ESPN, FOX Advising Big 12 on Expansion, Adding Notre Dame

Published on: June 28, 2012 | Written by: Clay Travis

You know how the television networks always claim they aren't involved in conference expansion?

Yeah, they're lying.

How do we know? Because yesterday we finally got our conference expansion smoking gun.

The Oklahoman uncovered memos from Chuck Neinas that specifically name networks, executives, and assess their opinions on Big 12 expansion. The network TV consensus from ESPN and Fox? Only Notre Dame is a positive addition to the Big 12. Quoth the Neinas memo: “Both representatives of ESPN/ABC and Fox Sports indicated that Notre Dame's involvement with the Big 12 Conference would increase the value of the conference relative to future television and also improve the image of the conference nationwide.”

Oh, there's more.

“Our television partners agreed that the only new member that would enhance the Big 12 value for television was Notre Dame,” Neinas wrote.

Need more from what can only classify as a blockbuster revelation?

Read on.

"Neinas goes on in the memo to say he discussed expansion with ESPN president John Skipper, Fox Sports president Randy Freer and ESPN's head of college athletics operations Burke Magnus.

Neinas said all three agreed a 10-member conference was preferred, but they would live with expansion to 11 or 12 teams. He also said both TV partners were in support of Notre Dame becoming a partial member of the Big 12 if the Irish would play a specific number of football games at Big 12 venues."

This is it folks, smoking gun confirmation of television executives consulting, discussing, and driving conference expansion decisions before those decisions are made.

This is a massive story.

So maybe you're wondering why this Oklahoman report hasn't gotten more attention.

That's a valid question.

And the easy answer is this -- the Oklahoman chose to drop this news story on the same day that college football added a playoff. Talk about awful timing, media are like kittens, if you give us a ball of yarn to play with we don't notice when you hit the other kitten with a sledgehammer.

And ESPN and Fox just hit the kitten with a sledgehammer. 

This story is huge because it isn't the only evidence in the past year.

You'll recall that last fall Boston College athletic director Gene Difilippo told the Boston Globe the ACC expanded to take Pitt and Syracuse because ESPN told the conference to do so. Remember these quotes? “We always keep our television partners close to us,’’ Difilippo said. “You don’t get extra money for basketball. It’s 85 percent football money. TV – ESPN – is the one who told us what to do. This was football; it had nothing to do with basketball.’’

In the ensuing media firestorm Difilippo stepped back from the comments saying he'd mispoken.

Right.

The Oklahoman story is even more of a blockbuster and so far no one has really noticed.

Why?

Is that a kitten with a ball of yarn, oh look how cute...

Damn you.

Shortly after Defilippo's comments USA Today ran a cover story examining ESPN's role in conference realignment. As part of that piece, came these comments from ESPN's Burke Magnus. "Magnus maintains, in fact, that ESPN does no talking at all — to a conference weighing expansion or its consultants — until a league has chosen to make a move, secured its new schools and is ready to assess the impact on its TV deal."

The Big 12's expansion memo flatly contradicts this ESPN contention. The Big 12 had not chosen to make a move or secured its new schools. The Big 12 just wanted to skip ahead to the last item, what does TV think?

Why did the Big 12 want to do this?

Because TV drives all these decisions.

The USA Today article continued: "Asked whether ESPN is strictly an observer in the process, Magnus says, 'I wouldn't put it that way. We have lots of conversations with our partners through the day-to-day relationships that we have with them. Do we have specific meetings where expansion possibilities are evaluated and formally discussed and schools ruled in and ruled out?

'I'm telling you, it doesn't work that way.'"

Maybe it doesn't work that way for ESPN -- the network might truly argue it isn't making the decisions -- but isn't ESPN being very disingenuous here? The ESPN executives are very smart, much smarter in assessing television value than your average athletic director or commissioner. They know their influence because they have the money. If ESPN is the one who will be paying increased television amounts for expansion candidates, are the conferences really going to expand without the nod of approval from their television partners? And if those conversations are taking place before leagues have chosen to expand and before they've actually secured new schools for expansion, this means that ESPN's opinion, official or not, is the de facto thumbs up or thumbs down for expansion.

Thanks to the extensive television relationships it has with all leagues: ESPN is the gatekeeper to all college expansion.

Meanwhile ESPN is also the largest media entity covering all of these leagues.

Is it a coincidence that ESPN, the biggest sports media entity in the world, has broken none of the major college expansion stories that its own business side is driving?

I'll leave that for y'all to decide.

My point is that ESPN's expansion conflict is massive and OKTC has been writing on this conflict for a year now. ESPN is the driving force behind conference realignment because television dollars are the driving force behind conference realignment. But up until yesterday's revelation there had been no smoking gun that proves network discussions with leagues were taking place before the leagues agreed to expand.

Now, it's important to note that ESPN and Fox both had the same advisory role here. That is, it isn't just ESPN that's giving expansion advice about whether or not a conference should expand. Fox is doing it too. ESPN isn't the conference realignment devil, it's just the corporation with the most college sports deals. So it has the most power.  

It's also interesting to note that Notre Dame, the only school that ESPN and Fox said would increase television value for the Big 12, is presently the television partner of Comcast/NBC. 

Reading the tea leaves, Notre Dame joining the Big 12 in any capacity strengthens the position of ESPN and Fox while weakening the position of Comcast/NBC. We already know that ESPN and Fox joined forces to stop Comcast/NBC from obtaining the Pac 12 television rights. Now the networks are also advising the Big 12 that Notre Dame is the preferred expansion candidate.

So isn't that a double conflict?

ESPN and Fox aren't just advising the Big 12 on whether or not it should expand to help their rights package, the networks are advising the Big 12 to expand in a way that hurts their primary rival too. 

It's a great business move. 

But it's also conflicted as hell. 

Now, in further fairness, Notre Dame is the best expansion candidate available to the Big 12. Your grandmother who doesn't even follow college football would agree with this advice. So it doesn't just hurt a television rival, the Irish really are the best addition to the Big 12. So ESPN and Fox can say they are being honest in sharing their opinion of the Fighting Irish. But could ESPN be honest with every school up for expansion or does it have a conflict? Florida State would be the next best possible addition to the Big 12, right? Even your grandmother could see this. Only how could ESPN fairly advise the Big 12 on the value of the addition of Florida State, Clemson, or Miami without breaching its new television deal with the ACC?

Put simply, it can't.

As a contracting party ESPN has a fiduciary duty to the ACC and a fiduciary duty to the Big 12. If the Big 12 expands and weakens the ACC, ESPN is taking from one television partner and rewarding another.

What's more, ESPN's television dollars provide the inducement that causes a team to leave. It is the breaching party.  

So ESPN would be providing the inducement to one contract partner to break an existing contract and form a new one. 

And it would be contracting with both parties at the same time.  

That's the clearest and most untenable of conflicts. 

Welcome to ESPN's world. We've long suspected this was the reality, but the Oklahoman story finally gave us the clearest possible evidence available, the smoking gun of realignment, that ESPN's television money is the primary force driving conference expansion.