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Blogging about college football by an Oklahoma Sooners fan.

Texas and the Big 12: Gettin' all game theory on ya


If you can't tell, I love the conference realignment game from a purely theoretical standpoint. So, when I come upon an analysis that so expertly lays out the current tension in the Big 12 at the moment as this outstanding piece from our friend Peter Bean at Burnt Orange Nation, I feel compelled to point it out.

Whereas some people might be compelled to evaluate the positions of Texas and the rest of the Big 12's members based on watered-down public drivel or guessing at the major players' true intentions, I agree with Peter that a game-theory analysis of the situation can provide some beneficial insight into the motivations and goals at play. As I've suggested previously, that kind of exercise suggests that Texas' goals in this case are at odds with those of the rest of the league.

(Obviously, I don't claim any inside information here, so I'm working based on information that is out in the public domain. New developments could throw a wrench in all of this.)

Ever since UT secured its own television network out of the aborted effort to join Larry Scott's crew out west, the Longhorns' actions have betrayed their true motives as they relate to both the Big 12 and the rest of the college football landscape. UT is looking to "capitalize on its opportunities as the biggest, bestest brand," according to Peter, with the Longhorn Network offering a key vehicle to do so. As such, Texas' relationship to the Big 12 should be viewed through that prism.

So what good is a conference for UT? As Peter points out, it's best as a means to that ultimate end. That doesn't mean building an elite league. It means building a league that will get Texas where it wants to go.

The Big 12 as currently structured serves Texas very well in that regard. The Longhorns have their television network and are teamed with the premier brand in sports entertainment, courtesy of the conference's media rights provisions. The league is just strong enough to ensure that the quality of Texas' competition won't preclude it from competing for national titles, especially in football.

Most importantly, the conference is economically dependent on Texas. Take Texas out of the Big 12, and the conference dies a quick death. By itself, Oklahoma would probably have value to at least one of the top-tier leagues – the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC – but that's likely it. From a financial standpoint, a Texas-less Big 12 can't compete with the big boys. (You could argue that an Oklahoma-less Big 12 would probably be unsustainable, too, but not for lack of trying, OU remains tied to the league.)

That gives the rest of the member schools that don't sport crimson and cream plenty of reason to kowtow to Dodds and his employer. With that kind of power over the conference, the 'Horns also have plenty of rope to take the steps they deem necessary to establish Texas as the unquestioned pre-eminent brand in college sports and further distance themselves from the financial pack via the LHN.

In other words, Texas needs a Big 12 that will bend to its will to maximize its own position.

Why expansion undermines Texas' long-term position

From that perspective, it's easy to see why Texas would want to keep Florida St. out of the Big 12. First, the Seminoles could potentially compete with the Longhorns and Sooners for the top of the league on an annual basis.

Second, by adding FSU to the mix, the potential that Texas walks on the Big 12 down the road is no longer seen as a death blow by the rest of conference members. Therefore, Texas no longer carries as big of a stick as it does now.

Finally, one thing that Peter nails – and I hadn't fully considered this before – is the potential effect of the break-up of the ACC on the college football landscape and Texas' "bet" on the future of the dominant college sports business model. Considering how UT's position could be threatened by the emergence of 16-team superconferences, the 'Horns have all the more reason to fight Big 12 expansion.

Texas' alternatives

Let's assume for the sake of this exercise that the rest of conference favors expansion - and I think that's a safe assumption at this point. What leverage does Texas have that could kill that move, assuming that the so-called grant of rights is in effect for the next five years under the terms of the existing Big 12 media deal?

Any other conference would gladly take Texas, but the question would be under what conditions. It would take some serious bending on the part of the Pac-12 and Big Ten to accommodate the LHN in its current state, given that their current business models rely on pooling media rights. The ACC would almost certainly be more flexible, but that means actually joining the ACC, a sub-par football league that already has 14 teams.

Texas could refuse to sign the new media rights extension and put the option of independence in play. However, that means putting Oklahoma back on the market, which could hasten the formation of 16-team superconferences.

And let's not forget how Ken Starr reacted the last time a Texas state institution threatened the viability of the Big 12. Politically, UT will have to account to the powers that be in the state legislature for any move that so dramatically hurts Texas Tech and Baylor and TCU.

ESPN
There's also the matter of ESPN. Think the Worldwide Leader won't have some say in what Texas does, especially given its obvious desire to dominate college football media? The owner of the LHN already appears to be doing everything in its power to push FSU to the Big 12 in light of its bargain-basement TV deal with the ACC. Ultimately, ESPN's desire to control the college football landscape dwarfs any commitment that it has to Texas and the LHN. Texas not signing on to the Big12's latest TV contract extension would seemingly put those commitments at odds.

(Which kinda reveals a sad truth to all of this: ESPN is really holding all the cards.)

Conclusion

Combine the Longhorns' ambition with Dodds' apparent skill at reading the field and maximizing leverage, and you get the Texas monster that everyone who doesn't bleed burnt orange has come to know and tolerate. In all honesty, however, whatever your opinion of Texas and how it does business, it's disingenuous to condemn Dodds and the 'Horns in all of this. I feel pretty confident that just about any school in Texas' position would behave in an approximate fashion, even if UT is an extreme case.

The Longhorns have compelling reasons to object to expansion, and Dodds wouldn't be doing his job if he wasn't doing what he felt was best for the school. It's certainly not incumbent on Texas to act contrary to what it perceives as its own best interest for the sake of some kind of "duty" to the conference. The league's members have done pretty well thanks to their association with the 'Horns as it is.

But what's good for Bevo and all that...

A major reason why I've written so much on this particular juncture in the Big 12's history is that while I think you could argue that going along with Texas has been the member schools' best play – or only play – in the past, this is a different matter altogether.

Adding Clemson and FSU gives the Big 12 an identity beyond being Texas' launching pad. It creates a stable conference that doesn't live and die based on the whims of one school.

While the move may not fit in with the Longhorns' master plan, it benefits the entire league. And that's why I see this expansion as an inevitability.