SEC university administrators voted 14-0 Thursday to invite the two schools, according to an announcement by the conference.
“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s long-standing spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school’s membership interest.”
The question now for Oklahoma and Texas is whether they can part ways with the Big 12 before 2025. They likely would have to pay tens of millions of dollars in buyout fees, but in addition to ending an awkward situation more quickly, the Sooners and Longhorns could recoup much if not all of that money via the SEC’s more lucrative revenue streams.
The promise of a greater payday for everyone in the SEC with the addition of the Sooners and Longhorns was reflected by Texas A&M joining the vote to invite the two programs. That marked a turnabout from last week, when initial reports on the desire of Oklahoma and Texas to make the move prompted Aggies Athletic Director Ross Bjork to say, “We want to be the only SEC program in the state of Texas. There’s a reason why Texas A&M left the Big 12, to be stand alone, to have our own identity, and that’s our feeling.”
By Wednesday, the board of regents for Texas A&M released a statement in which it said that after receiving “information it needed to properly consider the long-term ramifications of a possible expansion … [it] concluded that this expansion would enhance the long-term value of the SEC to student athletes and all of the institutions they represent — including Texas A&M.”
For the Big 12, the question is whether the conference, which will be down to eight teams, can survive the loss of its two most prominent programs. It could try to recruit the best programs from conferences outside the “Power 5” quintet, which also includes the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12. However, other Big 12 schools could look to jump ship. Reports have indicated that the AAC, the strongest of the “Group of 5” conferences, may attempt to pilfer some or perhaps even all of the remaining Big 12 teams.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby has already signaled that he will not let all of this unfold without a fight. On Wednesday, he sent a letter to ESPN’s president of programming and content, Burke Magnus, in which Bowlsby accused the network of being involved in the move of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC, and encouraging an unspecified other conference to lure more teams away from the Big 12.
Claiming that ESPN has been “incentivizing other conferences to destabilize the Big 12,” Bowlsby demanded that the network “cease and desist” all such activity. ESPN has a media-rights deal with the Big 12, as does Fox. ESPN also has broadcast and streaming arrangements with the SEC and the AAC.
In response, Magnus sent a letter to the Big 12 commissioner on Thursday, before the SEC’s announcement, in which he wrote that Bowlsby’s accusations were “entirely without merit.”
“To be clear, ESPN has engaged in no wrongful conduct and, thus, there is nothing to ‘cease and desist,’” Magnus wrote. He added, “We trust this will put this matter to rest.”
In a statement Thursday, Bowlsby said that the SEC announcement “reaffirms that these plans have been in the works with ongoing discussions between the parties and television partner for some time.”
“We are disappointed these discussions went as far as they did without notice to, or inclusion of, other Big 12 members,” said the Big 12 commissioner. “Despite our concerns for the process and for the overall health of college athletics, we will do everything possible to make sure that the student-athletes at both universities enjoy an excellent experience throughout the remaining four years of their participation and competition in the Big 12 Conference.”
It may take a courtroom battle before Oklahoma and Texas are fully divorced from the Big 12, particularly assuming they want to be in the SEC well before 2025. The fallout from their defection also promises to unleash turmoil in other conferences, perhaps even leading to the kind of extensive realignment that marked the first half of the previous decade.
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