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Oklahoma Sooners Football: Making sense of the negotiations to exit the Big 12 for the SEC

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How do competition and money fit into the stakeholders’ calculations?

Syndication: The Oklahoman BRYAN TERRY/THE OKLAHOMAN / USA TODAY NETWORK

Long a hotbed of infighting, the brouhaha in the Big 12 over the 2023 football schedule sounds like it will make for a fitting coda to the tenures of the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns in the conference.

Reported dates for release have come and gone, with a new target reportedly set for the end of this month. Meanwhile, some conferences put out their schedules more than a year ago.

The reason we don’t yet know the Sooners’ upcoming opponents depends on whom you ask:

  • The incoming members are trying to show they won’t be pushed around.
  • The incoming members need to learn their place.
  • The legacy Big 12 schools want to screw OU and Texas.
  • The legacy Big 12 schools want to play OU and Texas.

Scandalous!

Undoubtedly, the Red River rivals breaking away from the league in favor of the Southeastern Conference stirred up hard feelings among their soon-to-be-former conference mates. Subsequent quotes from other Big 12 schools’ administrators haven’t left much doubt about that. But athletic departments sending messages and settling scores by messing around with football games, their most valuable assets? Come on.

Oklahoman columnist Berry Tramel published a piece ($) over the weekend that feels like something closer to reality – at least from the view on the Sooners’ side of the fence. Per Tramel, the actual roadblock preventing the schedule’s release has to do with getting OU and Texas out of the league as soon as possible. He even threw out the possibility of the two schools leaving for the SEC this summer, which he admitted was a long shot.

Allow someone – who admittedly has no inside information about what is taking in place in the negotiations – to pull a bit more on this thread.


Competition

According to Tramel, the conventional wisdom about OU’s transition to the SEC has been proven wrong. In fact, it is actually backwards.

Then: Brent Venables is overhauling the program and restocking the roster, so playing out the string in the Big 12 until 2025 will help the Sooners as they gear up for the new SEC era.

Now: Go through the SEC learning curve while the program is down to avoid transition costs once the team cycles back up.

This makes sense on a certain level. Some challenges of the move to the SEC seem overblown, but preparing for a different style of play against teams built differently isn’t one of them. As it stands, Venables is meandering between two different worlds, trying to win games one way now and build a team that can win another way in the future. And the best coaching minds of any conference in the country run the teams playing the Big 12 way, which only makes the balancing act between present and future harder for OU’s head coach.

Even if playing in the SEC now required fielding a temporarily undermanned squad against a collection of more talented teams, OU could still find a way to a winning record and bowl bid with ease. The SEC’s eight-game conference schedule would allow the Sooners to pick up an extra paycheck game, and winning two or three conference games at minimum against the typical SEC conference slate seems imminently doable.

On the other hand, as the most talented teams in the conference, OU and Texas could maintain some hope of winning a conference title in the Big 12 in the next two years. Achieving that level of success in the SEC in 2024 (or 2023) seems like a pipe dream.


Money

All things being equal, OU and Texas extricating themselves from the Big 12 will cost a pretty penny. Reportedly, it could cost each of them north of $80 million. Staying in the Big 12 through 2025 would mean that sum would remain in their coffers.

We should note that although we can’t quantify it directly, there is almost certainly an opportunity cost to not bouncing. Home slates filled with Big 12 teams for the next two years won’t juice fundraising or generate the same level of demand for season tickets as hosting SEC foes. Surely the difference in revenue would offset the cost of the exit fees to a degree, even if we can’t say how much.

Meanwhile, it looks like expansion has made collecting those exit fees imperative for the legacy Big 12 teams. As Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports wrote recently, the remaining eight Big 12 teams are taking diluted payouts from the league’s media rights in the next two years to help fund the additions of BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF. That will leave a $16 million hole in their cash flows for the next two years. The exit fees could help make up the gap.

Knowing that, OU and Texas probably have room to whittle down their exit price, especially if they do stick it out for another year.


The bottom line is that any perceived benefits of staying in the Big 12 through the end of the current media rights deal probably don’t seem so appealing to either the Sooners or Longhorns right now. At the same time, fiscal realities give them more leverage in negotiations over their departure than it would seem at first glance.

That said, a 2023 departure still seems overly optimistic. We haven’t even broached the subject of satisfying FOX, which probably has no intent on seeing two high-value media properties walk out on one of its conference partners without getting something in return.

The smart bet: OU and UT reach a deal for a 2024 departure at a reduced price, with an announcement soon after the Big 12 releases its 2023 schedule.