Southeastern Conference university presidents voted Thursday to invite Texas and Oklahoma to the league and create a 16-team powerhouse on the field and at the bank.
But how soon?
The latest step in a move that has potential to help reshape college sports came two days after Texas and Oklahoma requested to join the SEC in 2025. That’s when the schools’ media rights agreement with the Big 12 expires.
The SEC said its leaders voted unanimously to extend invitations to the Longhorns and Sooners and bring them into the conference effective July 1, 2025.
When news of the potential conference realignment broke last week, Texas A&M bristled about letting its old Big 12 and Southwest Conference rivals from Austin into the SEC. But the Aggies ended up falling in line.
“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said.
Adding Texas and Oklahoma to a conference that already includes football powerhouses such as Alabama, LSU, Georgia and Florida gives the SEC eight programs that have won national championships since 1980.
“It’s already the greatest, toughest conference in America. And with those two teams attempting to join this league, it will only get tougher,” South Carolina coach Shane Beamer told reporters.
Now the process goes back to the schools. Texas and Oklahoma both have board of regents meetings schedule for Friday with conference affiliation on the agenda. Whether the boards will move to accept the invitations at those meetings is unknown, but it is almost certain they will at some point.
Then the question becomes: Can Texas and Oklahoma find a way to join their new conference sooner than 2025? It has the makings of being a messy divorce with the Big 12 that could include ESPN.
“Today’s SEC announcement reaffirms that these plans have been in the works with ongoing discussions between the parties and television partner for some time,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement. “We are disappointed these discussions went as far as they did without notice to, or inclusion of, other Big 12 members.”
Earlier Thursday, ESPN responded to Bowlsby’s accusations of attempting to destabilize his beleaguered conference by saying it has done nothing wrong.
“The accusations you made are entirely without merit,” ESPN executive Burke Magnus, president of programming and content, said in a letter to Bowlsby that was released by the network.
“To be clear, ESPN has engaged in no wrongful conduct and, thus, there is nothing to ‘cease and desist,’” Magnus wrote, adding: “We trust this will put this matter to rest.”
Bowlsby sent a cease-and-desist letter to Magnus a day earlier, alleging ESPN was incentivizing at least one other conference to raid the league in an effort to hasten the departure of Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference.
Bowlsby told AP on Wednesday he had “absolute certainty” ESPN was acting inappropriately behind the scenes and that he suspected ESPN was involved in Texas and Oklahoma’s months-long planning to exit the conference. He told AP the schools’ actions were “intentional deception.”
ESPN holds a rights agreement with the Big 12, sharing the conference’s football games with Fox, through the 2024-25 school year.
“Despite our concerns for the process and for the overall health of college athletics, we will do everything possible to make sure that the student-athletes at both universities enjoy an excellent experience throughout the remaining four years of their participation and competition in the Big 12 Conference,” Bowlsby said in his statement.
An early exit could cost Texas and Oklahoma a buyout worth tens of millions of dollars — if the Big 12′s other eight schools keep the conference going.
The conference bylaws state that schools departing before the grant of rights runs out are on the hook for penalties worth the equivalent of a year’s conference distribution for every year it breaks the agreement.
This past year the Big 12 distributed $34.5 million per member, down from recent years because of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the Big 12 annual distributions were approaching $40 million per school.
A windfall awaits Texas and Oklahoma in the SEC. The conference is projected to start distributing about $67 million per year to its members in 2024, when its latest deal with ESPN kicks in.
Those projections don’t take into account Texas and Oklahoma, two of the biggest brands and most successful programs in college sports.
ESPN also owns the SEC Network and the Longhorn Network, the cable home of Texas’ athletics.
As the College Football Playoff moves toward expansion from four to 12 teams, the SEC will be adding the only Big 12 team to ever reach the playoff in Oklahoma. The Sooners have won six straight Big 12 titles and have four CFP appearances.
Texas won a football national championship in 2005 and played for another in 2009, but the program has struggled to consistently contend for Big 12 titles in the last decade.
This offseason the Longhorns hired former Alabama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to be their head coach, hoping to inject some SEC juice into the program.
Texas is now taking it one step further, renewing its rivalry with Texas A&M and relocating one of the wealthiest athletic departments in the country into the most competitive — and potentially the most lucrative — conference in major college football.