ESPN Rejects Attempting to “Destabilize” Big 12 by Pushing Schools to Leave Conference

The network has responded to a cease-and-desist letter from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby

The ESPN logo on a mic
The ESPN logo on a microphone.
Laurens Lindhout/Soccrates/Getty

In a letter sent to Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, ESPN president of programming and original content Burke Magnus said the commish’s allegations that the network is trying to “destabilize” the conference by pushing schools to leave it have “no merit.”

Prior to SEC university presidents voting on Thursday to invite Texas and Oklahoma to leave the Big 12 and join their league in 2025, Bowlsby sent a cease and desist letter to ESPN claiming the network is colluding with at least one other conference to attempt to poach Big 12 schools. In addition to sending the letter, Bowlsby told The Associated Press on Wednesday he had “absolute certainty” ESPN was acting inappropriately and “manipulating other conferences to go after our members.” (Texas’ and Oklahoma’s media rights agreements with the Big 12 expire in 2025.)

In his letter, Magnus refuted those claims. “The accusations you have made are entirely without merit,” he wrote. “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. To be clear, ESPN has engaged in no wrongful conduct and, thus, there is nothing to ‘cease and desist.’ We trust this will put the matter to rest. ESPN reserves all rights and remedies in connection with that matter.”

Despite what Magnus had to say, multiple sources confirmed to The Athletic the AAC has tried to engage three to five Big 12 members about potentially joining the conference with ESPN’s support.

ESPN owns the media rights to the SEC and AAC and shares the rights to the Big Ten and Pac-12 with Fox. Adding big-name schools to any of those conferences would make broadcasting their games more lucrative. And the sooner that can happen, possibly by the Big 12 ceasing to exist and freeing up its members to move freely without having to pay fees or penalties, the better for ESPN. “If the conference ceases to exist, they have the best chance to join the SEC more quickly and they have the best chance to get out of their obligations for the grant of rights and the exit fees,” Bowlsby told The Athletic.

Appearing on the Le Batard and Friends show earlier this week former ESPN president John Skipper offered his thoughts on the matter. “I doubt all of that is unrelated,” he said. “I would not assume that this is just happening, that one day the Texas and Oklahoma guys woke up, I would guess that it’s a logical sequence of events that ESPN now has all of the SEC, now they bring Texas and Oklahoma in. Think of all the good games you get.”

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