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Why Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC matters to FSU

The Sooners are joining the SEC to avoid falling behind. The Seminoles might not have that option.
FSU football has a big fan base and championship tradition, like Oklahoma. The Seminoles won't want to be left behind.
FSU football has a big fan base and championship tradition, like Oklahoma. The Seminoles won't want to be left behind. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jul. 30

Just before Oklahoma’s board of regents voted Friday to leave the Big 12 and join the SEC, athletic director Joe Castiglione summed up the Sooners’ case in one sentence.

“It became obvious,” Castiglione told the board, “that standing pat would mean falling behind.”

Sound familiar, Florida State fans? That’s the same concern outgoing president John Thrasher expressed Thursday to the Tallahassee Democrat: “I don’t want Florida State to be left behind.”

Over 30-plus minutes Friday, the Sooners explained why joining the SEC was, as president Joseph Harroz put it, existential, not opportunistic. And those points should resonate in Tallahassee.

Related: What might Texas, Oklahoma to SEC mean for Florida’s schools?

Harroz said the Big 12 was last in line for media-rights negotiations, which meant recruiting disadvantages, a weaker fan experience and, of course, less money. The Big 12′s payouts were about $39 million per school in 2018-19, according to the league’s tax returns, compared to $44 million in the SEC. That last number will rise when a new ESPN deal takes effect in 2024 and when Oklahoma and Texas join, on or before July 1, 2025.

“Being last in line has consequences,” Harroz said.

Except the Big 12 isn’t really the last in line. The ACC is. Its last payouts were about $29 million, and its TV deals are locked in for another 15 years. Florida could soon be making twice as much from the SEC as FSU makes from the ACC. That will have consequences, especially given the Seminoles’ recent financial struggles.

Florida State and Oklahoma are both similar programs who don't want to get left behind in conference realignment.
Florida State and Oklahoma are both similar programs who don't want to get left behind in conference realignment. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP (2011) ]

Oklahoma administrators also said they were switching leagues because of the recent tectonic shifts in college sports. The pandemic’s financial toll was hard on programs used to big, full stadiums. Athletes can now make money off their name, image and likeness as Congress weighs federal intervention. The NCAA lost a unanimous Supreme Court ruling on athlete compensation that has Harroz and others questioning the NCAA’s ability “to regulate the way they have.”

“What does all of this tell us?” Harroz asked. “What this tells us is the importance of the conference you’re in, and it being the one that best fits the institution’s abilities and needs in this uncertain landscape, (is) greater than ever.”

Related: As conference realignment begins, USF picked a bad time to be bad at football

The Sooners determined the Big 12 no longer fit. They needed to leave their longtime home and familiar opponents for bigger, greener pastures that give them the best chance at meeting their two non-negotiable goals: Winning with an athletic department that funds itself.

Oklahoma has a rich football tradition, including last year's win over the Gators in the Cotton Bowl.
Oklahoma has a rich football tradition, including last year's win over the Gators in the Cotton Bowl. [ MICHAEL AINSWORTH | AP (2020) ]

You can read Harroz’s comments as a step toward a potential breakaway from the NCAA — one where the Floridas and Oklahomas consolidate into a few super conferences or one mega-league. That’s one possible endgame for this uncertain landscape.

“We are in an unprecedented era of dramatic change and historic transformation,” Castiglione said. “And it’s happening at a pace that none of us have ever experienced.”

So Oklahoma left, quickly, to avoid falling behind. Which leads us back to FSU.

Despite the Seminoles’ recent struggles, FSU and Oklahoma are peers. Both are among the dozen or so programs capable of winning a national title. Both have brand recognition, big stadiums, championship histories and well-rounded athletic departments.

FSU and Oklahoma both have well-rounded athletic departments with success in sports like softball.
FSU and Oklahoma both have well-rounded athletic departments with success in sports like softball. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

The difference is timing. The Big 12′s deals expire after the 2024-25 athletic year. Oklahoma will either play four lame-duck seasons in the Big 12 or, with Texas, negotiate an earlier exit with an eight-figure buyout.

Related: What college football loses when Oklahoma, Texas join the SEC

The ACC’s grant of rights, however, runs for another 15 years. If FSU (or Clemson or Miami) leaves before then, they forfeit their home TV revenue until 2036 — an untenable solution. Unless the Seminoles can negotiate a manageable buyout, they’re stuck.

To be clear, FSU has shown no interest in leaving the ACC. It’s possible that realignment chaos could force Notre Dame to join a conference — which, contractually, must be the ACC. Adding the Irish would be a financial lifeboat for FSU and the rest of the league.

But it’s also possible that FSU has no other option but to stand pat. And as Castiglione said, standing pat means falling behind.

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