Big 12 sends ESPN cease and desist letter in latest college conference expansion drama

The Big 12 Conference has sent ESPN a letter demanding the network refrain from communicating with its current membership or with other Football Bowl Subdivision leagues regarding its member schools, in the latest turn in the expansion drama kicked off by Texas and Oklahoma’s projected departure for the SEC.

According to Yahoo Sports, which first reported the contents of the letter, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby requested ESPN refrain from “all actions that may harm the conference and its members and that it not communicate with the Big 12 Conference’s existing members or any NCAA conference regarding the Big 12 conference’s members, possible conference realignment or potential financial incentive or outcomes related to possible conference realignment.”

In addition, the letter accuses ESPN of having been “actively engaged in discussions with at least one other conference regarding that conference inducing additional members of the Big 12 Conference to leave the Big 12 Conference.”

Those actions “are an apparent attempt to interfere with and to induce our members to breach these contractual obligations to the Conference and to encourage further conference realignment for the financial benefit of ESPN,” Bowlsby wrote.

The letter concludes by asking ESPN to respond with “written assurances that all such actions will immediately cease and desist” by noon CT on Friday.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to reporters during Big 12 media days on July 14, 2021.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby speaks to reporters during Big 12 media days on July 14, 2021.

In a statement to USA TODAY Sports, ESPN said “the claims have no merit.”

The network was not involved in Texas or Oklahoma contacting the SEC about possible inclusion, according to a person familiar with the rights deal. The person was granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

In directing its attention on the network, the Big 12 is taking aim at the largest power broker in college sports. ESPN owns broadcast deals with each of the Power Five leagues and rights to nearly every bowl game and the entirety of the College Football Playoff.

The Big 12 is nearing the end of a 13-year agreement with ESPN and Fox, which is set to expire in 2025.

“This is putting ESPN on notice that (the Big 12) may sue ESPN at some point in the future if Oklahoma and Texas leave the Big 12 before the grant of rights expires,” said Mit Winter, a lawyer who has served as outside counsel to college athletic conferences.

“Threatening to sue ESPN is going to sour the relationship between the Big 12 and ESPN if the Big 12 continues to exist. I assume ESPN is not going to be happy about receiving that kind of letter.”

This will likely ultimately comes down to “how much the Big 12 is willing to settle or whether it’s going to draw a line in the sand,” Winter said. “There are some issues with suing UT or OU because of sovereign immunity. It’s hard to sue a state entity.”

The letter reflects the new reality for the conference, which is set to lose its two national brands. The only paths at hand for the Big 12 are to maintain an eight-team roster or expand, with both options requiring that potential expansion fodder such as Kansas and West Virginia remain members of the conference rather than join the Big Ten or ACC.

ESPN agreed to a deal late last year with the SEC, ending that league’s longstanding relationship with CBS via a 10-year deal worth roughly $300 million annually with a scheduled effective date of 2024. With the Sooners and Longhorns in the fold, SEC revenue could reach upwards of $1.3 billion during the 2024-25 fiscal year, according to research conducted by USA TODAY Sports.

The league’s forceful response to this month’s expansion news comes days after the Longhorns and Sooners officially informed the Big 12 of its plans not to join the conference’s next grants of media rights agreement, which would begin in 2025.

That statement was followed by an official request to join the SEC signed by the Oklahoma and Texas university presidents, which drew the SEC’s first public acknowledgment of the mutual interest between the nation’s strongest conference and two of college football’s historic powers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Big 12 sends ESPN cease and desist letter in latest expansion drama

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