If the past five years have taught us anything about conference realignment, it's that ESPN will almost always have the last word on who goes where.
Given that it owns the entirety of the media rights of both the ACC and SEC and the Longhorn Network, the Worldwide Leader has a stake in just about any major move in college sports -- whether it's guarding its kingdom or expanding its empire.
So, now that David Boren has everyone talking about conference realignment again, let’s take a quick look at the major players from ESPN’s point of view:
Publicly available information portrays the relationship between UT athletics and ESPN as something akin to parents watching over a kid. Texas can go where and do what ESPN sees fit for the duration of the LHN contract.
There's a Lone Star State-sized caveat here, in so far as we don't know the full details of the LHN contract. Seeing as ESPN made a pretty sizable commitment to UT, let’s assume for now that ESPN is going to make it nearly impossible for the ‘Horns to do anything it doesn’t want them to do.
Threat level: High.
When it comes to the Pac-12, ESPN will do what it can to maintain the status quo. The Pac-12 Network isn't exactly cash-flowing at the moment, but Larry Scott is laying a foundation that could eventually cut ESPN, Fox, Comcast and the rest of their ilk out of the picture entirely when it comes to big-time college sports on the West Coast. Anything that strengthens the Pac-12 necessarily hurts ESPN's competitive position west of the Mississippi.
Similar to the Pac-12. As equity partners in the Big Ten Network, Jim Delany and Fox are 51 percent best buds. ESPN will likely pay dearly for B1G content in 2017 thanks to the threat of the conference going whole hog with Rupert Murdoch and Co. ESPN won't be doing the B1G any favors.
This is more John Skipper's speed. Exclusive media deals mean ESPN is cool with anything that helps these guys out.
What does this mean for the future of the Big 12?
ESPN pretty much owns Texas athletics until 2031. Therefore, maybe the biggest takeaway here is that Texas’ options shrink significantly if the earth starts moving again in college sports. Unless there’s a workable, as-yet-unknown exit clause in the LHN contract, consider any suggestion of UT heading to the Pac-12 or B1G D.O.A. for the near future.
If the Big 12 folds at some point, it’s ACC, *SEC or bust for Bevo.
(*And, boy, is this one complicated...)
So, one way to think about Boren’s latest expansion talk: If the Sooners are so unhappy that they were to leave the Big 12, how would Texas feel about staying there, leaving for the SEC or ACC, or going independent?