ESPN says Big 12 allegations 'entirely without merit'

By Ralph D. Russo
Associated Press

ESPN responded Thursday to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s accusations of attempting to destabilize his beleaguered conference by saying it has done nothing wrong.

“The accusations you made are entirely without merit,” ESPN executive Burke Magnus, president of programming and content, said in a letter to Bowlsby that was released by the network.

“To be clear, ESPN has engaged in no wrongful conduct and, thus, there is nothing to ‘cease and desist,’” Magnus wrote, adding: “We trust this will put this matter to rest.”

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks during Big 12 media days earlier this month.

The Big 12 sent a cease-and-desist letter to Magnus a day earlier, alleging ESPN was incentivizing at least one other conference to raid the league in an effort to hasten the departure of Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference.

Bowlsby told AP on Wednesday he had “absolute certainty” ESPN was acting inappropriately behind the scenes and that he suspected ESPN was involved in Texas and Oklahoma’s months-long planning to exit the conference.

“It’s intentional deception,” Bowlsby said of Texas and Oklahoma’s actions.

ESPN holds a rights agreement with the Big 12, sharing the conference’s football games with Fox, through the 2024-25 school year.

The Big 12’s 13-year deal with Fox and ESPN is worth about $200 million per year to the conference. The conference signed an additional agreement with ESPN in 2019 that gave the network the rights to all Big 12 championship football games through 2024 and the ability to show some regular-season games on ESPN+, the network’s subscription streaming service.

That deal is worth an additional $40 million to the Big 12 through 2024-25.

The Longhorns and Sooners earlier this week formally asked to be join the SEC, starting in 2025 when its media rights agreement with the Big 12 expires. An earlier exit could cost Texas and Oklahoma a buyout worth tens of millions of dollars — if the Big 12’s other eight schools keep the conference going.

SEC presidents were scheduled to meet later Thursday and could vote on whether to extend an invitation to the Big 12’s flagship members.

Then the process goes back to the schools.

Texas and Oklahoma both have board of regents meetings schedule for Friday with conference affiliation on the agenda. Whether the boards will move to accept the invitations at those meetings is unknown, but it is almost certain they will at some point.

Then the question becomes: Can Texas and Oklahoma find a way to join their new conference sooner than 2025? It has the makings of being a messy divorce with the Big 12.

The conference bylaws state that schools departing before the grant of rights runs out are on the hook for penalties worth the equivalent of a year’s conference distribution for every year it breaks the agreement.

This past year the Big 12 distributed $34.5 million per member, down from recent years because of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, the Big 12 annual distributions were approaching $40 million per school.