Texas' key: Keeping media rights

Updated: June 16, 2010, 12:12 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

AUSTIN, Texas -- Looking for the savior of the Big 12? Follow the money.

Assurances that the big television money will soon be coming to the leaner Big 12 pulled the league back from the dead, officials with schools and the league said Tuesday.

With Colorado (Pac-10) and Nebraska (Big Ten) leaving in the next two years and the Pac-10 making a hard sell to Texas and four other schools to join them, the promises -- not guarantees -- of bigger checks in the future finally persuaded the Longhorns and the others to stay put.

"This is a long-term and unequivocal commitment," Texas president William Powers Jr. said Tuesday. "We've decided the Big 12 provides the best long-term opportunity for our university."

According to IRS tax records examined by The Associated Press, the Big 12 paid out between $8.7 million and $15.4 million per school in 2008-09, with Kansas State getting the smallest payout and Oklahoma the biggest. The Big 12's television deal with Fox expires in 2012, and a more lucrative contract with ESPN runs through the 2015-16 academic year.

Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said no new TV deals have been struck, but he has "extremely strong verification, based on our analysis with our consultants and others, and media companies themselves, that we are in a tremendous position to execute future agreements that will put our member institutions on par with any in the country." He did not provide any numbers during a conference call with reporters.

"The Big 12 approached us asking if we would maintain our current agreement through its term of 2015-16, and we agreed," said Josh Krulewitz, vice president for communications for ESPN.

A Fox Sports Net spokesman said that no new deal had been reached, but there would be ongoing discussions.

The Big 12 has increased the financial reward for every one of its members since it began play in 1996. It distributed $139 million to its members this past fiscal year, more than ever.

Texas, already the richest and most powerful of the Big 12 schools, is convinced it can make even more money in a 10-team league.

"The Big 12 [television] package is going to be every bit as good as any other conference," Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds said. "We are in good shape on the television side."

And by staying in the Big 12, Texas can explore whether it should start its own Longhorns TV network. If it had moved to the Pac-10, Texas would have had to surrender its media rights.

Texas women's athletic director Chris Plonsky said the network, which would broadcast Texas sports and other university events, should bring in "millions" to the school.

Texas isn't the only Big 12 school looking into whether it should start its own TV network.

Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said Tuesday that the Sooners also are interested in the possibility and already have invested $3 million in a high-definition video facility on campus but do not have a time frame for launching the operation.

"A channel takes some time to launch, takes some time to develop, whether it's our conference or our own," Castiglione said. "That's everything from programming to getting penetration into the markets, and so on."

Castiglione said Oklahoma has consulted with Texas as both schools examine the possibilities, but the two are not considering a joint venture. Texas agreed to stay in the Big 12 this week in part after getting assurances that it retains local media rights, including the possibility of a Longhorns network.

"We have discussed the concept of a channel with them. We're not in business together," Castiglione said. "That's not it at all. I don't want to give you that impression.

"We've been studying it. They've been studying it. ... We'd both like to be aggressive and that part of our DNA to be aggressive."

Such a channel would not prevent the creation of a conference network.

Most football and men's basketball games couldn't be shown live on Oklahoma's own channel because of national TV contracts through the Big 12. But the channel could broadcast games in those sports that aren't picked up, along with others from the school's 21 sports.

Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder said his school also looked into creating a network, but "it doesn't look like it would be a revenue generator for us. It would be a capital loss."

"Even if you're the University of Texas and there are a lot of people nationwide that follow that brand, it's still tough to make a go of it," Holder said.

"If you're Oklahoma State, obviously with a smaller enrollment, a smaller population base in the state, no big metropolitan areas, it would be very, very difficult to make a go of it. We'd probably be more interested in doing things on our website, live streaming and things like that, than doing a network."

Some of the league's smaller schools are giving up cash for the promise of keeping the league together and more money later.

Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Iowa State and Missouri -- which were in danger of being left homeless if the conference dissolved -- agreed to give up their share in buyout penalties to be paid by Nebraska and Colorado for leaving the league, Beebe said.

The idea is to have that money go to Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, the schools the Big 12 needed to stay to remain viable, to make up for the difference in revenue those three might have made going elsewhere.

The amount of the penalties has not been disclosed, but Colorado athletic director Mike Bohn confirmed that his school's penalty for leaving the Big 12 "could be" around $9 million.

"We'll work with our new conference with some type of finance agreement," Bohn said. "The Pac-10 will not assist in any contributions toward the buyout. But they've indicated a willingness to help us finance the agreement [to join]."

Late Tuesday, Missouri officials said they have not agreed to give up their share of the buyout penalties.

"In no way do we expect to be hurt financially," Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton said.

State officials in Kansas weren't talking much Tuesday about the concessions, referring questions to the Big 12 or saying that details might take weeks to work out. Several said Kansas and Kansas State are likely to do significantly better financially in a slimmer Big 12 even with the concessions than they would be searching for new leagues.

"You're weighing your costs and your gains," said former Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer, vice chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees both Kansas and Kansas State.

He added: "One thing we know is that being in a premier conference is not only important financially for the athletic programs, but it really has a lot to do with the recruitment of students, maintaining strong support from alums and donors."

Big 12 assistant commissioner Bob Burda responded that the 10 schools will share "all withdrawal fees withheld from Colorado and Nebraska," calling the earlier talks about uneven distribution of the penalty a "good-faith offer."

Beebe insisted the Big 12's decision to stick together was about more than money.

"A strong, strong consideration ... by the institutions to remain is the association of these schools, the fact that college athletics is very much a regional, regionally supported endeavor, and that it would be a great travesty for this part of this country if it's major institutions located with conferences that aren't in this region," Beebe said.

Holder said Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott and deputy Kevin Weiberg extended an offer to five schools that "was contingent on everyone agreeing to move. You had to have unanimity.

"We never got together on a conference call, the five athletic directors. We never had a meeting anywhere. We never really had a chance to get to that point because by the time the presentation had been made to the five schools, one of the schools decided that they liked where they were a lot better, so they opted to stay."

Texas A&M's flirtations with the Southeastern Conference had threatened to pull apart a 100-year rivalry with Texas.

"We committed to the Big 12 before we knew what Texas A&M was going to do. We are delighted Texas and Texas A&M will be in the same conference," Powers said.

One thing that still could fracture the conference is hurt feelings. Missouri officials had hoped for an invitation to the Big Ten, and other less influential members might not appreciate the top-down nature of the conference.

"We live in athletics," Dodds said. "We beat each other up on Saturdays, we hug each other on Sunday."

Beebe said there are no plans to expand the conference, leaving the Big 12 with 10 teams to play a nine-game football schedule and do away with the conference championship game.

And what about that conference name? Can a league with 10 teams call itself the Big 12?

"We'll consult the Big Ten on that," Dodds said, with a nod to a league that now has 12 teams.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.