I believe it was right as the Olympics were beginning that the first rumors surfaced that Oklahoma and Texas might leave the Big 12 for the SEC. My immediate reaction was, “No way. Texas isn’t leaving all the Longhorn Network money on the table so they can lose to Alabama every year.” Within three days we knew that not only were the rumors true, but the move was pretty much a done deal after at least six months of secret negotiations.
I guess I should have known this was coming. When we went through the last round of conference realignment merry-go-round, I said the “new” arrangement would last roughly a decade before the next series of moves began. That was nine years ago, so right on time. You should pay attention to what I write!
It also should have been a clue that things were happening when rumors started bubbling up earlier this summer that Oklahoma was tired of playing at 11:00 AM central time on Fox.
I did not expect it all to happen so quickly, though.
First, I must say the bitter part of me, which has watched the rest of the Big 12 bend over backwards to keep Texas happy for 25 years, actually enjoys the idea of them going to the SEC. Texas only really cares about football. Other than when they had once-in-a-lifetime QB Vince Young, they’ve been chasing Oklahoma the entire life of the Big 12. And now they think they’re going to go to the SEC WITH Oklahoma and have more luck in a conference that has at least two teams that can wax OU in any given season? Good-fucking-luck with that. And good riddance!
But, really, the more pressing matter is what the hell happens to KU now. KU came awfully close to getting totally screwed ten years ago, and it was only the Longhorn Network placating Texas and Oklahoma deciding it was better to remain where they were for the time being that prevented some horrible scenario where KU was playing in the Mountain West.
Are things any different this time, after a decade in which the KU football program has gotten progressively worse each year and brings literally nothing to the table where football is king?
I’m not going too deep into the weeds of the rumors now, as things have calmed down a bit since the initial news broke and it seems like we may be in for a period of uncertainty before any new news drops.
The folks I follow, though, seem confident that KU will land somewhere safe. I sure hope they’re right.
If KU has any chance of remaining in the Power 5, it is almost solely because of basketball. A lot of national writers have shit on the idea that basketball has any sway in realignment. And I get it. They’ve all been programmed to think that the entire college sports world revolves around football, and there are never exceptions to that rule. One ESPN writer has gone to great lengths to show how little basketball factors into the overall TV contracts for conferences.
His math misses the point that KU has been a top 30 athletic department in terms of revenue over the past decade. That’s entirely because of basketball. He also discounts what a report in The Athletic pointed out: when it comes to basketball programs that generate TV viewers, there are the K schools: Kansas and Kentucky. Everyone else is well behind them.
KU basketball demands eyeballs, regardless of who they play and when they play. That matters, even if it may not matter as much as what Texas or Oklahoma can provide through football.
That’s the point the football-focused writers who are covering realignment miss: this round of realignment is not about network TV the way it was ten years ago. It is about generating new sources of revenue for televised coverage. KU is one of the very few schools that can do that on the basketball side. When conferences are looking for every possible angle to enrich their coffers, especially when a break from the NCAA seems more-and-more likely, KU basketball is absolutely an asset. Is it enough to make a difference in saving KU’s Power 5 status? Well that’s the multi-million dollar question.
Mike Vernon seems to be the most checked-in source for KU news. He insists that the people he’s talking to inside/around KU are both prepared for this moment and confident that they are in a good place. Vernon has been right on a lot of huge KU news over the past year, generally well before national writers. What he’s reporting so far is almost entirely from the KU perspective, so sharing their confidence could be entirely misguided. KU could have a terrific plan, have all the right people making the decisions, be having quiet, preliminary talks with other conferences, and there’s a decent chance none of that will matter when decision time comes.
With that in mind, allow me walk through the four scenarios I see for how this could play out for KU.
- Join the Big Ten, 15–20% chance.
This seems to be the path that KU really wants, and is working hard to leverage its strongest academic selling points to earn. For this to happen, the Big 10 is going to need to add at least one more school, and likely as many as three. So even if the Big Ten is super interested in adding KU and working to make it happen, it’s going to take some time. This would be my preferred landing spot – come on, games in Bloomington and West Lafayette!?!? – but as much as I want it to happen, I’m struggling to find the scenario where it works for the Big Ten. It will take a ton of things breaking just right for this option to become reality. So 20% is probably optimistic.
- Join the ACC, 15–20%.
There have been rumors floating around that ESPN is pushing this. The thought is that they already control the rights for the SEC (excepting the CBS Saturday game) and thus have THE football conference locked up. Adding KU to the ACC makes it THE basketball conference, and ESPN owns those rights as well. Thus they would control the premier league in both sports just as the NCAA falls apart. Convenient! These rumors also seemed to be what set off the Big 12 commissioner a couple weeks back, when he accused ESPN of trying to destroy what was left of the Big 12. The catch here is the ACC is already the premier basketball league. Adding KU would be a nice cherry on top, but not a necessity. And this would also require at least one more team joining the ACC with KU to keep things balanced. (Or losing a team to the SEC/Big Ten I guess.) If ESPN is genuinely involved, though, that could push this scenario over the top.
- Remain in an expanded Big 12, 50–60%.
I think KU will do everything it can to land in the Big Ten or ACC. That may be too daunting of an ask, though. The Big 12 grabbing Houston, SMU, Cincinnati, and Central Florida and retaining the current eight programs gets the conference back to 12 teams, adds two more Texas schools to juice the TV numbers, and keeps them in the Power 5. Not ideal, but it keeps the three remaining Big 8 rivalries with K-State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State in place; keeps travel reasonable; and even with a reduced football TV contract, keeps some money flowing in. This feels like a short-term solution, though, and every member of the Big 12 version 3.0 would be angling to move elsewhere when the inevitable fall of the NCAA comes.
- The Nightmare Scenario: being forced into a second-tier conference like the AAC, 10+%.
This is absolutely an option, and probably more realistic than any KU fan wants to admit.
Kansas is a very small state with two Power 5 football schools and a state legislature that is hostile to higher education. Research dollars are drying up. For whatever benefits KU gains from being an AAU accredited university, from the Med center/school’s dramatic ascent in recent years, from its healthy endowment, and from what basketball can provide, the long-term prospects for the school are challenging. Not that they aren’t for every school, but the odds for KU look particularly bleak. If the Big Ten and ACC pass and the Big 12 can’t cobble together a survival strategy, dropping out of the Power 5 is a real possibility.
For various reasons going independent is unlikely to work, so most likely KU is looking at joining the AAC where there is still a football option. That will lead to a devastating decrease in TV dollars. I think KU basketball will be fine in the short term, call it the Bill Self factor. One positive is that playing in the AAC would be a much better way to finally rebuild the football program. But the loss of TV revenues would be massive, and the school and athletic department would quickly feel the effects from that reduction. In 5–10 years, after the dust settles and Self is retired, KU will have a very different place in the college athletic world.
There are all kinds of other silly rumors that have popped up over the past month. ESPN would also try to get Kentucky to flip from the SEC to the ACC when building its basketball super conference. Nebraska might jump back to the Big 12. The California schools will leave the Pac–12 en masse for the Big Ten. I mean, those seem silly at first glance but it’s hard to know what’s based on reality and what is not right now.
I think the only thing that is certain is that the NCAA is on its last legs. That’s the whole point of the SEC looking to expand, from my view. Schools are sick of the NCAA taking a huge cut of the money they generate. They are tired of an organization the contradicts itself every time it makes a public statement and has steadfastly refused to get out in front of any of the important issues facing college sports. Adding Texas and Oklahoma gives the SEC the power to have the biggest say in what the landscape of college sports will look like they day they break away from the NCAA. The SEC will likely take whatever the first step is that ultimately kills the NCAA for Power 5 football schools.
It is a frightening time for KU fans. KU has always punched above its weight in the college sports world thanks to basketball. There’s a decent chance that advantage could go away in the near future and KU will be just another state school from a small state that plays games on channels no one ever watches.
I’m not investing too much emotionally into what Mike Vernon is reporting, or what my friends with connections at KU are telling me. It’s all too speculative at the moment. I will cling to the hope that there do seem to be options, though, and KU is being aggressive in finding one that protects both KU’s history and the opportunity to remain successful in the future.