Aug 31, 2018; Madison, WI, USA; ESPN College Football logo on a tv camera prior to the game between the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers and Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
The uncertainty facing the Big 12 in the wake of Texas and Oklahoma’s acceptance into the SEC has made its way to Capitol Hill — and will soon land on the desk of the United States Attorney General.
US Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas sent a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland on Wednesday asking that the Department of Justice open an investigation into OU and UT’s move, and specifically ESPN’s role in it.
“As you may know, the University of Texas in Austin and the University of Oklahoma in Norman have announced they do not intend to renew their contract with the Big XII Conference,” Marshall wrote. “They have also been formally invited to join the Southeastern Conference (SEC). What is less apparent are the allegations that ESPN is encouraging and working to ensure this move occurs.”
Marshall’s mention of ESPN comes after Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby sent a cease-and-desist letter to the league’s primary television partner last week. In the letter, Bowlsby accused ESPN (and at least one other conference) of actively engaging in an attempt to destabilize the Big 12 for financial gain.
During a follow-up media tour, Bowlsby claimed to have “irrefutable” evidence of ESPN’s role in pushing another conference, which multiple reports have confirmed to be the American Athletic Conference, to pursue some of or all of the league’s remaining eight schools to void the Big 12’s Grant of Rights and force the league into dissolution.
The primary points in Marshall’s letter come once he pivots towards ESPN’s involvement with the SEC and its acquisition of the league’s premier media package late last year, including its football game of the week previously broadcasted by CBS.
That agreement, reported to be worth roughly $3 billion and set to begin in 2024, brought the entirety of the SEC’s media rights package under ESPN’s umbrella and made it far and away the most valuable media package in collegiate athletics. Moreover, that package is set to get a significant boost once Oklahoma and Texas officially join the league starting in 2025, which Marshall notes in the letter.
“Because they have the television rights to the SEC, they will benefit from the additions of Texas and Oklahoma immensely,” Marshall wrote before turning his attention back to the present and ESPN’s potential scrutiny under anti-trust law.
“While the terms of the contract are unknown to me, it’s important to note the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the exclusive right to televise all league games is a violation of anti-trust laws. While the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 was passed to overturn this decision for professional football, college football broadcast packages are not subject to the antitrust exemption in that law.”
“I write today to ask that the DOJ investigate ESPN’s role in the potential destruction of the Big XII Conference and if any anti-competitive or illegal behavior occurred relating to manipulating the conference change or ESPN’s contractual television rights.”
It must be noted that Marshall attended Kansas State, which is obviously one of the schools set to be heavily impacted by Oklahoma and Texas’ departure from the league. A study conducted by a group in Texas last week estimated the economic damages to the other eight Big 12 cities could reach as high as $1.3 billion if the league moves forward under certain circumstances.
There has not been any response from the DOJ at this point, and who knows what will come of Marshall’s letter, if anything, but we know for certain the matter has been brought to the attention of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.