Make no mistake about it, ESPN and Fox had a vested interest in keeping the Pac-10 from becoming the first of the superconferences. Both sides have investments to protect and are working to position themselves in the best way they can for the future. Superconferences did not appear to be in that plan.
In 2008, ESPN signed a jaw dropping deal with the SEC, to the tune of $2.25 billion over 10 years. After seeing what the Big Ten network did on Fox, ESPN jumped at the chance to seal off the SEC from the rest of the world. The ACC was next, with ESPN doling $1.86 billion over 15 years for the right to distribute both football and basketball games. Fox was heavily involved in the bidding wars.
This brings us to the present. A Pac-16, with Texas and Oklahoma, would've created the largest market share for an NCAA conference that we've ever seen. Virtually every top 25 television market West of the Mississippi would have been in the Pac-16 footprint. Original estimates pegged the TV revenue at $20 million per school each year. Those estimates were probably low. ESPN and Fox would have been engaging in a bidding war that could send prices to levels we wouldn't have imagined. Neither side wanted to take that chance.
A side effect of a 16-team Pac-10 would've been a shakeup that reverberated throughout the NCAA. If one conference moves to 16, the rest will follow. Ten and eleven team conferences become 16 team conferences, consolidating the power into four superconferences.
All of this means the TV deals ESPN and Fox just laid out become instantly outdated. That $2.25 billion paid to the SEC? Chump change. Everything would have to be renegotiated, including the SEC deal that was deemed historic just a short time ago.
If ESPN killed the deal, it was to protect their contracts with the SEC and ACC. If the Big 12 collapses, the SEC would have to counter, taking parts of the ACC and Big 12 to become a 16 team league.
If Fox killed the deal, it was to prevent a bidding war for the Pac-16. Fox will almost never outbid ESPN. They just don't have the financial backing that Disney brings to the table with ESPN. However, Fox can bid both the surviving Big 12 and Pac-10(12?) deals in an effort to control the Western market in more bite-sized portions.
Then there's the MWC. While all of this was in full motion, the MWC was quietly working to pull together enough big name schools to secure a BCS bid. If the Big 12 fell, the MWC would be there to pick up the pieces, likely securing an automatic qualifier bid. The MWC TV contract is currently pennies. With a BCS tag, they would command a much higher price.
In essence, whatever network made this happen overpaid to stop conference expansion and protect their investments. As a business, it's a smart move. Many will not understand why a company would take a loss just to stop the gears of expansion. Taking a loss in the present is better than seeing a race towards superconferences and bloated TV distribution costs.
This past week gave everyone a glimpse into the inner workings of the NCAA. The final piece of the puzzle was seeing the media's involvement in it all. We know it's about money and TV deals before academics. We also know that conference expansion is a race to see who can amass the biggest stockpile of big name schools. What we saw in the last week was an ugly game of chicken between major conferences.
The end game shows that TV networks will always hold the trump card.