Texas A&M Bolting to the SEC Is Just a Matter of Time
Last week, the Texas Longhorns announced a partnership with ESPN that will bring the school just north of $12 million a year for the next 15 years after partnership fees are shared. That money is in addition to the substantial sums of money Texas extorted from its Big 12 brethren during last year's conference realignment shakedown. Make no mistake about it, we've entered a new era of college athletics, where once conferences were king now individual schools, in some cases, don't give a damn about anyone but themselves. Especially when those schools retain the all important local multimedia rights packages, as members of the Big 12 and SEC presently do. The Big Ten and Pac-12 schools have given up those rights.
As a result of the new network deal, ESPN gains the right to create a Texas Longhorn-specific network, the first of its kind. The programming is far from must-see television -- eight men's basketball games and one football game will take up about 20 hours of content -- but it will broadcast 8.740 additional hours of programming a year -- 8,740! It was trendy to make fun of the Big Ten Network's schedule early on, but the Big Ten Network actually carries a ton of games that your average fan would care about.
It's possible the Texas Longhorn network won't turn down a single pitch idea. Meaning Texas is probably going to be the first school in history to be able to offer television shows to assistant coaches.
We can make lots of jokes about what shows will air on ESPN's Longhorn Network -- I'm partial to Boating with Cedric Benson, How to Grow Pot Anywhere in the World starring Ricky Williams, and Vince Young Cooks Shirtless at the VY Steakhouse while talking about the 2006 Rose Bowl -- but the immediate impact of the network is less serious than what it signals. Namely, the Big 12 is a dead conference walking. Until that happens, the Longhorns are going to be extracting a pound of flesh from their biggest rival Texas A&M engaging in provocative acts designed to infuriate its neighbors. As historical analogies go, the Longhorn Network is like Russia sending missiles to Cuba.
You think living in a Longhorn-dominated state is tough now for A&M? What about when Aggie fans realize that their cable bills are going to include increased subscriber fees that go directly from their pocket to Longhorn breeches? Yep, you're paying those millions Aggies, Red Raiders, and anyone else who lives in Texas. Ouch.
Long term, the Texas missile crisis is untenable, and that's why Texas A&M is going to join the SEC eventually. Here are five other points that everyone should keep in mind as the evolution of college football continues.
1. The SEC would be willing to stay at 13 teams if need-be.
I've been told that the SEC wasn't going to let Texas A&M ride off in the sunset to the Pac-16 conference last summer, but that the conference wasn't necessarily in a hurry to expand to 14 teams if the fit wasn't perfect. Oklahoma's president said his school had an offer from the SEC -- a comment that SEC commissioner Mike Slive would not discuss with me this past summer when we discussed expansion -- and given the SEC's silence on the matter I believe that to be true.
That means we can be confident the SEC officially offered two schools last summer, -- A&M and Oklahoma, the two principal rivals of Texas. (The Longhorns may well have had an outstanding offer as well, but Texas was afraid of competing with real football schools and preferred to remain outside the conference so the SEC didn't believe it was interested in joining).
The addition of Texas A&M was the plum prize for the SEC, an expansion into the fertile Texas television market that we know would have led to an increase in the already-substantial CBS and ESPN television deal. (The SEC's contract is negotiated to allow increased payments or decreased payments based on the addition or subtraction of schools).
Keep in mind that the SEC schools also retain their multimedia rights. Everyone was lauding Texas's deal with ESPN, but it doesn't eclipse the old deals signed by Georgia and Florida to sell their multimedia rights by much. A&M could compete dollar for dollar with Texas in the SEC. But not anywhere else.
2. Texas A&M can't compete with Texas absent the cachet of the SEC.
Not long term anyway. Texas' profile will continue to grow -- don't even get me started on the recruiting advantage that being able to put kids on the Texas Longhorn network will be providing -- and A&M will remain deeper and deeper in the Longhorn shadow. That doesn't mean that A&M won't beat the Longhorns occasionally, it just means that A&M will only be defined based on its relationship to Texas.
While the Longhorns are creating a national profile for themselves, A&M will be the little brother fighting for respect on a much smaller statewide scale. Beating Texas will matter in the state, maybe, but it won't put a dent in the Longhorns national popularity. Texas-Texas A&M will turn into Notre Dame-Purdue. If the Golden Domers lose who even notices? And every year the rivalry with A&M will mean less to Texas because the Longhorn will be looking for national rivals that will bring them more television dollars.
On the other hand, A&M in the SEC would be able to market itself as the SEC team in Texas, the lone opportunity for hotshot Texas recruits to play in the best football conference in America.
Right now, what distinguishes A&M from Texas in the eyes of the average high schooler?
Not much, right?
But could Texas A&M plus the conference cachet of the SEC challenge the Longhorns for in-state superiority while at the same time placing A&M on a similar national plane? I think so. Wouldn't entering a recruit's living room and selling him on an experience that no one else in Texas can have -- that is, stay in the state close to home but play the most football mad schools in the country on a regular basis -- be incredibly beneficial to the school? Put it this way, do kids dream of traveling to Alabama or Iowa State? Florida or Kansas State? LSU or Missouri?
Plus, it would open up the fertile recruiting fields of the south to A&M. The cross-pollination between the south and Texas, Texas and the south, would be beneficial in both directions.
3. What will the future hold for the less desirable Big 12 schools?
Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Missouri, Texas Tech and Iowa State are college football orphans in waiting. Eventually they're going to be cast aside, it's just a question of when. Right now, all of these schools have to hope that A&M, Oklahoma and, thanks to the T. Boone Pickens money, Oklahoma State, don't follow the Texas model and start looking out for their own best interests. Because if they follow the Longhorn lead, the Big 12 will collapse in short order.
Texas is the flagrant philander of college athletics right now, daring anyone to call it out for its wandering eye. The Longhorns interest in the Big 12 is minimal, but they'll stay put so long as no one keeps them from doing what they really want to do -- create a nationwide brand. Putting Texas in a sporting context, it's like the New York Yankees a few years into George Steinbrenner's reign, pretending to play nice while at the same time fundamentally altering the rules of the business. Texas believes it's the Yankees. That's probably an inflated sense of self-worth, but no one ever accused Texans of being humble.
4. The moment the Big 12 collapsed, Texas could sign a new deal with ESPN that would include all its games.
Keep in mind that right now ESPN hasn't acquired very much that any sports fan will really want to see -- nine crap Longhorn games, generally the worst on the schedule. And just one football game. Certainly this isn't much to draw national attention. But this relationship is the promise ring of college athletics, ESPN and Texas aren't fully committed yet, but they've promised each other that they will be when the time is right.
That time could come soon.
Freed of the necessity of playing Big 12 conference games that offered no ratings draw -- seriously, who is watching any Big 12 game other than Texas-Oklahoma, anyway? -- the Longhorns could schedule eight home games a year, bank the substantial cash for these home games, and set up four to six nationwide games that commanded massive amounts of attention. The Longhorns could also play one "neutral" site game a year in a city that they wanted to own for recruiting purposes.
Who would ensure that these national games were some of the biggest each year?
ESPN, of course.
How would annual rivalry games with, for example, Notre Dame and USC, and a rotating collection of big name schools from across the country look for recruiting and for television ratings? Texas' network ambitions send a signal that dominating a state isn't the goal anymore, Bevo wants to go national.
5. The time to move, if Texas A&M can, is now.
Rather than stay behind and subsidize the rise of Texas, isn't it time for Texas A&M to use the addition of the Longhorn Network as the proverbial straw that broke the cattleman's back. Texas already bullied the Aggies into staying committed to the Big 12 -- a decision that hacked off the fan base and left the athletic director challenging an alum to a fist fight -- but this move is a provocation that shouldn't be accepted.
Remember the network, Aggies across the state should scream.
Texas is making A&M fans pay to watch its crap games. Taking money directly out of Aggie pockets! Deep in the heart of Texas that should be an act of sporting war. A&M ought to be persuading Oklahoma to leave with it, the two schools would make the SEC an untrammeled leader. Hell, the conference's collective power would be so great that it might be able to fight any pathway for an indepedent Texas to join the BCS. The greatest victory then? Forcing Texas to remain in a weakened, awful Big 12 in order to maintain a path to the national title.
Rather than accede to a leather boot on the throat, A&M needs to strike back against Longhorn aggression and walk.
Follow Clay Travis on Twitter here. With All That and a Bag of Mail back on a weekly basis, you can e-mail him questions at Clay.Travis@gmail.com.