College football has become a very big business. ESPN has become a very big part of that very big business. And in the opinion of one of the big conferences that carries “Big” in its name but is currently a little less big, ESPN has stepped into a big pile of something foul and smelly.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent on Wednesday a cease and desist letter to ESPN, accusing the four-letter network (without four-letter words, but he surely was thinking them) of trying to get other members of the Big 12 to join Oklahoma and Texas as former members of the Big 12.
The letter is a warning shot at ESPN, telling it to stop doing whatever it’s been doing to destabilize and potentially destroy the Big 12. If ESPN, which issued a statement saying that the allegations “have no merit” (shockingly, ESPN didn’t say, “Well, you caught us”), has not been trying to play puppet master with the various conferences with which it does business, ESPN doesn’t need to do or stop doing anything. If ESPN has decided to maximize its interests by working with schools to create a more potentially profitable (for ESPN) configuration of teams and conference, it has a problem.
Litigation definitely could ensue. The letter from Bowlsby to Burke Magnus of ESPN reminds ESPN that the Big 12 members have “contractual obligations” to the conference. Bowlsby then accuses ESPN of engaging in 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.” The letter also points out that the TV contract between the Big 12 and ESPN includes a promise rom ESPN to not “take any actions likely to impair, or [that are] inconsistent with the rights” the Big 12 acquired under that deal.
Thus, ESPN could face both a claim that it breached its contract with the Big 12 and that it intentionally and tortiously interfered with the contractual rights and expectations between the Big 12 and its current or former members. The so-called tortious interference claim is far more significant, since it carries the possibility of punitive damages based on the massive balance sheets of ESPN and its parent company, Disney.
Even if ESPN ceases and desists (if it’s doing anything from which to cease and desist), the damage may already be done. The letter mentions “ESPN’s potential involvement” in the recent departure of Texas and Oklahoma for the SEC.
Regardless of where this goes from here, the attachment of Bowlsby’s unintelligible signature to the top of the second page of the letter provides even more proof that college football isn’t about college or football. It’s about money. It’s about making as much of it as possible. And it’s about keeping as much of that money from the players as possible, in order to generate even greater profits for the schools and salaries for the coaches and executives, including the commissioners of the conferences to which they belong.
It’s about money for the broadcast partners, too, and it’s entirely possible that one or more employees at ESPN, drunk on the possibilities of the new NIL rules allowing the best schools to become even better if their recruits are playing the other best schools and sponsors become more inclined to pump more and more money into the pockets of the players from those schools, decided that the current conference structure needed to be revisited. That it needed to be revised. That the financial interests of ESPN would best be served by creating tiers of college football conferences with clear and bright lines between them, with the best of the best schools always facing each other — and generating even higher ratings for the games ESPN televises.
So the temptation is there. The question is whether ESPN gave in to it, and whether the Big 12 can prove it, if the Big 12 is serious about making sure that the TV networks, in their efforts to make as much money as possible, steer clear efforts to reposition the conferences and schools, in their efforts to make as much money as possible.
The mere fact that Bowlsby sent the letter shows that the Big 12 is serious.