Don't look now, but the pending megadeal between Disney and 21st Century Fox may have just re-opened the Big 12 Conference expansion discussion.
Disney's $50+ billion acquisition of numerous Fox assets includes its 22 Fox Sports regional networks, valued in the neighborhood of $22 billion on their own - a sizeable chunk of the overall deal. This clearly signals Disney's intention to push ESPN into the local and regional sports market hard.
This makes perfect sense. Audiences are paying less attention to national sports and more to their local teams and schools. And UCF stands to benefit.
TV has always been both the driver and the sticking point for any Big 12 expansion. All ten Big 12 teams are free to delegate their third-tier TV rights however they see fit, rather than pooling them into a conference network, as the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and ACC (coming soon) have.
Here's how the TV rights currently break down for all Big 12 teams:
|School||1st & 2nd Tier||3rd Tier1||Cable Partner|
|Baylor All-Access||Fox Sports Southwest|
|Iowa State||Cyclones.tv||Fox Sports Regional4|
|Kansas||ESPN (ESPN3)||Fox Sports Kansas City|
|Kansas State||KStateHD.tv||Fox Sports Kansas City|
|Oklahoma||SoonerSports.tv||Fox Sports Oklahoma|
|Oklahoma State||OKState.tv/YouTube||Fox Sports Oklahoma|
|TCU||FrogVision||Fox Sports Southwest|
|Texas||Longhorn Network (ESPN)||Longhorn Network3|
|Texas Tech||Texas Tech.tv||Fox Sports Southwest|
|West Virginia||IMG College2||AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh|
2 Since IMG College does not own a TV network, it sells WVU's TV rights to AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh. They have a deal in place through 2022.
3 Texas' Longhorn Network is already owned by ESPN.
4 Iowa State sells all of its third-tier rights to its own digital network, ostensibly because no TV network wants anything from Iowa State. So they technically don't have a true cable partner.
Well, lookie there. ESPN just bought the primary cable partner for 70% of the Big 12. They already own 10% and another 10% has no cable partner.
That makes West Virginia the only holdout, which means all Disney has to do is buy out those rights from one rightsholder in order to unify the Big 12's third-tier rights under its umbrella.
One of the main reasons the Big 12 decided not to expand when they flirted with the idea last year was because its morass of TV rights was too difficult for ESPN or Fox to untangle - The Longhorn Network being merely the largest knot to pull apart.
But with the Fox regional nets now under the ESPN umbrella, that obstacle is gone.
Here's where it gets fun.
ESPN just removed one of the biggest obstacles to Big 12 expansion
Through all of its recent upheaval, ESPN is still hellbent on world domination. They're just changing how they're going about it. As audiences become more and more fragmented, and cable subscribers flee ESPN's national nets, The Worldwide Leader can still preserve revenue share through the local nets, which maintain solid ratings due to their live events properties - MLB, NBA, NHL and college sports.
ESPN already has control of the SEC Network, and will control the ACC Network once it signs on in 2019. They now can do the same with the Big 12, now that they own 80% of the Big 12's RSNs.
From ESPN's perspective, the play looks like this:
Step 1: Buy Texas out from the LHN.
ESPN also knows that the Longhorn Network was a losing bet. It was a serious point of contention when the Big 12 explored expansion a year ago, and that hasn't changed. As cable subscribers give way to cord-cutters, ESPN needs something to do with this $295 million albatross that has already lost them nearly $50 million in its first five years of existence.
Before the deal, Texas had the hammer, thanks to the Big 12's fragmented media landscape. But ESPN consolidating those assets means they now have the power in this relationship, and can finally put Texas, who has underachieved since starting the Longhorn Network, back in its place.
They can make Texas whole by moving Longhorn Network programming to the soon-to-be-former Fox Sports Southwest, which doesn't currently have a major college partner to dance with (Sorry Baylor, TCU, and Texas Tech), and has a larger distribution footprint than the Longhorn Network anyway.
In order to make up for that massive buyout, however, you're going have to increase the value coming in for the rest of the league. That's when you make the next pitch:
Step 2: Convince the Big 12 to add UCF, USF, Memphis, and Cincinnati.
Why these four schools? Simple: ESPN already owns the rights to these schools in their portfolio due through its contract with the American Athletic Conference. Before, they would have lost all four to an FSN regional. And ESPN doesn't like losing rights to anyone.
And ESPN now owns the regional nets that would ostensibly televise all four of these schools:
|UCF||Fox Sports Florida/Fox Sports Sun|
|USF||Fox Sports Florida/Fox Sports Sun|
|Memphis||Fox Sports Tennessee|
|Cincinnati||Fox Sports Ohio/Fox SportsTime Ohio|
Side note: Houston, who probably deserves a Power Five ticket as much as the above four, would be left out in this scenario because their local RSN is AT&T SportsNet Southwest.
It's also no secret to anyone that these four schools were interested in moving to the Big XII a year ago in the last expansion fling.
Now ESPN will have much more leverage to make pitch #2:
Step 3: Pool the Big 12's TV rights into a Big 12 Network.
ESPN can now leverage the national distribution infrastructure that's already there from LHN and the RSNs to turn LHN into a true Big 12 Network. This would doubtless increase the number of cable carriers interested in carrying it for live events across the Great Plains and South, not to mention a new footprint in the upper midwest, where Fox's presence is still strong through its continued affiliation with the Big Ten.
On the other side, the Big 12 finally has a way to consolidate its TV rights, as well as a reasonable sales pitch for increasing the size of the pie enough for all of its members. Given Texas' decline as a national sports power since LHN's launch, and UCF and USF's emergence as eyeball magnets, the tide has turned in favor of expansion almost as quickly as it turned against it last year.
As for when this might all go down, we just have no idea. It depends on how quickly ESPN can convince Texas and the Big 12 to start the process.
But twelve months ago, it seemed like UCF might be stuck in the gray area between national power and regional spoiler. As the Worldwide Leader in Sports also becomes Your Local Leader in Sports, the situation may finally be right for UCF to benefit from ESPN's power. UCF's future may suddenly be brighter than ever.
What do you think? Let us know below.