Big 12 commish Bob Bowlsby takes aim at ESPN, echoing a distrust schools have for current environment

·6-min read

In the long, sordid and divisive history of conference realignment, there has always been feverish levels of mistrust, backroom allegations and message board conspiracies when schools switch leagues. But in the decades of cloak-and-dagger maneuverings, political gamesmanship and rival in-fighting that have always accompanied realignment, we’ve never seen a moment like Wednesday afternoon.

Yahoo Sports first reported that the Big 12 sent a “cease and desist” letter to ESPN essentially demanding the television network stop plotting to sabotage and cannibalize the league. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby accused ESPN of attempting to “harm the league” for ESPN’s financial benefit. That wasn’t even the most memorable part.

From there, Bowlsby did a series of media interviews where he accused ESPN of plotting with another league – later revealed to be the American Athletic Conference per Yahoo Sources – to attempt to kill off the Big 12. Essentially, Bowlsby said he found evidence that ESPN had been “providing incentives” to a league to lure the Big 12 leftovers away after Oklahoma and Texas bolted without warning.

“What pushed me over the top was a couple of days ago when it became known to me that ESPN had been working with one or more other conferences and even providing incentives for them to destabilize the Big 12 and approach our members about moving away and providing inducements for the conference to do that,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s tortious interference with our business. It’s not right.”

Jul 14, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA;  Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to the media during Big 12 media days at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 14, 2021; Arlington, TX, USA; Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to the media during Big 12 media days at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

There's deep distrust with ESPN

Bob Bowlsby is mad as hell, and his unprecedented public maneuvers Wednesday made clear that he’s not going to take it anymore. And by calling out ESPN, his claims resonated with the deep cynicism that has festered toward the network and the SEC across the college sports landscape in the past week. Bowlsby spoke directly to the skeptical soul of leaders around the country, who are rationalizing the loss of collegiality in a billion-dollar business.

Bowlsby has a lot of credibility and good will from his decades in the collegiate space and that makes his accusations more credible. He summed up his position this way: "I wouldn’t state this if I didn’t know it was absolutely true."

ESPN countered, saying: “The claims in the letter have no merit.” 

This isn’t ESPN’s first realignment rodeo, and executive Burke Magnus, who is named in the letter, has been around long enough that he isn’t putting up conference invitations on his Instagram stories. But something or someone got sloppy, which is why things got complicated.

And the messiness that came out of the Bowlsby Bomb neatly summed up the fraught landscape in college athletics. One athletic director summed it up this way Wednesday: “This has created a lot more mistrust, a lot more dissension and a lot more hard feelings. If anything, that to me is why [the expansion to a 12-team playoff] slows down.”

Added another: “Most everyone in college athletics outside the SEC is mad as hell. This is a black mark on the enterprise ... federal intervention may be the last resort to save us from ourselves.”

Chimed in another longtime college official: “An industry destined to blow itself up.”

'They want to help OU and Texas get to the SEC faster and for less money' 

Consider the context of Bowlsby’s comments to realize just how seminal his letter and subsequent interviews were Wednesday. ESPN owes the Big 12 an estimated $500 million for the rest of the league’s contract, which runs through 2025.

There’s two important takeaways from Bowlsby calling ESPN out, aside from the jarring act of him doing it so publicly. The first is that it was a distinct way to get the message to Oklahoma and Texas that they’re going to get squeezed for every nickel they owe the Big 12 in the final four years of the contract.

Lawyers, crank up your billable hours. Bowlsby has made it clear he’s dying to go to court, would love to depose you and can’t wait to read all your texts and emails. “Do you let it go on or do you call your partner out?” asked a Big 12 source. “Even though they are our TV partner, I’m not sure they’re helping us at this point.”

Bowlsby’s allegations were clear that ESPN’s alleged maneuverings were designed to cause a chain reaction of net financial losses to “destroy” the Big 12. ESPN was attempting to dissolve the league and get Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC sooner, avoid paying exit fees and allow the grant of media rights to fizzle away with the league.

Bowlsby’s accusation was, essentially, that ESPN was trying to orchestrate a maneuver that could help save the network and its partners well over a half-billion dollars. “I can tell you the reason they want to destroy our conference,” Bowlsby said. “They want to help OU and Texas get to the SEC faster and for less money.”

There has long been a deep distrust of ESPN’s role in realignment, something the network and its executives push back hard against. But there’s a dichotomy between the ESPN suits being savvy stewards of a billion-dollar business and also having no say in moves that impact hundreds of millions of dollars and bundles of inventory.

A famous realignment quote that re-emerged – one that makes ESPN suits itchy – echoed from the past on Wednesday. Former Boston College athletic director Gene DeFilippo told The Boston Globe in 2011 about BC blocking UConn from the ACC: “TV – ESPN – is the one who told us what to do.”

The second important takeaway was that by sending the letter, Bowlsby in many ways helped galvanize the league. He identified clear enemies in ESPN and the departing schools. Bowlsby only sent that letter with presidential support, which means this will end up bonding the eight schools remaining in the Big 12. And part of that is due to the distrust of Texas and Oklahoma.

“We still don’t have the information we need from them and they’re largely unresponsive,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports about OU and Texas. “How many years do they plan to play. When are they planning on transitioning? We can’t get any answers out of them.”

Can the Remaining Eight stay together? Vulnerable leagues tend to have an every-school-for-themselves undercurrent, even when holding hands and saying the right things. The difference between what the Big 12 is being paid now – more than $35 million in TV – and what it'll be paid without OU and Texas is an estimated $20 million. Dropping a stinkbomb on the doorstep in Bristol, Connecticut, is a negotiation ploy to assure you will no longer be negotiating. But Bowlsby is too smart to have done this without some type of TV partner fallback.

Regardless, Bowlsby took a stand. He’s mad as hell, like many around college sports. The only safe prediction from the fallout is that the lawyers are licking their chops.

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