TV Pulling The Strings of Conference Expansion

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ESPN and Fox reportedly working against rumored Big 12 Conference expansion raises red flags about the league’s future, and underscores the abundance of influence TV has on college sports.

For those who enjoy conspiracy theory, Monday’s Sports Business Journal report also provides fodder.

Just days before the piece outlining corporate acrimony toward the possibility of adding programs like BYU and Cincinnati ran, the voice of ESPN-owned SEC Network — Paul Finebaum — opined that Big 12 heavyweight Oklahoma “would rather be in the SEC or Big Ten.”

Don’t adjust your tinfoil hat. If you’re connecting the players with string on a corkboard, they all point to ESPN.

Since the conference realignment wheel began spinning in 2010, the mantra has more or less boiled down to “Expand or Die.” The Pac-12 expanded; so did the Big Ten and SEC. The ACC was later to the party, but scored a coup with the addition of up-and-coming Louisville, and an affiliation with Notre Dame.

The rational behind conference expansion: Reach more homes, both in sheer volume of games — conference championship game and better access to the College Football Playoff — as well as geographic reach.

While its Power Five brethren expanded, the Big 12 contracted. Its 10-team membership would have been perfectly suitable before 2010, but the model is antiquated in a landscape cultivated exclusively by TV — and it’s no secret that the driving entity behind conference expansion was always TV.

Finebaum dropping suggestions about Big 12 instability, coupled with SBJ‘s report, stand contrary to the direction TV has previously pushed leagues. There’s also a hint of “power” conference snobbery and continued collusion against those programs deemed outsiders.

No need not take a far leap to believe the death of the Big 12 is the endgame TV execs want — in part because we’ve seen a similar scenario play out through the course of this realignment cycle.

The Big East Conference’s negotiations with other networks flamed out when other conferences repeatedly raided the league’s members. In 2011, former Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo told the Boston Globe, “ESPN…is the one who told” the ACC to poach Syracuse and Pittsburgh.

While that occurred behind the scenes, Big East football coverage turned decidedly sour — not unlike Finebaum’s suggestion one of the two crucial pieces to Big 12 survival wants out.

Should the Big 12 erode, it wouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise. The Big 12 has been in a tenuous spot, from the outset of conference expansion and realignment. An inevitable chain reaction may well have been set the moment ESPN and Texas agreed upon the destined-to-fail Longhorn Network.

The larger problem has nothing to do with Texas, however, or even just the Big 12. TV wields far too much power crafting the landscape. These outlets face an obvious conflict of interest, covering these teams year-round — and often having to fill a 24-hour cycle with opinion, like Finebaum’s — while decisions are made behind the scenes.

Chalk this up as another example supporting a direct distribution model, which is more conceivable now than it was six years.