There’s a big reason why we’ve reached another conference realignment crossroads. It centers around a 51-year-old media executive who has been pulling the strings behind the scenes for a while.
No matter how this round of reorganization ends, Mark Shapiro will have a significant stake. The president of Endeavor — a powerful global sports, entertainment and content company — is currently advising the Big 12 on its next media rights deal after its current agreement expires ahead of the 2025 season.
You already know the Big 12 is in the middle of rearranging itself for the second straight summer as it gazes westward to possibly grab some Pac-12 members. At the same time, college athletics is anticipating the Big Ten’s new media rights contract, expected to be announced any day. It could be the largest in history.
Those two things are not unrelated. Back in 2004, Shapiro, then an ESPN executive, offered prior Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany a take-it-or-leave it deal to renew with the Worldwide Leader. Delany refused amid what he perceived to be a lowball offer.
“You are rolling the dice,” Shapiro infamously told Delany.
“Consider them rolled,” Delany responded.
Delany further monetized his conference’s rights by taking some of them in-house and starting his own channel. The Big Ten Network has been wildly successful, to the point that subsequent conference expansions to Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers contributed to that success. Those moves provided more content for the network as well as linear cable partners Fox and ESPN.
Delany then made another brilliant move that got us to this moment. In 2017, he signed a short six-year, $2.64 billion deal with Fox and ESPN that has landed the Big Ten in the advantageous place it now finds itself: on the brink of signing a $1 billion-plus annual media rights deal.
The circle is almost complete. Shapiro is among those waiting for a Big Ten announcement that will almost assuredly reshape conference alignment and possibly college athletics. The size of the deal could compel further movement, force Notre Dame into the Big Ten and/or further consolidate power within the Big Ten (and SEC).
Perhaps none of it would have been possible without Delany’s vision being accelerated by Shapiro’s lowball bid. Thus far, Shapiro is getting high marks for his work with the Big 12. In fact, conference athletic directors are giddy at what Endeavor has already accomplished by positioning the Big 12 ahead of the Pac 12 — if only slightly — in terms of earning power.
Without Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 is valued north of $30 million annually per school, CBS Sports reported last week.
“The numbers look like they favor us,” one Big 12 AD said. “Not by a huge amount. This is not like comparing Texas to Texas State. But there seems to be a noticeable difference.”
Conference realignment notebook
Further expansion could create legal problems
The only conference commissioner to run a 16-team league in the modern era has a warning for the SEC and Big Ten: Beware of the legal ramifications of expanding beyond 16 teams.
Karl Benson, former commissioner the old WAC, presided over 16 members from 1996-98 before the league collapsed on itself because — surprise — the money didn’t stretch far enough. When BYU was left out of the Bowl Alliance (the precursor to the BCS) despite becoming the first Division I-A (now FBS) team to win 14 games, Senate hearings were convened. The word “collusion” was tossed around as it related to the college football‘s powers holding other programs at bay. That word could pop up again.
“Maybe the reason Washington and Oregon didn’t go with USC and UCLA [to the Big Ten] at the same time is the fear of collusion,” the now-retired Benson told CBS Sports. “That’s a legitimate concern of the damages that one conference does to another.”
The stakes are higher this time. The SEC and Big Ten have a chance to monopolize the sport. Perhaps that has already happened. Administrators within both leagues are treading lightly out of an awareness of antitrust issues. Well, sometimes. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey has said he could stage a playoff with his own league.
“[No one has] ever gone in and gutted a conference,” Benson added. “If the Big Ten gutted a conference and took Washington and Oregon, [if I was Pac-12 commissioner] George Kliavkoff, I might pursue antitrust action there.”
Big Ten interest has cooled in Pac-12 teams
After the anxiety caused last week regarding further Big Ten expansion, industry sources have indicated the Big Ten is no longer as interested in adding California, Oregon, Stanford and Washington. Rightsholders were balking at paying the same amount for those schools as the 16 Big Ten schools going forward ($80 million-$100 million).
While those four programs may eventually have options, the Big Ten is concentrating on its new deal in 2023 while trying to lure Notre Dame, which has an open invitation. More and more stakeholders now believe the Fighting Irish will ultimately stay independent.
Let’s not forget the Pac-12 had its chance to bolster its ranks last year when the Big 12 was wounded by the exits of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC. Sources told CBS Sports this week the Pac-12 vote was 8-4 against taking any Big 12 schools. It would sure be interesting to be find out those Pac-12 schools who voted for expansion a year ago. We already know USC president Carol Folt “shut down” interest in expansion.
“We all would have jumped,” one Big 12 AD told CBS Sports in reference to the Pac-12’s interest in getting into Texas.
Pac-12’s future may hinge on a time zone
Late-night West Coast games are referred to as occurring the “Fourth Window” — after 10 p.m. ET. As much ribbing as the Pac-12 has received for those games (#Pac12AfterDark), there is no way around them. They are valuable programming that fills late-night TV slots with guaranteed ratings.
That’s why the late window is key for the Pac-12. It may be why ESPN could remain engaged with the conference beyond Thursday’s reported expiration of an exclusive 30-day negotiating window. Without the Pac-12, ESPN may not have late-night football. Fox is already set there with its Mountain West contract.
One industry course speculated: If ESPN doesn’t get a piece of the Big Ten, does it go all-in with whatever is left of the Pac-12? More importantly, if ESPN does get a portion of the Big Ten, does the Pac-12 continue to market without either of the two biggest college football rightsholders (ESPN, Fox) having interest?
“That’s a huge advantage for us to basically get what we want in expansion with [the Pac-12],” one Big 12 source told CBS Sports. (Cue the vultures.)
Big 12 remains well-positioned
Fox and the Big 12 disagreed five years ago when the conference was adding back its championship game. Figures weren’t available, but sources said Fox didn’t want to pay the value deemed for the game by the Big 12’s media consultant. Last summer, former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby issued as strident a takedown of ESPN as any of us had experienced. But when it comes to the nitty of the gritty of the business – media rights – bygones can always be bygones.
The Big 12 continues to be engaged with both Fox and ESPN for its new right deal, which will begin in 2025.