UT-Austin and the University of Oklahoma are expected to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. The move throws the athletics future of several other Texas schools into uncertainty.
The University of Texas at Austin announced Monday morning that it will not renew its sports media rights contract with the Big 12 that is set to end in 2025, giving the first formal signal that it’s planning to leave the athletics conference.
The decision comes after rumors surfaced last week that UT-Austin and the University of Oklahoma would leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, which would then include 16 schools.
The move was announced in a joint statement from UT-Austin and Oklahoma.
“Both universities will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving collegiate athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletics programs for the future,” the statement read.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement that the remaining institution will work together to position the conference for future success.
“Although our eight members are disappointed with the decisions of these two institutions, we recognize that intercollegiate athletics is experiencing rapid change and will most likely look much different in 2025 than it does currently,” Bowlsby said. “The Big 12 Conference will continue to support our member institutions’ efforts to graduate student-athletes, and compete for Big 12 and NCAA championships. Like many others, we will use the next four years to fully assess what the landscape will look like in 2025 and beyond.”
If the schools were to leave the Big 12, it would drastically affect the remaining Texas schools that are part of the conference — Texas Christian University, Baylor and Texas Tech.
UT and OU, whose fanbases and history of football success are significantly more substantial than at the other schools, help drive television revenue and interest for the conference and its other teams. Last year, the Big 12 paid more than $37 million each to its members, an amount largely derived from television rights fees.
If the remaining schools in the conference were to stick together after UT and OU leave, they would have a hard time collecting nearly as much money for a future television contract without its top two schools.
Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec said in May that Fox and ESPN had declined offers to extend their contracts past 2025.
“They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty, and they do have four years to go,” Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.
The financial impact on the schools could be devastating. Records show that media rights represent the single largest income stream for Texas Tech athletics. Its total athletics revenue during the 2020 fiscal year was $90.4 million, meaning the Big 12 payouts accounted for more than one-third of its total earnings.
That major-conference money helped allow it to limit the amount of money the university transfers into its athletics department to less than $50,000. Public universities outside of major conferences in Texas have been known to funnel millions into their athletics programs to keep the departments afloat. (TCU and Baylor are private schools, and their financial numbers are not public.)
What’s more, playing in a major conference drives fan interest, boosts ticket sales and generally serves as a major marketing function for universities as a whole.
The idea of the two schools leaving has prompted some pushback in the Texas Legislature, especially among members with ties to Baylor, TCU and Tech.
“A decision to switch to a different athletic conference affects the opportunity and stability of our publicly-funded universities across the state and must be fully vetted in the most transparent and comprehensive manner possible,” Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, said in a statement Friday afternoon.
TCU spokesperson Holly Ellman said in a statement that the school will continue to make decisions in the “best interests of our student-athletes, our community and the long-term vitality of our athletic programs.”
“Athletics are a part of TCU’s national reputation and build upon our core strengths of academic achievement, scholarly pursuit and an unparalleled student experience,” the statement said. “We have nothing to announce at this time but have been engaged in deliberations with our conference colleagues and others and continue to support the Big 12 and its members.”
Last week, Burrows — who received his law degree and MBA from Texas Tech — filed House Bill 298, which would prohibit Texas public colleges and universities from switching their affiliations with collegiate athletic conferences without approval from the Legislature. The measure has more than 30 co-authors, but is merely symbolic as it doesn’t relate to topics on Gov. Greg Abbott’s special session agenda, making it unlikely that it will be passed into law.
Even if Abbott does put it on the agenda, the bill cannot be passed until Democrats return to the state after breaking quorum to block a GOP voting bill. They fled to Washington, D.C., almost two weeks ago.
Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, a Baylor University alumnus, said in a statement Friday that decisions related to conference realignments could “potentially have monumental impacts on the entire State of Texas.”
“The effects could be devastating,” Leach wrote. “Such important decisions must not be made by a select few behind closed doors, nor should they be unduly impacted by out-of-state interests who have little care or concern for the people of Texas.”
Sources from the Big 12 told ESPN that Monday’s statement from UT and OU doesn’t fully guarantee that the schools remain in the Big 12 through 2025. There is the possibility that they can pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early and give a required 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.
There is also speculation that OU and Texas would not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025, according to the publication. If the future of the Big 12 conference is in doubt, other schools could also look elsewhere for a landing place.
Baylor said in a statement Friday that conference affiliation has the power to enhance the school’s “academic and athletic national standing and visibility.”
“For our state, it is critical to our economy and Texas’ overall reputation to maintain five “Power Five” institutions, reinforcing the Lone Star State’s athletic preeminence,” the statement read.
The next step will belong to the SEC. Eleven of its 14 presidents must agree to extend an invitation to the two flagship schools, but it is unclear when this will take place. There is a regular weekly call scheduled for SEC athletic directors on Monday afternoon.
A&M athletic director Ross Bjork told the Houston Chronicle last week that A&M wants to be the only SEC school in Texas.
“There’s a reason why A&M left the Big 12: the way the Big 12 was operating and the governance,” Bjork said. “A&M is a flagship university, and with the size and scale of our place, we should have our own stand-alone identity in our own conference.
Disclosure: Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
BY HEIDI PÉREZ-MORENO with Texas Tribune.