Texas and Oklahoma made a request Tuesday to join the Southeastern Conference — in 2025 —- with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey saying the league would consider it in the "near future."
The wheels are in motion for a monumental move in college sports, but the Longhorns and Sooners are not yet free agents. And it's doubtful they want to wait until the contract that binds them to the Big 12 for four more years runs out to bolt to the SEC.
It also might not be in the best interest of the Big 12 to have two lame ducks in the conference much beyond the 2021-22 school year.
"It's similar to a divorce, but it's business relationship where multiple parties realize that they just can't be together anymore," said Darren Heitner, a sports and entertainment attorney based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "You try to come to a resolution where perhaps nobody feels great about it, but at least there's something where they feel as though they're getting some fair value out of the equation."
A day after Oklahoma and Texas notified the Big 12 that they would not be extending a grant of media rights agreement past its 2025 expiration date, the schools publicly stated for the first time they want to join the SEC.
Oklahoma and Texas sent a joint letter to Sankey, requesting "invitations for membership to the Southeastern Conference starting on July 1, 2025."
"We believe that there would be mutual benefit to the universities on the one hand, and the SEC on the other hand, for the universities to become members of the SEC. We look forward to the prospect of discussions regarding this matter," the schools said in a letter signed by each university's president.
The grant of rights that ties Oklahoma and Texas to the Big 12 and its eight other members runs concurrently with the conference's billion-dollar television deals with ESPN and Fox.
Big 12 bylaws state members leaving must give 18 months' notice and pay an exit fee equivalent to two years' worth of revenue distributions.
Big 12 revenue distribution fell off to $34.5 million per school this past year because of the pandemic, but it had been approaching $40 million per school before the downturn. That could mean about $80 million buyouts each for Texas and Oklahoma.
The schools could also be on the hook for other revenue losses brought on by their departure.
The Big 12 seems to have lots of leverage, but if there is a future for the conference without OU and UT, it needs to begin rebuilding soon to show stability heading into negotiations for its next television contract.
"If you're the Big 12, you understand perhaps you have some leverage here based on the fact that there is an existing contract, but ultimately pushing hard on that contractual arrangement and either forcing the parties to remain situated as is or actually litigating if there is a breach is less desirable than peacefully resolving behind closed doors," Heitner said.
Meanwhile, the SEC is poised to grow to 16 teams with Texas and Oklahoma, half of which have won at least one national championship in football since 1980.
The SEC's most recent television contract with ESPN, set to take effect in 2024, is expected to increase revenue distribution to its member schools to about $67 million per year.
The news of discussions between the Texas and Oklahoma and the SEC broke last week during SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama.
"The events of recent days have verified that the two schools have been contemplating and planning for the transition for months and this formal application is the culmination of those processes," Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement Tuesday.
Sankey's first public acknowledgment of the situation was careful to mention the SEC did not initiate talks with the schools.
"While the SEC has not proactively sought new members, we will pursue significant change when there is a clear consensus among our members that such actions will further enrich the experiences of our student-athletes and lead to greater academic and athletic achievement across our campuses," Sankey said.
Heitner said the SEC does not want to get entangled in a messy divorce by being accused of actively trying to cause the breakup.
"If the SEC actually reached out first to Texas and Oklahoma with the intention to gauge interest and perhaps provide an offer, that could create a foundation for a tortious interference claim and put the SEC at issue of legal exposure," Heitner said.
The SEC's next action is to vote on whether to extend an invitation to Texas and Oklahoma. SEC bylaws state at least three-fourth of its members (11 of 14) must vote in favor to invite a new member. SEC presidents are scheduled to meet Thursday, but it is unclear if they will vote.
The boards of regents at Texas and Oklahoma each announced Tuesday that meetings would be convened Friday with conference affiliation on both the agendas.
The Big 12 was created from a merger of sorts between the Big Eight and Southwestern Conference in 1994 and began play in 1996. Texas and Oklahoma are the conference's most notable brands. They have the richest and most successful athletic departments, and they are the only Big 12 schools to win national college football championships.
"We are unwavering in the belief that the Big 12 provides an outstanding platform for its members' athletic and academic success," Bowlsby said. "We will face the challenges head-on, and have confidence that the Big 12 will continue to be a vibrant and successful entity in the near term and into the foreseeable future."