(Editor’s note: I’ve been trying in fits and starts for a couple months to develop a coherent explanation of what I think the future holds in store for Oklahoma and the Big 12 vis-á-vis the changing media landscape. In the first of what I intend to be a two-part series, I’d like to cover the broad implications of the evolving landscape in media and technology for college sports.)
If you're a fan in Big 12 country, it's hard to look around at the current landscape in college sports media and not wonder just what guys like Bob Bowlsby and DeLoss Dodds are thinking.
The Big Ten has established its own conference network and is expanding its membership in service of squeezing every last nickel from it. After doing its own poaching, the Pac-12 flipped the switch on its network last year. The SEC expanded and just announced a new deal with ESPN for a network that is promising untold riches and more Finebaum. Even the ACC has expanded and is exploring the prospects of having its own channel on your dial.
The Big 12, on the other hand, is sitting back and watching valuable brands walk out the door. Meanwhile, its schools are negotiating their own pastiche of deals to “monetize” whatever "third-tier" rights are. Instead of a new TV toy to play with, the league has a hodgepodge of individualized Longhorn and Sooner and Jayhawk Networks with varying degrees of distribution and value.
Why? At this point, the Big 12's mere existence is – rightfully – attributed to Texas' greed and ego. When ESPN dangled the Longhorn Network in front of UT, it ensured that America's most dysfunctional league would live to negotiate another day, albeit with a fractured constituency.
Whether intentionally or not, though, another parallel narrative is emerging that will compete for how we view the conference shuffle in retrospect.
We don't have a truly a-la-carte cable system yet, but the gravitation towards on-demand viewing and customization is clear. Streaming technology has put the traditional model of "appointment viewing" on notice, and alternatives to the cable box are proliferating.
Equally important for sports fans, in a truly on-demand world, there’s no reason why my options should be limited by the aggregate demand in my service area for a channel. If I live in Boston and want the PAC-12 Network, we’ve reached the point at which technology should easily allow for that and, as Andy Staples of SI.com points out, do so with no appreciable drop in broadcast quality.
That begs the question: Who needs ESPN or Fox?
If anyone, anywhere can access your content, conferences and even the schools themselves can more easily achieve the necessary scale to support their own networks and sell directly to the market. Without a doubt, ancillary concerns would need to be addressed (production, selling advertising, etc.). Those aren’t small issues, but neither is the mountain of money to be made from putting college football behind your own paywall.
Decisions that are being made right now will have a big hand in how schools and conferences are positioned to take advantage of these potential opportunities. In Part II, I'll look a little deeper at the different conferences' strategies.