12 member schools. It’s hard to be in a conference where the largest and most powerful member does not hesitate to torpedo that conference for minor advantages.

Again, this is just my opinion (not OUBAA’s, not anyone else’s), and is based on no inside information. But to me, the lesson of A&M leaving the Big 12 is not that the Big 12 is dying.

The lesson is that it’s not worth having Texas in your conference unless they’re willing to be an absolutely equal partner—and that will never happen while DeLoss Dodds runs the Texas athletic department.

One thought on “An A&M secession theory

  1. I had to cut this part out because it no longer fit anywhere, but didn’t want to lose it:

    A&M’s exit got slowed down for a few weeks for the reason that NBC Sports gave a few weeks ago: to avoid legal problems for the SEC (where A&M has obviously applied), it had to be clear that A&M was applying to the SEC, and not that the SEC was going after/poaching A&M from the Big 12. If it happens this way, the remaining members of the conference would share a payment that could be as large as $20 million—90% of what A&M would have earned from the Big 12 over the period of the current contracts.

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