A second consecutive Big 12 football season is about to begin with a lame-duck team in the mix, causing concerns about the staying power of the league at large.
Those questions will start receiving answers now that Texas A&M has withdrawn, pending approval of its bid to join the Southeastern Conference.
The irony is that one fresh wrinkle that factored into A&M's decision to depart — creation of the Longhorn Network, Texas' 24-hour channel in conjunction with ESPN — could be a factor in luring replacement candidates to the league.
Let's be clear. No expansion candidate will celebrate the fact that ESPN's deal gives the Longhorns a $15 million head start in annual revenues for the next 20 years when compared to Big 12 peers.
Many believe the LHN "altered" the landscape of the Big 12, as Texas A&M athletic director Bill Byrne wrote Wednesday on the school's website, and created "a great deal of uncertainty" for the league.
But it is a money-maker. And the possibility of having a school-specific revenue stream to boost each Big 12 member's cash flow beyond the levels distributed from league coffers — a possibility that does not exist in the Pac-12 or Big Ten, where TV rights are assigned to the conference — could entice the right school, or schools, to take a harder look at joining the league.
It's a fresh approach. It won't appeal to every administrator. But capitalists may choose to capitalize on the opportunity. It's worth noting that Brigham Young, the most likely Big 12 expansion candidate, already has its own network.
More important: The opportunity to monetize third-tier TV rights while cashing a large league paycheck could convince a school like Oklahoma, which envisions starting its own network, from wandering off to a conference where single-school networks are forbidden.
It's no secret that a Texas-Oklahoma tandem is essential for Big 12 survival. It's no accident that Oklahoma's expanded studios at SoonerVision, the school's in-house TV facility that provides broadcast and webcast content, now covers 7,000 square feet — almost five times its initial size.
With more infrastructure and some willing cable/dish distributors, the place could morph into a 24-hour network of its own.
Without much fanfare, Kansas State launched a school-branded website Tuesday — K-StateHD.TV. Much of the site's on-demand programming will be free but there will be a charge for live athletic events, including Saturday's football game. The cost for all-access users is $9.95 per month or $79.95 per year.
That's a far cry from Texas' $15 million per year from ESPN. But it's still a revenue stream that has been bypassed in seasons past. And it could grow into something bigger.
Might the Big 12 eventually carve out a niche as college football's league of single-school networks? DeLoss Dodds, Texas' men's athletic director, embraces the idea.
"In the long haul, I think it's a good model," Dodds said, adding that the dual revenue streams "will play out well for us and the conference."
But only if the conference survives. Notre Dame, from all indications, is not interested in bringing its NBC football contract — worth a reported $15 million per year — and pairing it up with a $20 million annual check from the Big 12.
But could a school network/conference revenue opportunity entice Arkansas? Louisville? Pittsburgh? Some other school flying below the radar in realignment speculation?
I don't think so. But I've also been reminded of two important adages as realignment talk has engulfed the Big 12 for a second consecutive summer: Expect the unexpected. And never say never.
In the meantime, Texas Tech Chancellor Kent Hance is ready for his school and his league to brand their own channels.
"We're working on our own network," Hance said in a Saturday interview on a Lubbock radio station. "We will have something, hopefully, by the end of this year. I'm talking about Texas Tech and the Big 12 both."
In this league, school networks could become a conference calling card. Or a cause of death in the Big 12's eventual autopsy.
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