The Houston Chronicle reported on Wednesday morning that the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma have reached out to the SEC Conference about leaving the Big 12 and joining their conference, setting off a wildfire in the college sports landscape.
Since the departure of Texas A&M and the University of Missouri for the SEC prior to the 2012-2013 season, the eventual collapse of the Big 12 Conference as a major player in the college sports landscape has been discussed, if not expected. Past rumors include Texas joining the Pac-12.
If Texas and Oklahoma were to depart from the Big 12, barring some corollary move to add a major program, that would essentially neuter the 10 team conference. According to USA Today data, Texas ranked #1 and Oklahoma ranked #8 in the country in athletics revenue produced in the 2018-2019 season.
Kansas, driven mostly by their famous basketball program, ranked 28th, more than $40 million behind, followed by West Virginia, Texas Tech, and Iowa State. (This excludes Baylor and TCU, which are private schools and so are not required to publicly disclose their revenue like other schools. Baylor is believed to earn just over $100 million per year in revenue, similar to West Virginia, while TCU is estimated to be around $120 million in revenue, similar to Kansas).
Big 12 Schools by Revenue,
- Texas – $223 million (M&W Swimming)
- Oklahoma – $163 million
- Kansas – $121 million (W Swimming)
- TCU – estimated (M&W Swimming)
- Baylor – estimated
- West Virginia – $102 million (M&W Swimming)
- Texas Tech – $96 million
- Iowa State – $95 million (W Swimming)
- Oklahoma State – $95 million
- Kansas State – $89 million
All of the directly-involved parties have repeatedly declined comment, though not rejected, this notion. Athletics directors of other schools that would be directly impacted have rejected the move – most vocally, Texas A&M AD Ross Bjork, who is concerned about the impact that adding another Texas team for the SEC would have, and Oklahoma State, that wants to protect its status in the Big 12.
Without the top two programs, the Big 12 would still be a strong conference, and would still likely be the 5th most-powerful program in the country. While there are other good football programs in the conference, it’s hard to say what would happen to those programs’ drawing power for recruits, and fans, without the two lightning rods at the top.
Meanwhile, adding two of the top eight most powerful financial machines in the NCAA to the SEC, which already dominates the NCAA financially, would create an absolute juggernaut. Besides the obvious competitive influences, this would give the conference an enormous political weight and influence in NCAA decision-making. Texas, already the biggest athletics brand in the country, would instantly become even bigger.
The two teams have a huge football rivalry, and while Texas would rekindle its rivalry with Texas A&M upon arrival in the SEC, it seems unlikely (though possible) that they’d leave the Big 12 without Oklahoma. That could make this move dependent upon political plays in Oklahoma and how much the state’s university administrators want to keep the state’s two flagship institutions together.
But What About Swimming?
Oklahoma doesn’t sponsor a swimming & diving program, but Texas, home to 4 of the last 5 NCAA Division I Champions in men’s swimming & diving, sponsors a juggernaut of a swim program.
Adding the Longhorns to the SEC Conference would substantially shift the paradigm of college swimming.
Many people believe that Texas benefits from swimming in a conference where they are essentially without serious competition. That has allowed Texas the freedom to do what they want – including not swimming athletes in maximum entries, having athletes scratch finals to focus on academics, hosting a lot of their own conference championship meets, swim off events, swim non-scoring swimmers, and still come away with conference championships that present as dominance to outside observers.
They could still do most of those things in the SEC – but coasting through the conference meet in that conference wouldn’t result in conference titles. While any Longhorn, especially those associated with the men’s team, will shout from every mountaintop that they only care about the NCAA Championships, we can’t pretend as though there will be no increased pressure to perform at the conference level in the SEC.
By the reverse token, there is perhaps some benefit for Texas to be in a more competitive conference. At present, if an athlete goes to Texas swim, the goal is to score at the NCAA Championships. With no competitive conference championship meet, and with several NCAA qualifiers on the men’s squad being left home every year, it would be easy for any but the most elite recruits to feel blasé about their season and what they accomplished.
Again, we know what the Texas faithful have said: that they’d rather be left home from an NCAA title winning team, and that the lack of a conference hasn’t hurt them so far. But with Eddie Reese on the verge of retirement, there is also no guarantee that the boundless Texas reach will continue forever, and this could matter more in the future than it does at the moment.
At some point, there has to be a consideration of fun, and a competitive conference meet is, if nothing else, more fun.
SEC Teams at the 2021 NCAA Men’s Swimming & Diving Championships (Big 12 Teams Inserted)
- Texas – 1st
- Florida – 3rd
- Georgia – 4th
- Texas A&M – 10th
- Alabama – 15th
- Missouri – 16th
- LSU – 18th
- Tennessee – 20th
- Kentucky – 30th
SEC Teams at the 2021 NCAA Women’s Swimming & Diving Championships (Big 12 Teams Inserted)
- Texas – 3rd
- Alabama – 5th
- Georgia – 8th
- Tennessee – 10th
- Kentucky – 11th
- Texas A&M – 14th
- Florida – 17th
- Missouri – 18th
- Arkansas – 27th
- LSU – 30th
Texas would have been the highest-placing SEC team at both NCAA Division I Championship meets last season, all else equal.
As for the remaining teams in the Big 12, especially the two men’s programs, the conference would likely need to find cooperation with another conference. There has already been some talks about SMU, currently part of a two-team men’s meet in the AAC, joining the Big 12. SMU, which has men’s and women’s teams, would be a better competitive fit for the other Big 12 programs, and has some historical roots as a former member of the Southwest Conference that once formed the foundation of the Big 12.
Ultimately, swimming & diving outcomes will have essentially no impact on this decision. This will be 90% about football and 10%, generously, about basketball.
If this is true, and if it’s more than just rumors and idle chatter (which always exists in college athletics realignments), there are still hurdles to be climbed.
The television contract, which is the crux of these moves, doesn’t expire until 2025.
Follow-up reporting from Jason Whitely, among others, say that formal discussions are expected to begin early next week, and that Texas and Oklahoma are expected to send a letter to the Big 12 early next week saying that neither school will renew their current media contracts.
This all means that there is a lot of negotiations that have to happen before any moves can be made. At present, even if Oklahoma and Texas tried to join the SEC prior to 2025, the Big 12 would still own the television rights to their football games through 2025 – which means that move wouldn’t make sense.
Of course, that’s not an insurmountable hurdle, but it is one that will take time to negotiate.
The deal will definitely not be done in time for the 2021-2022 season. It’s possible for the 2022-2023 season, but that will become more clear over the following weeks, if the rumors prove to be true.