It's one of those sports stories that isn't really a sports story.
For the Big 12, this summer resembled a few acts out of Shakespeare's Macbeth, as the powerhouse collegiate athletic conference, unraveled by envy and ambition, backstabbed its way toward an untimely demise. So now we've had a glimpse into the knifey big business of college sports, one of the lone industries to expand through a wounded-duck economy.
"Based on conversations I have had I see no way Big 12 survives," Kansas City Star sportswriter Mike DeArmond tweeted last Tuesday night. The culprit? "Point the finger at Texas and (university) presidents emasculating" Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, DeArmond wrote.
Yes, emasculation. As with most tragedies, you could say that this drama's stars wield a surplus of hubris, because before now, the Big 12 — by most real-world measures — was doing just fine. Narratives pointing to bruised egos seem inadequate to explain the magnitude of a conference breakup that would represent a seismic shift for healthy programs collectively worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
A prologue for the uninitiated: The Big 12 regularly fields top teams in football and men's basketball — college revenue-generating sports — and features some of the NCAA's highest paid coaches. Several Big 12 programs boast self-sustaining budgets, whereas most college athletic departments need significant student fees and university financial support to stay afloat, according to data accumulated by USA Today.
The conference is also poised to start a 13-year cable TV contract with Fox valued at $1.17 billion while riding out an eight-year deal with ESPN, worth $480 million, that's set to expire in 2016, according to The Dallas Morning News.
Yet it was not enough. Yearning for ever greater revenues or prestige, eyes wandered. Some, like Missouri's, cast glances toward the Big Ten; others were put off by the ego and dollars behind Texas' exclusive Longhorn TV network.
Cue sound and fury.
In 2010, amid rumblings of an impending realignment, Colorado made the first move, eloping westward with the Pac-12. Soon thereafter, Nebraska cited the need for stability and a better cultural fit as it slipped out the door to join the Big Ten. The Big 12 then held together for one rickety year until Texas inked an exclusive $300 million TV deal with ESPN. Texas A&M, having seen enough, closed its eyes and jumped ship this summer, hoping the football-crazy SEC would catch it.
Like a minor character suddenly seizing center stage, tiny maverick Baylor has held up Texas A&M's move by threatening a lawsuit. The conference break-up could leave the smaller school without as attractive a home.
Which brings us to the present. The Big 12's status remains ambiguous, clarified only occasionally by unnamed sources swooping in to help steer casual speculation.
The conference's current shake-up is just the latest iteration of a longstanding collegiate drama: Between 1990 and 2002, according to one report, 34 schools changed conferences, often with significant financial stakes hanging in the balance. When Miami, Boston College and Virginia migrated from the Big East to the ACC between 2003 and 2005, annual TV payouts to the Big East tumbled from $15 million to $10 million, according to reports.
Big 12 members' race to greener pastures, despite grazing in pretty impressive pastures already, reflects a trend writ large, in which massive television contracts have reshaped the incentives driving the college sports business — toward ruin, according to some analysts.
"The concentration of television revenues on postseason play and national champions may be molding a winner-take-all market with outsized rewards for the teams at the pinnacle, and losses for all the rest," Vanderbilt University economists Malcolm Getz and John Siegfried note in a glum report published in May 2010. They add that "collegiate teams lack the controls imposed by professional leagues to avoid competitively spending themselves into poverty."
Even through the recession, college athletic budgets have ballooned to levels that most university presidents of major football schools say are unsustainable, according to a 2009 Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics survey. There's also muted evidence that sports success reliably draws more donations and student applications to universities, Getz and Siegfried write, which suggests that the inevitable enthusiastic announcements from school officials on new conference placements should be taken with a grain of salt.
And we may need a lot of salt. The Big East-ACC shakeup of the early '00s led to a multiconference game of musical chairs that eventually entangled Conference USA, the WAC and the Sun Belt Conference. Historically, university officials have used the words "a good fit academically and athletically" to hype a realignment, though the tangible academic benefits are often notional at best. Most schools likely will remain on unsteady financial footing anyway — except for the ones most often rocking the boat.
"We are seeking to generate greater visibility nationwide for Texas A&M and our championship-caliber student-athletes, as well as secure the necessary and stable financial resources to support our athletic and academic programs," wrote Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin to Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe in the letter on August 31, 2011, announcing the school's departure. "This is a 100-year decision that we have addressed carefully and methodically."
Unmentioned by Loftin was that Texas A&M's athletic department made $6.8 million last year — according to USA Today, the 13th biggest profit in all of college sports.
But in the words of the Bard, what's done is done. Big 12 schools now seem poised to listen closely to Lady Macbeth's advice in Act 3, when she shoos servants away from a king whose reign has been plunged into fratricidal chaos. "Stand not upon the order of your going," she tells them, "but go at once."