May 28, 2024


There’s a big reason why we’ve reached another conference realignment crossroads. It centers around a 51-year-old media executive who pulls the strings behind the scenes for a while.

Regardless of 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 deal expires before the 2025 season.

You already know the Big 12 is in the midst of realigning itself for the second summer in a row as it looks west to possibly grab some members of the Pac-12. At the same time, college athletics is anticipating the Big Ten’s new media rights contract, which is expected to be announced any day now. It could be the biggest in history.

These two things are not unrelated. Back in 2004, Shapiro, then an ESPN executive, offered former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany a take-it-or-leave-it deal to renew with the World Leader. Delany declined amid what he perceived to be a lowball offer.

“You roll the dice,” Shapiro told Delany ingloriously.

“Think of them as rolls,” Delaney replied.

Delany further leveraged his conference rights by taking some of them in-house and starting his own channel. The Big Ten Network was extremely successful, to the point that subsequent conference expansions to Nebraska, Maryland, and Rutgers contributed to that success. These moves provided more content for the network as well as its linear cable partners Fox and ESPN.

Delany then made another brilliant move that led us to this moment. In 2017, it signed a brief six-year, $2.64 billion deal with Fox and ESPN that put the Big Ten in the advantageous position it is now: on the verge of signing a $1 billion annual media rights deal dollars.

The cycle is almost complete. Shapiro is among those awaiting a Big Ten announcement that will almost certainly reshape the conference’s alignment and possibly college athletics. The size of the deal could force further movement, force Notre Dame into the Big Ten and/or further consolidate power within the Big Ten (and the SEC).

Perhaps none of this would have been possible without Delany’s vision accelerated by Shapiro’s lowball offering. So far, Shapiro is getting high marks for his work with the Big 12. In fact, conference athletic directors are in awe of what Endeavor has already accomplished in putting the Big 12 ahead of the Pac 12 — even just a little. – in terms of gaining strength.

Without Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 is valued at $30 million annually per school, CBS Sports reported last week.

“The numbers seem to be in our favor,” said one Big 12 AD. “Not by a huge amount. This isn’t 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 the legal ramifications of expanding beyond 16 teams.

Karl Benson, a former commissioner of the old WAC, presided over 16 members from 1996-98 before the league folded because — surprise — the money didn’t go far enough. When BYU was left out of the Bowl Alliance (the forerunner of the BCS) despite becoming the first Division IA (now FBS) team to win 14 games, Senate hearings were convened. The word “collusion” was thrown around, as it was associated with the powers that be in college football keeping other programs out. This word could appear again.

“Maybe the reason Washington and Oregon didn’t go with USC and UCLA [to the Big Ten] At the same time it’s the fear of collusion,” the now-retired Benson told CBS Sports. “This is a legitimate concern about the damage one conference is doing to another.”

The stakes are higher this time. The SEC and Big Ten have a chance to monopolize the sport. Perhaps this has already happened. Administrators in both leagues escape awareness of antitrust issues. Well, sometimes. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said he could hold playoffs with his own league.

“[No one has] He ever went in and broke up a conference,” Benson added. [if I was Pac-12 commissioner] George Kliavkoff, I might pursue antitrust action there.”

Big Ten interest has waned in Pac-12 teams

After the angst caused last week about it further expansion of the Big Ten, industry sources said the Big Ten is no longer interested in adding California, Oregon, Stanford and Washington. The rights holders are reluctant to pay the same amount for these schools as the 16 Big Ten schools in the future ($80 million – $100 million).

While those four programs may eventually have options, the Big Ten is focused on its new deal in 2023 while trying to lure Notre Dame, which has an open invitation. A growing number of stakeholders now believe the Fighting Irish will eventually remain independent.

A missed opportunity

Let’s not forget that the Pac-12 had its chance to bolster its ranks last year when the Big 12 was hurt by Texas and Oklahoma’s SEC exits. Sources told CBS Sports this week the Pac-12 vote was 8-4 against taking any Big 12 schools. It would certainly be interesting to know those Pac-12 schools that voted to expand 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 regards to the Pac-12’s interest in Texas.

The Pac-12’s future may hinge on a time zone

West Coast late-night games are referred to as the “Fourth Window” — after 10 p.m. ET. As much ribbing as the Pac-12 has gotten for these games (#Pac12AfterDark), there’s no getting around it. It’s a valuable program that fills late-night TV slots with guaranteed ratings.

That’s why the late window is key for the Pac-12. Perhaps it’s why ESPN could remain in the conference beyond Thursday’s reported expiration of an exclusive 30-day negotiating window. Without the Pac-12, ESPN might not have late night football. Fox is already there with its Mountain West contract.

One industry lesson speculates: If ESPN doesn’t take a piece of the Big Ten, does it go all-in with what’s left of the Pac-12? More importantly, if ESPN takes part of the Big Ten, does the Pac-12 continue to exist without either of the two largest college football rights holders (ESPN, Fox) showing interest?

“This is a huge advantage for us to essentially get what we want in the expansion [the Pac-12],” a Big 12 source told CBS Sports. (Cue the vultures.)

The Big 12 remains in good shape

Fox and the Big 12 fell out five years ago when the conference re-added the championship game. Figures were not available, but sources said Fox did not want to pay the value the Big 12’s media consultant assessed for the game. Last summer, former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby issued as a drastic removal of ESPN as each of us had experienced. But when it comes to the heart of the business – media rights – bygones can always be bygones.

The Big 12 continues to work with both Fox and ESPN on the new proper deal, which will begin in 2025.


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