Oklahoma State Booster T. Boone Pickens No Fan of Expansion
But when it comes to college sports and the fate of the Big 12 Conference, home to his beloved Oklahoma State University, the 82-year-old billionaire prefers the status quo.
The Texas energy and finance mogul, who has donated hundreds of millions to Oklahoma State and singlehandedly rebuilt its campus and athletic facilities, told FanHouse Thursday that he would like see the Big 12 remain intact, even as Colorado departed for the Pac-10 and Nebraska' seemed set to join the Big Ten. Those moves are expected to trigger a broader realignment of the college sports landscape and could well lead to the dissolution of the Big 12.
Five of the league's other current members -- Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas Tech – have been mentioned as likely candidates to join Colorado in an expanded, 16-team version of the Pac-10. If those school do leave, it's not clear what would happen to the Big 12's other institutions, including Kansas and Missouri, who were charter members of the conference when it was formed as the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1907.
"I'm holding out for the Big 12 to stay together -- I think it's a good conference and leave it alone," said Pickens, speaking from his ranch in Texas. "Loyalty is a pretty high priority for me and I'm just not keen on walking out on Kansas, Kansas State, and Iowa State," he said, adding that he's made his feelings known to Oklahoma State's athletic and academic leaders. "The schools that get left out cause me some real pause."
For all of his professed loyalty to the conference, however, Pickens isn't too upset about the prospect of losing Nebraska.
An Oklahoma native, he grew up attending Oklahoma-Nebraska football games with his father, who often complained about Nebraska's arrogance toward its conference rivals. "He always felt that Nebraska was big shots -- that they really wanted to be in the Big Ten and that our league wasn't big enough for them," Pickens recalls. "He always said, 'Let them get their foot in the door of the Big Ten, it'll get mashed up pretty good there.' These feelings go back a long, long time for me."
The driving force behind all of the conference realignment is television money, with all conferences angling to add as many high-profile schools -- and potential cable TV viewers – as possible to drive up the value of their media rights. The Big Ten's success in launching its own cable TV network, as well as the Southeastern Conference's lucrative deals with ESPN and CBS, have raised the bar for leagues such as the Pac-10, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast Conference, which make considerably less from their media contracts.
The Big Ten Network, which debuted in 2007 and is co-owned by the league's 11 members and Fox Cable Networks, now has between 35 and 40 million subscribers, and is a huge reason why the league's schools each receive more than $20 million per year in media fees. The SEC's 12 schools each get more than $17 million per year. The Big 12, in contrast, does not split TV money evenly -- schools are paid based on number of national and regional TV appearances -- and Texas, the conference's No. 1 TV draw, made about $11 million last year. The Pac-10's media deals, which expire after the 2011-12 school year, pay the schools between $8-10 million a year.
Ironically, Nebraska's imminent departure from the Big 12 could produce a financial windfall for Oklahoma State, Pickens' alma mater. The Pac-10 is in discussions with Fox about forming its own network, and the addition of the Texas schools, the Oklahoma schools and Colorado, which would deliver the Denver TV market, would help a proposed cable channel gain wider distribution – and therefore more subscribers and more revenue. The league's window to negotiate with Fox begins early next year.
Even if the league decides not to partner on a new network, it believes a 16-team, expanded Pac-10 can guarantee each member about $20 million per year from its next media deal, according to people familiar with the negotiations. That sum would be double the amount that any Pac-10 or Big 12 school receives for media rights.
Pickens insists he will not stand in the way of OSU administrators if they choose to leave the Big 12. "I don't like dissension on any team. If that's what they want to do, I'm a team player, you talk it out, you shut up and everyone goes in the same direction," said Pickens. "It's all about the money. It's America and it's college football and I love it."
At Texas Tech, which is also rumored to be leaving the Big 12, there's a great deal of optimism about a potential move to the Pac-10, according to Terry Fuller, a prominent Texas Tech donor and the president of Phoenix Petrocorp, an independent oil producer. "Our fanbase is very excited," he said. A move to the Pac-10 "opens up a whole new opportunity to make new
rivalries and see other parts of the country."
Fuller noted that a 16-team conference with schools in the Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Denver and Texas TV markets offers considerabe financial upside to Texas Tech, whose annual athletic department budget -- about $55 million -- is half of that of the University of Texas. "There just aren't that many TV sets in Big 12 country," he said. "The time has come to an end
for this conference from a financial viability standpoint."