According to Pete Thamel of Yahoo! Sports, the Big 12 Conference has sent a “cease and desist” letter to ESPN amid the growing shift in conference realignment.
Per Thamel, “The letter demands ESPN end ‘all actions that may harm the conference and its members and that it not communicate with the Big 12 Conference’s existing members or an NCAA conference regarding the Big 12 Conference’s members, possible conference realignment and potential financial incentive or outcomes related to possible conference realignment.’”
Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News confirmed Thamel’s initial report regarding the letter, including “this doesn’t have anything to do with derailing Texas/OU vote tomorrow by the SEC. Told it’s about ESPN ceasing and desisting their actions regarding all Big 12 members.”
The letter is significant considering ESPN, “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” has interests in college athletics with TV deals with major conferences, as well as the College Football Playoff.
ESPN owns the SEC Network and Longhorn Network, and is partnered with the Big 12 Conference in its streaming venture of Big 12 Now on ESPN+, which was part of its most recent media rights deal between ESPN and the Big 12 that was signed in 2019 and runs through 2025.
It’s expected that with Oklahoma and Texas applying for membership to the SEC earlier this week, that ESPN could roll the Longhorn Network – which the cable provider pays roughly $10-15 million per year to Texas – into the SEC Network.
All of this comes on the heals of the SEC severing ties with CBS in December – which is reportedly when OU and Texas were beginning discussions to leave the Big 12 – and signed a $3 billion deal with Disney, ESPN’s parent company, to have exclusive rights to all SEC games starting in 2024.
It has also been reported that Oklahoma and Texas, if accepted into the SEC, would buy out of their final few years with the Big 12 Conference in order to start playing in the SEC in 2024.
While everything is centered around OU, Texas and the SEC at the moment, the cease and desist would encompass the remaining eight members of the league that might be looking to part from the conference in its time of weakness.
A report earlier this week claimed Kansas and Iowa State had “made a run” at joining the Big Ten in the wake of the Big 12’s football blue bloods announcing their intent to leave the league.
According to a report by Ryan Black of the Manhattan (Kansas) Mercury, he cited sources that said “the letter is based on evidence the Big 12 gathered that ESPN executives orchestrated the shakeup of the Big 12.” His report claims the letter included ESPN had “the intention of dissolving the league entirely.”
Oklahoma State alumnus Brett McMurphy of Stadium reported sources who had similar sentiments about the situation.
McMurphy tweeted out his source claims ESPN “contacted other conferences ‘encouraging’ them to take Big 12 schools so Big 12 dissolves, eliminating grant of rights.” Per McMurphy, if the the league does dissolve, ESPN would not be responsible for the final four years of the media rights deal that is worth $1.06 billion.
The Big 12 appears to believe it has the evidence to back up its claim, as well.
In a statement to the Associated Press, Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby stated, “I have absolute certainty they (ESPN) have been involved in manipulating other conferences to go after our members.”
In an interview with CBS Sports, Bowlsby went as far as claiming ESPN was giving another conference incentives to pluck programs from the Big 12 in an attempt to dissolve the league. He specifically identified the American Athletic Conference as having been approached by ESPN to get “3-5” Big 12 programs to join their league, with CBS Sports stating Bowlsby suggest ESPN would reward the AAC with “future television proceeds.”
In an official statement from ESPN regarding the letter, the cable provider stated, “The claims in the letter have no merit.”
Follow News Press sports editor Jason Elmquist on Twitter @jelmquistSW.