Big 12 sends ESPN cease and desist letter as commissioner says network wants to 'destabilize' conference
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include ESPN's response.
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 accused 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."
The network is "intentionally interfering with our business operations by encouraging other conferences to poach the members of the Big 12 and providing incentives to them to do so," Bowlsby told USA TODAY Sports.
Asked if the letter to ESPN is a precursor to legal action against the company, Bowlsby said: "In my estimation, it’s clearly a tortious interference with business, and so the cease and desist letter is intended to have that effect."
Asked if the conference would take action against schools, Bowlsby said: " ... we're prepared to do what we need to to protect our business rights.”
The Big 12 has proof that ESPN would like another league to "take three to five of our members," said Bowlsby.
"It's not so much about the taking of the members, what it does — and what it's intended to do — is destabilize the Big 12 so that it implodes, thus absolving OU and Texas of their grant of rights obligations and their exit fee obligations. If the Big 12 fails to exist as an entity, they can move quicker and they can do so for less money.”
In a response to Bowlsby's letter, ESPN on Thursday called the Big 12's claims "entirely without merit."
"Apart from a single vague allegation that ESPN has been 'actively engaged in discussions with at least one other' unnamed conference, which ESPN disputes, your letter consists entirely of unsubstantiated speculation and legal conclusions," the network said.
"To be clear, ESPN has engaged in no wrongful conduct and, thus, there is nothing to 'cease and desist.'"
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 has broadcast deals with each of the Power Five leagues and owns rights to nearly every bowl game and the television rights to 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," Mit Winter, a lawyer who has served as outside counsel to college athletic conferences, told USA TODAY Sports.
"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 their 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.