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USC and UCLA to join Big Ten

Wow.

USC and UCLA have been accepted as the newest members of the Big Ten conference with league officials approving their membership Thursday night. The programs have announced their respective departures from the Pac-12 beginning in 2024 with the pair marking a significant acquisition for the Big Ten that will significantly change the college sports landscape.

“Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said. “We are excited that our values align with the league’s member institutions. We also will benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of Big Ten institutions; the increased visibility, exposure, and resources the conference will bring our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our passionate alumni nationwide.”

“After careful consideration and thoughtful deliberation, UCLA has decided to leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big Ten Conference at the start of the 2024–25 season,” said UCLA chancellor Gene D. Block and AD Martin Jarmond in a combined statement. “… Each school faces its own unique challenges and circumstances, and we believe this is the best move for UCLA at this time. For us, this move offers greater certainty in rapidly changing times and ensures that we remain a leader in college athletics for generations to come. As the oldest NCAA Division I athletic conference in the United States and with a footprint that will now extend from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Big Ten membership offers Bruins exciting new competitive opportunities and a broader national media platform for our student-athletes to compete and showcase their talents.”

Big Ten presidents and athletic directors first met Wednesday night to discuss adding USC and UCLA to the league, sources told CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander. A subsequent vote was held Thursday night to officially welcome the programs into the league beginning Aug. 2, 2024.

“As the national leader in academics and athletics for over 126 years, the Big Ten Conference has historically evaluated its membership with the collective goal to forward the academic and athletic mission for student-athletes under the umbrella of higher education,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “The unanimous vote today signifies the deep respect and welcoming culture our entire conference has for the University of Southern California, under the leadership of President Carol Folt, and the University of California, Los Angeles, under the leadership of Chancellor Gene Block.”

I did not see that one coming. The ACC and the Big XII had lost members to other conferences before, including the University of Colorado to the PAC12, but this is earth-shaking, at least on the scale of UT and Oklahoma jumping to the SEC. The PAC12 will now have to negotiate a new TV contract without its two flagship schools, who were motivated to seek greener pastures in the first place because the PAC12’s TV contract wasn’t all that lucrative.

History and tradition have long been dead as reasons for conferences to exist and stay together, but I would have thought geography might have been a limiting factor. Not so much now, as the Big Ten literally spans coast to coast, with members in such heartland states as California, Maryland, and New Jersey. At this point, I wonder when we’ll get to a place where the “conference” idea is wholly discarded in favor of divisions, like in the NFL. I also wonder what effect this will eventually have on non-football schools that have become national powers in basketball, like Gonzaga.

A bit of local perspective from the LA Times:

“This is the most volatile and uncertain era in the history of American collegiate athletics,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in a statement. “USC must ensure it is best positioned and prepared for whatever happens next, and it is our responsibility to always evaluate potential opportunities and be willing to make changes when needed. Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports.”

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond told The Times, “College athletics is changing, and UCLA has always led in times of change. For the sake of our student-athletes, and for preserving the legacy of Bruin excellence, we cannot afford to stand still.”

This new, changing world Bohn and Jarmond referred to is one in which college athletes for the first time can earn money from the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL) — a right the NCAA and its member schools long denied to players in the name of the ideals of amateurism.

With so much unknown about where athlete compensation is headed beyond NIL, USC and UCLA leaders felt they had to address the long-term financial viability of their programs.

“As the oldest NCAA Division I athletic conference in the United States and with a footprint that will now extend from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Big Ten membership offers Bruins exciting new competitive opportunities and a broader national media platform for our student-athletes to compete and showcase their talents,” UCLA chancellor Gene Block and Jarmond said in a joint letter. “Specifically, this move will enhance name, image and likeness opportunities through greater exposure.”

[…]

In moving to the Big Ten, USC and UCLA also solve another issue that’s long plagued the Pac-12: Kickoff times. Both schools were often relegated to the late window on Saturday nights, neither often finishing before half the country was asleep.

“For our fans, Big Ten membership equates to better television time slots for our road games, but the same number of home games either at the Rose Bowl, in Pauley Pavilion or other UCLA venues,” Block and Jarmond wrote.

As members of the Big Ten, late kickoffs are almost assuredly a relic of the past. The most glaring problem for the Pac-12, however, has long been what happened after kickoff.

We spend a week or two each year on the west coast visiting family. That makes for some great sports-watching opportunities, because the games start as early as 9 AM and then go all day. If USC and UCLA fans don’t mind some early morning kickoffs and never having an evening home game going forward, then I guess this will work out fine for them. ESPN, Slate, and The Ringer have more.

Rice to join AAC in 2023

As expected given prior developments.

Nearly eight months after accepting an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference, Rice on Wednesday announced it has finalized an agreement to officially enter the league in 2023.

Rice — along with UTSA, North Texas, UAB, Florida Atlantic and Charlotte — will jump from Conference USA to the AAC on July 1, 2023.

Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard said the announcement “brings Rice athletics a step closer to its very bright future.”

Left out of the Big 12 following the breakup of the Southwest Conference in the mid-1990s, Rice spent eight years in the Western Athletic Conference and eventually joined C-USA in 2005.

The AAC’s agreements with the six new schools — which were spread out over the last five days — ends the latest round of conference realignment that began last summer with Texas and Oklahoma accepting invitations to join the Southeastern Conference. That set off a wave of moves, with the Big 12 adding the University of Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida from the AAC and independent BYU, and the AAC quickly adding six C-USA schools to form a 14-team football league.

On Friday, the AAC said it reached agreements on $18 million exit fees with its three departing schools — who will join the Big 12 on the same date — to pave the way for Rice to finally set a concrete date to join its new league.

As part of the departure, Rice will forfeit two years of revenue distribution, an amount estimated at $3 million, according to an industry source familiar with the payouts.

The move to the AAC outweighs any short-term loss of revenue, with Rice expected to benefit from an increase in visibility (the AAC has a multimedia rights deal with ESPN) and boost financially. Football-playing schools in the AAC received anywhere from $5.33 million to $9.44 million in revenue distribution, according to tax documents for the 2020-21 fiscal year. C-USA schools receive $500,000.

The AAC’s press release is here. By “prior developments” I mean UH and other officially joining the Big XII in 2023. It just made sense for the AAC to fill out its roster with its new players at the same time. The question still remains about when UT and OU will leave the Big XII for the SEC, but they’re on their own timetable. It’s not a big deal for the most part if those two overlap with the new Big XII members for a season. I hope this conference is more durable and sustainable than previous ones were (I will admit for a fondness for the old and too-short-lived WAC 16, which honestly would have been an awesome conference if certain members hadn’t broken off to form the Mountain West) and that Rice does its part to improve its teams and facilities. It’s been a rough few years for Owl fans. I hope this is the start of something better.

UH will officially join the Big XII in 2023

No use waiting around.

The University of Houston will start play in the Big 12 in 2023 after the school came to an agreement on exit fees with the American Athletic Conference.

The Cougars will pay the AAC $18 million spread over 14 years to leave early and join the Power 5. The school will pay the first $10 million by 2024 with the rest to come in the following 12 years.

The Cougars, Cincinnati and Central Florida, are leaving the AAC and joining the Big 12 along with BYU, which as an indepentend already had announced plans to join in 2023.

The conference shift came after Texas and Oklahoma announced last summer they would leave the Big 12 and move to the SEC. Texas and Oklahoma still say they won’t move until 2025, so the Big 12 could have 14 teams for two seasons unless the schools negotiate an early departure.

The exit of the three schools from the AAC will also impact when Rice will leave Conference-USA to join the AAC along with UTSA, North Texas, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic and UAB.

UTSA announced its intent to join the AAC in 2023, while Rice said it hoped to release more information soon.

See here for some background. We noted this possibility in April. As for the exit fees, UH will be able to afford it.

While the Big XII may temporarily swell to 14 members in 2023 – which will make its name no less accurate than it is now, with ten members – I think there’s a strong chance that UT and OU will make their way to the SEC at the same time. UT is already scheduling games with Texas A&M, so really it’s all just paperwork and contract details at this point. By the same token, I’d expect Rice and its fellow C-USA refugees to be fully in the AAC in 2023. It was always the most likely scenario – every other conference reshuffling happened ahead of the originally announced timelines, because once that cat is out of the bag the incentives are very much in favor of moving things along. I’d expect the rest of those dominoes to fall in the coming weeks. CultureMap has more.

Get ready to start raking in the cash, UH

Money, money, money.

As the athletic director at Texas, Chris Del Conte is the CEO of one of the richest college athletic departments in the nation. He also knows what it’s like to have to make every penny count.

At TCU, Del Conte oversaw the school’s transition from the Mountain West to the Big 12 in 2012. As a member of the Mountain West, part of the so-called Group of Five, TCU never received more than $2 million in annual payout. So, when the Horned Frogs joined the Power Five, a change of address to the high-rent district of college athletes, you can imagine the shock of a few extra zeroes in the bank statement.

And that was before TCU became a fully vested member in its fourth year in the Big 12.

“Not right away, but there was for sure,” Del Conte said of the impact of an increased revenue flow for the Fort Worth private school. “The economics changed completely. There’s a big jump.”

A similar increase in revenue awaits the University of Houston, which along with BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida, could join the Big 12 as early as 2023.

Upon entry, UH won’t see anywhere close to the $42.6 million the Big 12 announced Friday on the final day of its spring meetings, but the not-yet-announced revenue distribution for the incoming schools will be a considerably more than the current setup in the American Athletic Conference.

UH received $8.52 million as part of its annual revenue payout from the AAC, according to tax documents for the 2020-21 fiscal year. That was the second-highest total among AAC schools behind Cincinnati ($9.44 million), according to the Orlando Sentinel. UH’s revenue payout was nearly double the $4.43 million in 2021 and $4.354 million in 2020.

Once UH joins the Big 12, it can expect a similar framework for revenue payouts as TCU and West Virginia, the last two teams to join the league in 2012. The two schools received staggered shares for three years, receiving 50 percent in Year 1, 67 percent in Year 2 and 84 percent in Year 3 before becoming fully vested in the fourth year.

[…]

What could the revenue payout look like for UH? Based on this year’s Big 12 payout of $42.6 million — much of that coming from TV revenue — and again the following two years, which would represent UH’s first in the league. That would translate into at least $20 million in Year 1 and at least $26 million in Year 2. After that is unknown as the Big 12’s TV deal with ESPN and Fox is set to expire in 2025, which coincides with Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the Southeastern Conference.

Last summer, Bowlsby told Texas lawmakers that the remaining eight schools could lose 50 percent, or about $14 million per year, in TV revenue upon Texas and Oklahoma’s departure.

So that’s more than double the revenue early on, with the possibility of a significant drop that would put them close to where they are now. That’s a lot hinging on that next TV contract. I suspect the Big XII will be fine – we’re unlikely to run low on demand for college football and basketball on the tube – but it does suggest a bit of caution before going all in on whatever expensive new toys are out there. Good luck figuring it out, y’all.

Bad news for the crazy ants

They have found a mighty foe.

Several years ago, staffers at Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco, Texas, noticed a new type of invasive ant species. Tawny crazy ants were so aggressive that they were driving birds out of their nests and occasionally swarming over visitors who paused to sit on a trail. Populations of other native species—like scorpions, snakes, tarantulas, and lizards—sharply declined, while rabbits were blinded by the ants’ venom.

That’s when University of Texas at Austin biologist Ed LeBrun got involved. The park “had a crazy ant infestation, and it was apocalyptic—rivers of ants going up and down every tree,” he said. Crazy ants have since spread rapidly through every state on the Gulf Coast, with over 27 Texas counties reporting significant infestations. The usual ant-bait traps and over-the-counter pesticides have proven ineffective, so the EPA has approved the temporary (but restricted) use of an anti-termite agent called fipronil. But a more targeted and less toxic control strategy would be better.

LeBrun has worked extensively on fire ants, another invasive species that has plagued the region. He has spent the last few years investigating potential sustainable control strategies based on crazy ants’ natural enemies in the wild. LeBrun and his colleagues have now discovered that a specific type of fungus can effectively wipe out crazy ant colonies while leaving other native species alone, according to a new paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See here, here, here, and here for some background. I can’t believe I’ve not had any crazy ant posts since 2011, but there you have it. I’ll take my good news where I can get it.

No collegiate gymnastics in Texas

I did not know this.

Ragan Smith did not lack options when it came to choosing a college, as tends to happen when you’re an elite gymnast with a national title on your resume.

One option was unavailable to Smith. It doesn’t exist.

Texas, the site of this week’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championships, the state that’s produced Olympic champions Carly Patterson and Nastia Liukin and Simone Biles, the state that has over 20 colleges and universities currently classified as Division I, the state that features some of the most prominent gymnastics programs in the country if not the world, has exactly six women’s gymnastics scholarships available, all of them at Division II Texas Woman’s University.

That meant that Smith, who moved from Georgia to the Dallas suburbs as a 13-year-old to train at the gym owned by former world champion and Olympic bronze medalist Kim Zmeskal, had to leave Texas to compete at the Division I level.

“All these great clubs are in Texas, and you would think (the big schools) would have a program,” Smith said. “But they really don’t.”

Things worked out just fine for Smith, now a junior at Oklahoma. She and the Sooners will aim for their fourth national title in eight years on Saturday when they take on Florida, Auburn and Utah at Dickie’s Arena, the opulent facility located less than three miles from the TCU campus.

The Horned Frogs offer 13 varsity women’s sports, including equestrian, rifle and triathlon. Just not gymnastics.

It’s the same at Texas (which offers rowing, among others), Baylor (which has acrobatics and tumbling, a cousin of artistic gymnastics), Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Houston and Rice and all the rest. Contacted this week by The Associated Press, representatives at Texas and Texas A&M both indicated there are no plans to offer women’s gymnastics as a varsity sport.

[…]

There are 12 full scholarships available at Division I women’s gymnastics programs, with a move being made to potentially expand the number to 14. Throw in training, travel, coaching salaries and everything else, and it’s not cheap to launch a competitive team. Add in the ripple effects of Title IX — which requires “ athletic interests and abilities of male and female students must be equally and effectively accommodated ” — and the math can be tricky.

Still, there is hope in some places that women’s gymnastics can be “revenue neutral.” It’s a model LSU coach Jay Clark hopes his program can reach by the end of the decade, though the Tigers may be the exception. LSU is typically among the national leaders in average attendance and drew an average of 11,691 fans to their five home meets this season, tops in the country.

While adding scholarships could be a hurdle for potential programs to navigate, Clark sees it as a supply and demand issue.

“We haven’t had an increase since 1995 and the pool of talent has grown four-fold,” he said.

He’s not joking. Within the last decade the number of active Level 10 gymnasts — which comprises the vast majority of college athletes — has nearly doubled from 1,600 to nearly 3,100.

As you can see, OU’s gymnastics team went on to win that national championship, so indeed all worked out well for Ragan Smith. I confess, I had just assumed that schools like UT and A&M would have had women’s gymnastics programs, because why wouldn’t they? Sure, a gymnastics program might cost a few bucks, but have you seen what schools like these pay their football and (mostly men’s but increasingly now women’s) basketball coaches? If there’s one thing I expect these big schools at the Power Five conferences to be able to do, it’s extract enough money from TV networks, advertisers, and fat-cat boosters to cover whatever expenses they have and then some. Obviously, there hasn’t been the demand for that largesse to include these programs as yet. Given how popular gymnastics is overall, and how many alumni must have had daughters that competed in gymnastics as kids, I’m a little amazed by that.

Big XII may get temporarily bigger

The dominoes fall when they fall.

Next week, the Big 12 plans to discuss the future of the conference regarding its expansion, per Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger.

Houston, Cincinnati and UCF are expected to join the Big 12 in the 2023–24 academic year, potentially joining the conference before Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC by the ’25 academic year.

Per The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach, the American Athletic Conference still has to sign off on the three schools exit. The process so far has been amicable.

“No agreement has been reached to permit the three (UCF, Houston, Cincinnati) to leave early,” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told Auerbach. “Our negotiations are continuing.”

Though their joining was already expected, the negotiations are expected to be finalized in the next week, according to Dellenger. BYU will also be joining the Big 12 in all sports, not just football.

There is a possibility that there will be 14 teams in the Big 12 during the 2023 and ’24 seasons. Conference officials will be meeting next week to discuss how a larger team pool could work, examining all possibilities including divisions and whether there should be eight or nine league games.

See here and here for some background. An early exit from the AAC by UH, UCF, and Cincinnati might hasten the arrival of its new members as well. Thing might be slightly less complicated if UT and OU are able to officially join the SEC in time for the 2023 season – which I have always thought would happen – but that’s a different domino. I feel like now that this one is in motion, the rest may follow, but we’ll see.

Caught between a mandate and a madman

I have sympathy for the schools.

Many Texas universities — which collectively hold billions of dollars in federal contracts — are wrestling with how to navigate the Biden administration’s mandate that all federal contractors be vaccinated by Dec. 8 in a state that bans vaccine mandates.

While more public universities across the country are announcing that all employees must be vaccinated to comply with the federal requirement, several Texas public universities — all managed by Gov. Greg Abbott appointees — told The Texas Tribune they are still evaluating the executive order, which applies to new federal contracts of $250,000 or greater and awarded as of Nov. 14 or existing contracts that have been renewed as of Oct. 15.

“This is unprecedented,” said Michael LeRoy, a labor law expert at the University of Illinois College of Law. “There have been conflicts between the state and federal government, but not at this magnitude with this kind of money on the line.”

LeRoy believes the issue will be resolved in the courts because of the two conflicting issues at the center. State universities receive funding from the state and federal level but they are run by a board of regents appointed by the Texas governor.

While LeRoy said it’s unlikely the federal government will immediately terminate a grant if universities don’t comply, he said a university’s actions could impact future bids for federal grants. The federal government could begin to give notice to rescind a grant, he speculated, but that is a lengthy process. For now, universities are awaiting guidance from their own lawyers.

“… [T]he White House has been clear that noncompliance will not be excused, even in situations where state law contradicts the federal directive,” University of Houston spokesperson Shawn Lindsey told the Tribune in a statement. “It’s an extremely complicated situation that requires further analysis.”

Texas Tech University is working with its lawyers to determine if there are contracts that would trigger the vaccination requirement, school officials said in a statement. Texas Tech is also requesting guidance from the Texas attorney general’s office.

A Texas A&M University System spokesperson said they are also still evaluating the order. The A&M system has about 500 contracts with the federal government worth $2 billion, most of which are tied to the flagship university in College Station.

A statement from the University of Texas System revealed how universities are trying to appease both federal and state leaders.

“We will endeavor to comply with federal vaccine requirements for specific, covered individuals to protect these investments in our state,” spokesperson Karen Adler said in a statement. She then went on to say the system would provide exemptions for those with religious beliefs and “we will make every effort to accommodate employees’ personal situations.”

I think we can all guess what the AG’s office will say to Texas Tech, but the ritual must be observed. We’re all awaiting final guidance from OSHA, which is writing the rule that will implement that executive order. After that is when the lawsuits will fly. Not much else to say at this point, other than I do not envy any of these university officials the task they have before them.

American Athletic Conference to expand

Time for some more dominoes to fall.

The American Athletic Conference is set to consider expansion this week after six Conference USA programs applied for membership on Wednesday. If all six teams are added to the AAC, it would expand to become a 14-team league once realignment shakes out.

The six potential institutions looking to join the American from Conference USA include FAU, Charlotte, North Texas, UTSA, Rice and UAB, sources told CBS Sports on Monday. It’s expected that all six programs will be approved as new AAC members. Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel first reported the movement.

Adding North Texas, UTSA and Rice would allow the AAC to retain a strong geographical foothold in Texas, while FAU would join South Florida in the conference, Charlotte and UAB would have regional partners in East Carolina and Memphis, respectively.

The potential moves comes months after AAC members Cincinnati, Houston and UCF opted to depart for the Big 12, leaving the league with just eight football-playing members. The AAC previously looked to the West by courting Mountain West institutions Boise State, San Diego State, Air Force and Colorado State. However, all four schools declined the possibility of moving conferences.

“We do want to get back to either 10 or 12 [schools],” AAC commissioner Mike Aresco told the Orlando Sentinel in September. “We have some good candidates and we’re only dealing with candidates who have approached us — who have expressed an interest in us. It’s proceeding and I’m reasonably confident we’re going to end up as a strong conference and our goal is to be even stronger than before.”

The AAC is banking on safety in numbers. At 14 teams with many important geographic footprints under its belt, the American would stand with the Mountain West as the two strongest non-Power Five conferences. The move would also gouge Conference USA, which may now seek teams from the Sun Belt or a partnership with that conference after itself being reduced to eight members.

This round of realignment would leave Conference USA with just eight remaining members, which is one reason why it recently sought but failed to convince the AAC and Sun Belt to regroup along geographical lines. It is believed that there will remain 10 FBS conferences following this round of realignment.

[…]

The group puts an emphasis on big markets, featuring teams in Houston, San Antonio, Birmingham, Charlotte and on the edge of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Other schools that will compete in the hypothetical AAC include SMU, Memphis, East Carolina, Temple, Tulsa, South Florida, Navy and Tulane.

It’s not clear what a 14-team AAC would be worth in media rights revenue. Conference USA schools get about $500,000 annually in their current TV deal. The AAC, as it currently exists, averages $7 million per team. That figure is expected to decline significantly after the loss of three schools to the Big 12.

Something like this was highly likely after UH and others left for the Big XII. As the story notes, it could have been the Mountain West adding members, but they decided it was better financially to stand pat. The AAC isn’t as strong as it was before the departures, but some of these schools look like up-and-comers, in particular UTSA, a large public school with a big city market all to itself in college sports. It’s a great move for Rice, which has had far more success in women’s sports in recent years (the women’s basketball, volleyball, and soccer teams all went to the NCAA tournament last year) than the men’s, but the step up in competition is a double-edged sword, to say the least.

The timing of this all hinges on when UT and Oklahoma make their actual move to the SEC, as everything else will follow that. I continue to believe that UT and OU will suit up for the SEC no later than the spring of 2023, and it won’t surprise me at all if they’re there for football in 2022. I guarantee, there’s plenty of talk going on about that right now. ESPN and the Chron have more.

UH officially joins the Big XII

Long time coming.

Hello, Big 12.

In a historic day, the University of Houston has accepted an invitation to join the Big 12 Conference.

The Big 12’s presidents voted unanimously Friday to formally invite Houston, BYU, Cincinnati and Central Florida to form a 14-team league.

UH will begin play in the Big 12 as early as fall 2023.

“Joining the Big 12 Conference is a historic step in our institutional journey and signifies the tremendous growth and success attained academically and athletically over the last decade,” UH chancellor Renu Khator said in a statement. “Our expectations for our University remain high, our aspirations continue to be bold, and we embrace this new opportunity to compete at the highest levels in all we do.”

[…]

As members of the American Athletic Conference, Houston, Cincinnati and UCF must give 27 months’ notice if they plan to leave the league and pay a $10 million exit fee.

BYU is an independent in football and could join sooner.

What the Big 12 will resemble in a few years remains uncertain. Texas and Oklahoma said they will honor current contracts until 2025 when television rights with ESPN and Fox run out. Both schools would have to pay a buyout of $80 million to leave early.

See here for the background. Scheduling could be a little chaotic over the next season or two until everyone gets where they’re going. I’d bet a nickel on all the moving parts settling into their new places in time for next fall, but there’s a lot that could cause delays. I assume the AAC will now go trawling for some new members, so there’s still more to this story. In the meantime, congrats to the Coogs for finally catching the car they’ve been chasing since 1996.

The Big XII is finally ready for UH

Hope it was worth the wait.

Five years after a potential match fizzled, the University of Houston and Big 12 Conference are on the verge of uniting after all.

UH has emerged as a leading contender to join a reconfigured 12-team Big 12 with a formal vote planned for next week, two people with knowledge of the talks said Thursday.

The shift comes just over a month after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, starting another round of conference realignment that could eventually fulfill UH’s longtime desire to join one of the major conferences in college athletics.

Earlier reports Thursday by ESPN, The Athletic and the Dallas Morning News said the Big 12 has targeted UH, BYU, Central Florida and Cincinnati as expansion candidates to join the league’s eight remaining schools. Long the powerbrokers of the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma have accepted invitations to join the SEC in 2025.

The Big 12 requires eight of its current 10 members to approve candidates before expansion can occur. A person with knowledge of the process said UH is expected to receive unanimous approval.

The Morning News said the expansion timetable “remains very fluid,” with one source saying, “it can move as fast as everyone wants it to.”

[…]

By adding UH, UCF and Cincinnati, the Big 12 would raid the American Athletic Conference, which has long been considered the best league outside of the so-called Power Five that includes the SEC, Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12. The addition of the three schools would allow the Big 12 to remain involved in the Houston television market, extend its reach to Florida and add a Cincinnati program that begins this season in the football top 10.

BYU, which is independent in football, brings a strong national brand, large fan base due to its affiliation with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and rich football tradition. All of BYU’s athletic programs except football currently play in the West Coast Conference.

See here for some background on the last time UH was on the Big XII dance card. As you know, this is all the result of UT and OU saying good-bye to the Big XII for greener pastures. Cincinnati and UCF make sense as additions and BYU is a nice get, probably the biggest non-Notre Dame free agent out there, but it’s going to make for some geographic challenges – Utah is a long way away from the next closest school in the conference. The PAC 12 probably makes more sense logistically for BYU, but they decided to stand pat for whatever the reason. BYU is now the center of another political and religious fight, which may bring some negative attention to their future conference and conference-mates, but that’s more or less the cost of doing business these days. The UH Board of Regents is having a special meeting today to discuss their Big XII prospects, and I think we can expect that they will go along with any plan to join up. So congrats, Coogs, you finally made it.

UPDATE: UH’s Board of Regents has officially approved pursuing Big XII membership.

Back to college, COVID-style

Not the return anyone was hoping for.

Texas A&M University’s new president M. Katherine Banks said this spring that she anticipated a “fall [semester] of joy” when the university reopens after 15 months of lockdowns and remote learning.

She wasn’t alone. As coronavirus case numbers dropped throughout the spring, higher education leaders across the state excitedly announced the return of in-person classes, 100% capacity at football games and an end to social distancing requirements for the fall.

But just a few weeks before students are expected to return to campus, university leaders are faced once again with uncertainty as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads throughout the state and country. This time, public university administrators are tasked with trying to mitigate the virus on campus without the ability to reinstitute mask mandates or require vaccines due to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such directives. They’ll be limited in how they can respond even as the Centers for Disease Control has advised fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors to prevent the spread of the virus and some students and faculty have expressed worry about how safe their return to campus will be.

“As the fall semester approaches, I have a feeling of déjà vu, albeit an unwelcome one,” wrote University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell in a letter to the university community on July 30. “I recall last summer and winter, as we prepared to start semesters in the face of a COVID-19 virus that has an uncanny ability to time increasing threats to coincide with the academic calendar.”

While universities say they are monitoring the delta variant and whether they’ll need to pivot, many are moving ahead with previously decided reopening plans, including full football stadiums and in-person classes, while encouraging everyone to wear a mask and get vaccinated. Yet faculty and some students say they are increasingly worried about how they can effectively protect themselves and others on campuses where leaders can’t prevent unmasked or unvaccinated students and employees from entering and unknowingly spreading the virus.

[…]

Much of the frustration among faculty, staff and students is due to Abbott’s executive orders limiting masks and vaccine mandates. The faculty senate at A&M is scheduled to vote next week on a resolution calling on the state to allow universities to make their own decisions and “follow the science in their efforts to combat COVID-19.”

“There are heavy concerns when you think about the fact that institutions like A&M, the University of Texas … have a rich history based on the study of scientific principles,” said Dale Rice, speaker of the Texas A&M Faculty Senate. “And now they’re being constrained from following the science.”

Last week, a group of student leaders at UT-Austin slammed the governor for not allowing universities to make decisions on their own campuses, but also urged UT-Austin to do more.

“[I]t is also irresponsible for the University of Texas to plan for a full re-opening with little to no virtual classes available,” the letter from student leaders across various colleges read. “We have been made witness to the vast benefits of virtual learning for students, faculty, and staff who are disabled, have to work 2-3 jobs to keep up with the rising living costs in Austin, or have adapted to working or learning from home.”

For sure, the vast majority of people would prefer to be back on campus if that can be done safely, but as long as it cannot then remote learning for those who want or need it must be provided as well. Really, though, this is about vaccines and mandates. All of these campuses would be vastly safer if the overwhelming majority of people on them were vaccinated, and the only way to get there is to mandate it. You know, as they have done for decades for things like measles and whooping cough and meningitis. Legally speaking, there’s nothing to stop any campus from such a requirement, as past precedent and current judicial rulings demonstrate. The barrier is the threat that Abbott and the Republicans in the Legislature would zero out their funding.

(Note that I drafted this two weeks ago – there’s been too much damn news, y’all – and since then Rice University has announced that it will begin with virtual learning, though students are on campus.)

I can’t and don’t speak for any of these institutions. Some of them claim to be doing quite well on the vaccination front (we’ll see that in a minute), and good for them if so. But for any school that’s not well above the 80% mark – not just students, but faculty and staff and volunteers and contractors and pretty much everyone else who is regularly on campus – I’d be taking a hard look at our risks, both in terms of an outbreak and how likely the Lege actually is to follow through on a de-funding threat. Where is the bigger exposure? They all need to try to answer that question.

UTEP’s leaders said they feel they can reopen safely due to high vaccination rates in the surrounding community, citing in a note to the school community that more than 80% of El Paso residents 12 years or older have had at least one dose of the vaccine. The school has also ended testing for faculty and staff, encouraging them to use community testing centers, but will provide testing for students throughout the fall semester.

UTEP, along with some other Texas public and private universities, has asked students to voluntarily share their vaccine status.

Officials at UTEP estimated two-thirds of students and 90% of employees are fully vaccinated. Texas Tech University in Lubbock estimated about 75% of students and 90% of faculty are vaccinated, based on a voluntary spring survey. Baylor University said in a note that 47% of the campus community is vaccinated. Texas Christian University is also asking students to share their vaccine status ahead of the fall semester, but are not requiring vaccines and has said masks are “expected” but not required for unvaccinated students (NOTE: See update at the end).

[…]

Some private universities across the state have reacted to the increase in positive cases with stricter measures, though vaccines remain optional. On Tuesday, Rice University in Houston announced masks will be required indoors in group settings. Rice is also asking all students and employees to share their vaccination status. Those who are fully vaccinated must get tested every two weeks. Unvaccinated members coming to campus must test two times per week.

Trinity University in San Antonio is also requiring masks indoors and weekly tests for those who are unvaccinated. Baylor told students it will require weekly COVID-19 testing for the first part of the fall semester for students and employees, except for fully vaccinated students and students who have had a positive test within the last 180 days. St. Edward’s University in Austin initially said it would require a vaccine for all students, but later stated students could be exempt from that requirement under the governor’s executive order.

Emphasis mine. If you needed a reason to avoid Waco this fall, there you have it. There is definitely room here for colleges and universities, public and private, to at least put some of the costs of Delta on the unvaccinated. More frequent testing is an obvious one, but let’s not stop there. Require a vaccine or a positive test to attend sporting events, participate in intramural sports, attend any kind of public indoor event like lectures or movies or parties or concerts, eat in the cafeterias, and so on. Get vaxxed or stay distant, for your safety and everyone else’s, simple as that. That’s more likely to draw a lawsuit than a legislative response, but if so then there’s a decent chance you can get some people vaccinated before you’re forced to put the policy on hold, and maybe you won’t be forced to pause at all. See my earlier comment about evaluating risks and acting accordingly. Anything that results in more vaccinations should be strongly considered, even if it winds up being a short-term measure. Push that envelope, the long-term payoff is worth it. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I received a message from TCU informing me that their policies have changed since that Trib story was published. They now require masks for indoor spaces. My thanks to them for the feedback.

A timeline of the blackout

Of interest.

A new report from University of Texas at Austin energy experts lays much of the blame for power outages during the state’s deadly February freeze on the failure of natural gas producers to fully weatherize their facilities.”

The natural gas system could not meet demand,” the authors of the 101-page study wrote. “The production losses stemmed principally from freeze-offs, icy roads and electric outages to the equipment used in the natural gas industry.”

UT issued the study Tuesday, the same day the state’s health department revised its official death toll from the disaster, raising it to 210 from 151. However, at least one data-driven report suggests the actual number may exceed 700.

[…]

For the study, UT researchers looked at the performance of 27 natural gas facilities during the freeze and found that as temperatures dropped, the operators’ pipelines and equipment ceased to function, resulting in an 85% falloff when power companies needed the fuel.

Indeed, 18 of the natural gas facilities it studied had “zero output” on February 17, the peak of the storm.

In addition to their human cost, the failures resulted in massive charges for the state’s power generators, according to the report. CPS Energy, for example, tallied losses on natural gas fuel purchases of as much as $850 million, and losses on purchased power costs of as much as $250 million.

The 101 page report is here. Neither of us is likely to read through the whole thing, but the Findings section of the Executive Summary give you the main points:

The failure of the electricity and natural gas systems serving Texas before and during Winter Storm Uri in February 2021 had no single cause. While the 2021 storm did not set records for the lowest recorded temperatures in many parts of the state, it caused generation outages and a loss of electricity service to Texas customers several times more severe than winter events leading to electric service disruptions in December 1989 and February 2011. The 2021 event exceeded prior events with respect to both the number and capacity of generation unit outages, the maximum load shed (power demand reduction) and number of customers affected, the lowest experienced grid frequency (indicating a high level of grid instability), the amount of natural gas generation experiencing fuel shortages, and the duration of electric grid operations under emergency conditions associated with load shed and blackout for customers. The financial ramifications of the 2021 event are in the billions of dollars, likely orders of magnitude larger than the financial impacts of the 1989 and 2011 blackouts.

Factors contributing to the electricity blackouts of February 15-18, 2021, include the following:

  • All types of generation technologies failed. All types of power plants were impacted by the winter storm. Certain power plants within each category of technologies (natural gas-fired power plants, coal power plants, nuclear reactors, wind generation, and solar generation facilities) failed to operate at their expected electricity generation output levels.
  • Demand forecasts for severe winter storms were too low. ERCOT’s most extreme winter scenario underestimated demand relative to what actually happened by about 9,600 MW, about 14%.
  • Weather forecasts failed to appreciate the severity of the storm. Weather models were unable to accurately forecast the timing (within one to two days) and severity of extreme cold weather, including that from a polar vortex.
  • Planned generator outages were high, but not much higher than assumed in planning scenarios. Total planned outage capacity was about 4,930 MW, or about 900 MW higher than in ERCOT’s “Forecasted Season Peak Load” scenario.
  • Grid conditions deteriorated rapidly early in February 15 leading to blackouts. So much power plant capacity was lost relative to the record electricity demand that ERCOT was forced to shed load to avoid a catastrophic failure. From noon on February 14 to noon on February 15, the amount of offline wind capacity increased from 14,600 MW to 18,300 MW (+3,700 MW).2 Offline natural gas capacity increased from 12,000 MW to 25,000 MW (+13,000 MW). Offline coal capacity increased from 1,500 MW to 4,500 MW (+3,000 MW). Offline nuclear capacity increased from 0 MW to 1,300 MW, and offline solar capacity increased from 500 MW to 1100 MW (+600 MW), for a total loss of 24,600 MW in a single 24-hour period.
  • Power plants listed a wide variety of reasons for going offline throughout the event. 3 Reasons for power plant failures include “weather-related” issues (30,000 MW, ~167 units), “equipment issues” (5,600 MW, 146 units), “fuel limitations” (6,700 MW, 131 units), “transmission and substation outages” (1,900 MW, 18 units), and “frequency issues” (1,800 MW, 8 units). 4
  • Some power generators were inadequately weatherized; they reported a level of winter preparedness that turned out to be inadequate to the actual conditions experienced. The outage, or derating, of several power plants occurred at temperatures above their stated minimum temperature ratings.
  • Failures within the natural gas system exacerbated electricity problems. Natural gas production, storage, and distribution facilities failed to provide the full amount of fuel demanded by natural gas power plants. Failures included direct freezing of natural gas equipment and failing to inform their electric utilities of critical electrically-driven components. Dry gas production dropped 85% from early February to February 16, with up to 2/3 of processing plants in the Permian Basin experiencing an outage.5
  • Failures within the natural gas system began prior to electrical outages. Days before ERCOT called for blackouts, natural gas was already being curtailed to some natural gas consumers, including power plants.
  • Some critical natural gas infrastructure was enrolled in ERCOT’s emergency response program. Data from market participants indicates that 67 locations (meters) were in both the generator fuel supply chain and enrolled in ERCOT’s voluntary Emergency Response Service program (ERS), which would have cut power to them when those programs were called upon on February 15. At least five locations that later identified themselves to the electric utility as critical natural gas infrastructure were enrolled in the ERS program.
  • Natural gas in storage was limited. Underground natural gas storage facilities were operating at maximum withdrawal rates and reached unprecedently-low levels of working gas, indicating that the storage system was pushed to its maximum capability.

The ERCOT system operator managed to avoid a catastrophic failure of the electric grid despite the loss of almost half of its generation capacity, including some black start units that would have been needed to jump-start the grid had it gone into a complete collapse.

Just as a reminder, the grid was not on the first special session agenda, and as of today isn’t on the second session’s agenda. I have heard it suggested that Abbott could add grid items to the agenda, or put them on but near the bottom of the agenda for this special session, to make it harder for the Dems to be away. The main problem with that analysis is that Abbott has been busy telling everyone in sight that the grid has been totally fixed. What’s to put on the agenda if that’s really the case? His problem for now, all of ours the next time the words “rolling blackouts” get mentioned.

The PAC-20?

Here’s one possible outcome for the left behind members of the Big XII.

According to multiple reports, the commissioners of the Pac-12 and Big 12 met Tuesday to discuss how the conferences might benefit from working together or maybe even merging.

The merging part has us very interested.

A full merger of the Big 12 and Pac-12 would create a 20-team conference with schools in every major U.S. time zone, something no other conference has.

That would make it unique and very different and potentially pretty valuable in the ever-important TV contract discussions for conferences.

What could a Big 12 and Pac-12 merger look like?

Here’s some possibilities to split up the conference, should the Pac-12 and Big 12 decide it is in their best interests to join forces.

You can read the rest. There’s lots of reasons why this probably won’t happen, but it’s at least amusing to contemplate. We live in very strange times.

Also in the “we live in strange sports times” news department:

American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco said the league has never “plotted” with ESPN to pursue teams from other conferences.

“Our conference has never strategically aligned or plotted with ESPN to influence conference structures,” Aresco said Wednesday during a video conference call to kickoff AAC media day.

Aresco said the AAC is not actively looking to add schools.

“I want to emphasize we are not looking at realignment and not out there attempting to take teams,” Aresco said.

[…]

Aresco said he has not spoken to any Big 12 schools.

“Any suggestions or statements that we colluded with ESPN with regards to the structure of any other conference is completely unfounded and grossly irresponsible accusation,” Aresco said.

See here for the background on that. We’ll see if Bob Bowlsby provides some receipts for that initial claim. In the meantime, if the AAC and every other conference isn’t thinking about realignment and what they might do about it, I don’t know what they are doing. I’m not saying they should want to live in this ever-religning world, but I am saying it is the world they are in fact living in, and they should adjust accordingly.

Big XII visits the Lege

It’s something to do, anyway.

As the University of Texas prepares for a jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, state lawmakers are working to determine how the move will affect the rest of the state — and whether they might be able to intervene in such a move in the future.

The first hearing of the committee on the future of college sports in Texas on Monday produced more questions than answers. Senators, economists and representatives of the universities left behind brainstormed how the Big 12 could remain viable — perhaps by adding up-and-coming Texas programs such as the University of Houston and Southern Methodist University.

But with the exits of UT and the University of Oklahoma sealed, there was little lawmakers could do but commiserate and propose potential solutions.

“I think there are options for us to partner with other conferences, there may be opportunity for mergers, there may be opportunities to add members,” said Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner of the Big 12 Conference. “There may be other opportunities that are currently unforeseen. … The multitude and severity of the challenges that are out there right now is likely to cause lots of changes.”

The eight remaining schools — which include Waco’s Baylor University, Fort Worth’s Texas Christian University and Lubbock’s Texas Tech — agree that “staying together is probably our best approach in the near-term,” Bowlsby said.

[…]

State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound and the chair of the newly formed committee, said she’d invited representatives from UT and ESPN to testify on Monday, but they declined. Texas A&M, which left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012, also rejected an invitation.

See here for some background on the committee. Nothing is going to happen, as this issue isn’t on the special session agenda and of course there’s a quorum break going on, but everyone got to express their feelings, and I’m sure that helped. As for UT, they weren’t there to share their perspective, but they still had something to say.

University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell on Monday publicly defended the school’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference along with the University of Oklahoma in 2025 and denied Texas lawmakers’ claims that the school violated Big 12 bylaws in doing so.

“This future move is the right thing for our student athletes for our student athletes, our programs and our University in the face of rapid change and increased uncertainty,” Hartzell said.

[…]

“It is timed to avoid the legislature in its legislative session, where it is structured with the power to make decisions,” said Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury.

Hartzell said that he initiated discussions with the SEC in the spring — while the regular legislative session was going on.

He disputed claims made by lawmakers and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby that the Texas school violated the league’s bylaws by not giving advance notice of their departure.

“I want to set the record straight — we have and will continue to honor all agreements,” Hartzell said. “We have not violated any Big 12 bylaws.”

Lawmakers argue that the process was done in the dark, and would have far-reaching effects on the remaining schools in the conference, notably the three that reside in Texas.

See here for more on the accusations of UT and OU’s alleged duplicity along with ESPN. Lord knows, this Legislature knows how to do things in the dark. Game recognizes game.

Big XII accuses ESPN of sabotage

Interesting!

In the long, sordid and divisive history of conference realignment, there has always been feverish levels of mistrust, backroom allegations and message board conspiracies when schools switch leagues. But in the decades of cloak-and-dagger maneuverings, political gamesmanship and rival in-fighting that have always accompanied realignment, we’ve never seen a moment like Wednesday afternoon.

Yahoo Sports first reported that the Big 12 sent a “cease and desist” letter to ESPN essentially demanding the television network stop plotting to sabotage and cannibalize the league. Commissioner Bob Bowlsby accused ESPN of attempting to “harm the league” for ESPN’s financial benefit. That wasn’t even the most memorable part.

From there, Bowlsby did a series of media interviews where he accused ESPN of plotting with another league – later revealed to be the American Athletic Conference per Yahoo Sources – to attempt to kill off the Big 12. Essentially, Bowlsby said he found evidence that ESPN had been “providing incentives” to a league to lure the Big 12 leftovers away after Oklahoma and Texas bolted without warning.

“What pushed me over the top was a couple of days ago when it became known to me that ESPN had been working with one or more other conferences and even providing incentives for them to destabilize the Big 12 and approach our members about moving away and providing inducements for the conference to do that,” Bowlsby told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “That’s tortious interference with our business. It’s not right.”

There’s more, so read the rest, and see the letter in the original story. ESPN denies the allegations, as you might expect. I have no idea what happens next, as I have definitely been operating under the assumption that this is going to happen and will very likely happen well before 2025, but this suggests there will be a lot more friction than I anticipated, and that the Big XII will aim to make it as expensive as possible for UT and OU. And, apparently, ESPN. We’ll see how that works out for them.

Meanwhile, since this is of course all about money, there’s this.

The decisions by the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma to seek to leave the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference could affect more than just which teams they play. The decision can also have a big economic impact for the rest of the Big 12 and the communities that are home to their teams.

The move is not yet approved, but if it goes through, it could cost as much as $1.3 billion a year in lost athletic revenues, tourism spending and other economic activity for communities across the Big 12, according to an analysis by Ray Perryman, an economist and CEO of the Perryman Group, an economic consulting group in Waco.

Without Texas and OU, the rest of the conference is likely facing smaller television deals, lower attendance, and other negative consequences, Perryman said in a report released Thursday.

Ray Perryman is the go-to guy for this kind of economic analysis, and you have to respect his ability to crank them out in such a timely manner. I don’t doubt that the remnants of the Big XII will do worse without UT and OU, and some of that will trickle down to the cities the schools are in. I suspect those numbers are overblown, but I couldn’t say by how much. The report is here, judge for yourself.

SEC accepts UT and OU

Time to start printing the money.

The Southeastern Conference voted unanimously Thursday afternoon to invite the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma to join their 14-member league during a meeting with the league member’s presidents and chancellors.

“Today’s unanimous vote is both a testament to the SEC’s longstanding spirit of unity and mutual cooperation, as well as a recognition of the outstanding legacies of academic and athletic excellence established by the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “I greatly appreciate the collective efforts of our Presidents and Chancellors in considering and acting upon each school’s membership interest.”

[…]

Meanwhile, UT and OU could see their revenue climb significantly through the move from television revenue, ticket revenue and additional branding opportunities.

The decision may also tie into a Supreme Court ruling last month that says athletes can earn money based on their intellectual property, meaning flagship schools must find new ways to earn revenue.

Although UT and OU said in their letter to [Big XII Commissioner Bob] Bowlsby that they don’t plan to renew their deal with the conference past 2025, there is speculation that the two schools would not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025. They would need to pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early, but are still legally required to give 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

“I have every expectation that Oklahoma and Texas will do whatever they can to not meet their [contractual] obligations,” Bowlsby told CBS Sports. “That’s what they’ve done so far.”

After two closed session meetings this week, the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents voted late Wednesday afternoon to support Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, despite concerns the Board had over the “communication process.” A&M joined the SEC from the Big 12 a decade ago.

“The board concluded that this expansion would enhance the long-term value of the SEC to student athletes and all of the institutions they represent — including Texas A&M,” the statement read.

See here for the previous update, and see here for the story on the A&M Board of Regents getting on board, presumably once they realized the money involved. Put a pin in that quote from Bob Bowlsby, there will be more about him and the Big XII tomorrow. You know I believe that UT and OU will be playing SEC conference games well before 2025, but there may be more obstacles in that path than I first thought. The Chron has more.

UT and OU make it officially official

Smell ya later, Big XII.

After a week of speculation, the University of Texas at Austin announced Tuesday that alongside the University of Oklahoma it has asked to join the Southeastern Conference starting July 1, 2025.

The news came a day after both schools announced they would not renew their media rights contract with the Big 12 in 2025. If the two schools were to join the SEC, they would join the likes of top football schools such as University of Florida, Louisiana State University and the University of Alabama.

“We believe that there would be mutual benefit to the Universities on the one hand, and the SEC on the other hand, for the Universities to become members of the SEC,” UT President Jay Hartzell and OU President Joseph Harroz, Jr. said in a joint letter to SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

Sankey said in a statement that while the SEC hasn’t actively pursued new members, it will welcome change when there is consensus among members.

“We will pursue significant change when there is a clear consensus among our members that such actions will further enrich the experiences of our student-athletes and lead to greater academic and athletic achievement across our campuses,” Sankey said.

The move leaves the rest of the Big 12 conference, which includes Texas Tech University, Baylor University and Texas Christian University, in a state of uncertainty. Monday afternoon, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in a statement that the remaining eight institutions will work together to ensure future success.

“Although our eight members are disappointed with the decisions of these two institutions, we recognize that intercollegiate athletics is experiencing rapid change and will most likely look much different in 2025 than it does currently,” Bowlsby said. “The Big 12 Conference will continue to support our member institutions’ efforts to graduate student-athletes, and compete for Big 12 and NCAA championships.”

The Monday news was about saying goodbye to the Big XII, or at least saying that they wanted to say goodbye. This is about saying Hello to the SEC, which one presumes will be returned in kind. I suppose it’s possible that things could go pear-shaped from here, but that would be a huge upset. Most likely, if you’re a Longhorn or Sooner, get ready to start shelling out for new SEC-branded gear.

A personal anecdote: Back in 2003, during the long special session slog to re-redistrict Texas on Tom DeLay’s orders, Rice played UT in a football game at Reliant Stadium. I contributed a bit to the MOB halftime script for that show, which was about the redistricting saga and how we should never leave the task of redistricting to politicians. “After all,” the bit concluded, “the last time the Governor got involved with redistricting, Baylor wound up in the Big XII”. It got a big laugh from the mostly UT fans. Seems like the joke holds up pretty well all these years later.

There is of course political involvement in this round of Conference Bingo, and so naturally our state’s biggest self-promoter has rushed out to the front of the parade in hope of being mistaken for a leader.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has asked Sen. Jane Nelson to chair a new select committee on the “Future of College Sports in Texas,” a move that came hours after Texas and Oklahoma issued a joint statement to the Big 12 that served as the first step toward leaving the conference.

In a tweet sent out Monday night Patrick said the committee’s purpose would be to “study the athletic & economic impact to TX schools & communities by UT’s exit.” A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 2.

This is just the latest bit of political theatre in the face of the state flagship’s impending departure from the Big 12, a conference it founded in 1994 that currently includes four Texas-based members: UT, Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech.

Hey, Dan, let me know when you plan to have a hearing to fix the grid and claw back some of the money that was heisted from way too many paying customers from the freeze.

UT and OU make their official move to exit the Big XII

It’s just a matter of time now. And money. Always money.

The University of Texas at Austin announced Monday morning that it will not renew its sports media rights contract with the Big 12 that is set to end in 2025, giving the first formal signal that it’s planning to leave the athletics conference.

The decision comes after rumors surfaced last week that UT-Austin and the University of Oklahoma would leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference, which would then include 16 schools.

The move was announced in a joint statement from UT-Austin and Oklahoma.

“Both universities will continue to monitor the rapidly evolving collegiate athletics landscape as they consider how best to position their athletics programs for the future,” the statement read.

[…]

The financial impact on the [remaining] schools could be devastating. Records show that media rights represent the single largest income stream for Texas Tech athletics. Its total athletics revenue during the 2020 fiscal year was $90.4 million, meaning the Big 12 payouts accounted for more than one-third of its total earnings.

That major-conference money helped allow it to limit the amount of money the university transfers into its athletics department to under $50,000. Public universities outside of major conferences in Texas have been known to funnel millions into their athletics programs to keep the departments afloat. (TCU and Baylor are private schools, and their financial numbers are not public.)

See here for the previous update. I’m old enough to remember that one big reason why the old Southwest Conference fell apart is that some schools thought some other schools were not pulling their weight in terms of financial reward for the conference as a whole. (A broader geographic appeal, and thus bigger potential TV audiences, was another significant factor.) Speaking as a Rice Owls fan, I feel your pain, Texas Tech and Baylor. Sucks to be on the other side of that, doesn’t it?

Sources from the Big 12 told ESPN that Monday’s statement from UT and OU doesn’t fully guarantee that the schools remain in the Big 12 through 2025. There is the possibility that they can pay a penalty of more than $75 million for leaving the league early and give a required 18 months’ notice, per Big 12 bylaws.

There is also speculation that OU and Texas would also not be bound by the Big 12’s contract if the conference dissolves before 2025, according to the publication. If the future of the Big 12 conference is in doubt, other schools could also look elsewhere for a landing place.

I for one would bet on UT and OU making their exit from the Big XII well before 2025. All of the previous breakups, starting with Arkansas leaving for the SEC in 1990, happened within a year. Whatever the contract terms are now, UT and OU will have plenty of incentive to buy their way out of them, and the remaining schools will ultimately take the cash as a preferable option to uncertainty and a hell of a lot of awkwardness. I will be shocked if UT and OU aren’t fully integrated into the SEC by the start of the 2023 football season, and it would not surprise me if they’re there for 2022. That’s the world we live in. The Chron and Slate, which runs some financial numbers, have more.

The A&M and AAC responses to UT and OU and the SEC

Moving from denial to bluster.

Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork has a message for any newcomers to the Southeastern Conference: “We’re ready.”

Texas and Oklahoma are preparing to exit the Big 12 and join the SEC, just as A&M did nearly a decade ago. The Longhorns and Sooners are expected to inform the Big 12 this coming week and begin preparing for their pending exits — and how soon they join the SEC (whether by 2022 or as late as 2025) is to be determined.

“We believe that throughout our time in the SEC, Texas A&M has become stronger than ever,” Bjork told the Houston Chronicle on Saturday. “We’re the largest university in Texas and in the SEC. We have 550,000 former students. We’re knocking on the door of the College Football Playoff, and our women’s basketball team is the reigning SEC champion. We’ve got so many Olympians. There are so many great things and strengths about our program.

“As you look at all of this and our landscape, our position is, ‘Who wouldn’t want to join?’ The SEC is in the best position to lead in this transformative time in college athletics, and obviously there are others wanting to join us in that journey. Here in Texas, we’ve paved that way, and we’ve been leading that way over the last 10 years.”

A&M and other SEC programs apparently were largely kept out of the loop on informal discussions among UT, OU and the SEC in recent months, and Bjork said A&M is addressing that with the league.

“Those conversations are being had … there are definitely procedural matters that need to come forward, and those things are being discussed,” Bjork said.

A&M is pivoting from its early stance when the Chronicle broke the news on Wednesday at SEC Media Days that UT and OU intended to join the powerful conference.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can’t blame A&M for feeling blindsided by this, but their first mistake was in thinking that anyone outside Aggie Nation cared. It’s all about the money, y’all.

I also found this amusing.

Back in summer 2016, schools from the so-called Group of Five lined up to make elaborate pitches to join the Big 12.

For three months, the University of Houston was among the reported favorites, along with Cincinnati, to join the Big 12. It would have been a monumental moment for Houston, which has long desired a seat at college football’s table of power brokers — and the exposure and lucrative payout that come with it.

It all turned out to be a three-month charade. The Big 12 eventually decided against expansion. Tilman Fertitta, UH’s deep-pocket board of regent chairman, blasted the process, calling it “a total sham” … “PR play” … “biggest ramrod, railroad, ever.”

Five years later, conference realignment is back on the table. This time it’s not just talk. As early as this week, Texas and Oklahoma are expected to declare their intention to leave the Big 12 for the SEC.

That once desirable Big 12 destination that had schools tripping over each other for admission like a sold-out concert. Not so desirable anymore.

And once on the verge of being raided, the AAC could open its doors to some, if not all, of the eight remaining teams from the Big 12, a group that includes Baylor, Texas Tech and TCU.

The AAC will not take a wait-and-see approach and instead will be aggressive in pursuit of the Big 12’s leftovers, an industry source confirmed Saturday. The Athletic was the first to report the AAC’s intentions.

For what it’s worth, in my previous update I linked to a Yahoo News story that suggested it would be the diminished Big XII that would be aggressive in courting AAC schools to join them. That has been the normal flow of events in the conference-hopping game, though one must admit that “Big XII minus UT and OU” is a lot less formidable, and maybe not so much bigger or grander than the AAC or the Mountain West. I just enjoyed the Mouse That Roared energy from this story. Maybe it plays that way and maybe it doesn’t, but I suppose there’s no harm in assuming one is now on equal terms with a former big boy. Where it stops, nobody knows.

One more with UT, OU, and the SEC

It’s happening. I know, it’s early, and there’s resistance, and stuff can happen, but come on. It’s happening.

Texas and Oklahoma are prepared to inform the Big 12 they will not renew their media rights agreement with the league when the current deal expires in 2025, a conference-shattering move that could come as early as Monday morning.

A Big 12 source confirmed both the Longhorns and Sooners are preparing to break from the league they helped found in 1994. The Chronicle reported on Wednesday that the schools had discussed a move to the SEC and that an announcement could come in the next few weeks. Declining to extend or negotiate a new media rights agreement (first reported by Dallas television station WFAA) with the Big 12 and providing notice of intent to withdraw to will allow Texas and OU to formally begin the process of aligning with a new conference.

But Texas and Oklahoma would still be bound by the grant of rights, which bestows the schools’ first- and second-tier media rights to the Big 12. If Texas and Oklahoma exit prior to June 30, 2025, when that agreement expires, the Big 12 gets to keep the TV money a school generates even after it leaves.

Withdrawing members are also obligated to pay a commitment buyout fee. That amount is equal to conference media rights distributions that would otherwise have been paid out to the program(s). The Big 12 distributed $34.5 million each to its 10 member schools during the 2020-21 fiscal year, a $3-million drop from the previous year due to effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby believes distributions could jump to $40 million or more next fiscal year, which could make Texas’ potential buyout hit $80 million.

Even with all the potential obstacles – Texas A&M’s fervent objections, vitriol from the rest of the Big 12, an effort by some Texas and Oklahoma representatives to turn conference realignment into a legislative issue – the belief is Texas and Oklahoma are bound for a new conference sooner rather than later.

See here and here for the background, and here for the WFAA story. The money issue will work itself out one way or another, even if it is just a matter of waiting until the current agreements expire. I suppose that might give the legislators now frantically filing bills and making unanswered phone calls to Greg Abbott some time to throw up obstacles to UT, but I don’t believe there’s a force in this world that will stop the money train. Nothing ever has.

Assuming this does happen – and you should be – there will be massive ripple effects throughout the rest of the NCAA, just as there were a few years ago when we last went through a big round of inter-conference shuffleboard.

Expect the Big 12 to be aggressive in adding schools. It’ll knock on doors at Arizona and Arizona State. Perhaps it’ll try and lure Colorado back and pry Utah. The Pac-12 is weak now, but the core of USC, Oregon, UCLA and Washington are all more attractive to be aligned with than any of the Big 12 schools.

From there, the Big 12 will decide how big it wants to get. It has to decide whether to add two, four or six schools. Four seems like the most reasonable number, with Cincinnati, UCF, USF, BYU and Boise State the most likely candidates from outside the state of Texas. The potential addition of Houston and SMU becomes complicated, as Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech wouldn’t have much interest in more in-state competition.

Remember, it’s streaming subscriptions, not cable boxes, that matter most. BYU would appear to have the best option for that, with its national following. But BYU is always complicated, which prevented the Big 12 from adding it in 2016 when the Cougars’ complicated LGBTQ history became a factor.

UCF and USF have great markets, but would the Big 12 want two Florida footholds? Cincinnati is a preseason Top 10 team that has been working hard behind the scenes to build for this moment. It also brings a big market and fertile recruiting area.

This is all sub-optimal for the American Athletic Conference, as it’ll be a familiar trickle-down. In a similar food chain fallout that followed the ACC cannibalizing the Big East a decade ago, the Big 12 will go after the most attractive AAC candidates. The AAC will do its best to hold on to its top programs but a reconstructed Big 12 without Texas and Oklahoma should offer a more attractive financial landing spot than the current AAC.

[…]

The ACC is in a difficult spot because it ate a bad deal from ESPN to get a linear network. Now it is frozen for two decades in an antiquated agreement, as the ACC gives schools more than $32 million per year.

[ACC Commissioner Jim] Phillips needs to do something dynamic to blow up that deal and get back to the bargaining table. Those options are limited, and ESPN isn’t going to be eager to give up a sweetheart deal on its end.

The loss of Texas as an option is a huge blow to the ACC’s ambitions, as multiple sources indicated that the ACC was caught by surprise Wednesday. The ACC’s other big play was Notre Dame, but the league failed to use any leverage it had on Notre Dame as a quasi-member the past few years. The new College Football Playoff proposal doubles as a security blanket for Notre Dame’s independence, which means little incentive for it to find a league home. Especially with its own lucrative TV deal coming.

The best remaining option for the ACC will be some type of scheduling arrangement or merger with the Pac-12. And that hints at another potential ripple from this move – is this going to be remembered as the pivot point toward super conferences?

There has long been a notion in college athletics that the Big Ten and SEC were pulling away from all the other leagues because of the financial success of their networks and the corresponding success on the field. Now, the Big Ten will go to market without the adrenaline jolt that the SEC got in its deal. The only corresponding move the Big Ten could make would be a play for Notre Dame, but that remains unlikely because of how secure Notre Dame’s future is in the new football playoff.

The issue for the Big Ten would be that Ohio State is isolated as the league’s power. Could the Big Ten leverage the potential of its next deal with a move to answer, adding Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina and Clemson to cover the league’s Eastern flank and fortify the Interstate 95 corridor? There will be pressure on Warren to be bold. But the ACC is protected by a grant of rights through the length of its TV deal.

“It’s about combining forces now,” said a high-ranking college official. “Who teams up with who? Do we end up with four leagues? Do we end up with three? Or do we go to a 32-team NFL model. This is going to be earth-shattering.”

[PAC 12 Commissioner George] Kliavkoff joked on Twitter about his active first month as commissioner getting more interesting. The Pac-12 is last in line to go to market, and there’s a feeling that it needs to do something creative. There’s still great value in the West Coast, even if the football has been subpar for the past five years. But this move, the Big Ten deal and an upcoming deal for Notre Dame potentially put the Pac-12 in a position of weakness thanks to a lack of suitors.

The ripples of this potential SEC deal will be felt from coast to coast. And it’s not good news for any of the other leagues because of how much ESPN oxygen this sucks up. As one industry source put it: “The current schools in the SEC wouldn’t agree to this if all of a sudden their games are relegated to ESPNU. It’s not just money, it’s exposure.”

The ACC, PAC 12 and Big 10 all have new commissioners whose jobs just got a lot more stressful. New Big 10 Commissioner Kevin Warren had his first media day after the UT/OU story broke, and that subject was a big part of the conversation. I have no idea what’s going to happen, but assume that whatever the college football world looks like now – and as that Yahoo story notes, this is entirely driven by football, with basketball at best an afterthought – it will be different soon. If your school isn’t part of the action, it’s being left behind. I don’t make the rules and I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s how it is.

Some legislators want to keep UT out of the SEC

This is kind of hilarious.

As the college athletics world roils over the possibility of the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 conference, a group of Texas legislators with ties to other universities in the state has mobilized.

Four prominent lawmakers — one each with ties to Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and Texas A&M University — met with Gov. Greg Abbott’s staff Thursday, one day after news broke that UT and OU had reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining, according to a source briefed about the meeting and an Abbott spokesperson. Abbott is a UT alumnus and outspoken Longhorn fan.

The four lawmakers were Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, who chairs the influential House Appropriations Committee and attended Texas A&M; Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, who received his law degree and MBA from Texas Tech and chairs the powerful House Calendars Committee; Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, who chairs the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence and was a student body president at Baylor; and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee and a former TCU athlete. Kolkhorst declined comment and the other three lawmakers did not immediately respond to requests for comments Thursday evening.

Leach and Burrows have already expressed their concern about a potential move on social media, with Leach saying on Twitter that he was “working on legislation requiring legislative approval for UT to bolt the BIG XII.”

“This is about much more than college sports,” Leach wrote. “The impact UT’s decision would have on communities & businesses all across Texas would be real, substantial and potentially devastating. On behalf of those concerned Texans, the Texas Legislature has an obligation to be involved.”

See here for the background. Nothing is happening in the Lege right now, for obvious reasons, and one wonders what motivation “outspoken Longhorns fan” Abbott would have to stop his alma mater from making this move, since he’d have to add the item to the next special session agenda. For sure, if UT and OU leave the Big XII it will consign TCU, Baylor, and Texas Tech to a diminished future, but that’s a result of longtime forces in college sports. Their foundation wouldn’t be any firmer, they’d just be holding off the tide for another day. Speaking again as a fan of a team that was left behind in the 90s, I understand their fears, but by the same token since they were among the leavers, I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t rush to sympathize. Sean Pendergast, Jerome Solomon, and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: There’s now a bill to effect this end, HB298. If it gets added to the call, and if there’s a quorum when that happens, then maybe that has a chance. Don’t hold your breath.

UPDATE: I’m dying:

Sources: Gov. Abbott not returning calls from top Republicans in the Texas Legislature about UT trying to head to the SEC

Republicans like Chairman Dustin Burrows and Chair Brian Birdwell have filed bills to block UT from changing conferences, but of course that’s not on the special session agenda. The governor’s office has gone quiet.

There’s been a real distinct lack of high comedy this legislative season. I want to thank the universities of Texas and Oklahoma for providing the opportunity to bring a little of that back.

Are the college conference dominoes set up for a tumble again?

This would be a big deal.

A decade after major conference realignment shook up college football, big changes might again be on the horizon.

Texas and Oklahoma of the Big 12 have reached out to the Southeastern Conference about joining the powerful league, a high-ranking college official with knowledge of the situation told the Houston Chronicle on Wednesday.

An announcement could come within a couple of weeks concerning the potential addition of UT and OU to the league, the person said, which would give the SEC 16 schools and make it the first national superconference.

“Speculation swirls around collegiate athletics,” UT responded in a statement Wednesday. “We will not address rumors or speculation.”

OU, in its own similar statement, offered: “The college athletics landscape is shifting constantly. We don’t address every anonymous rumor.”

[…]

Another person with knowledge of the schools’ interest in jumping to the SEC said it could be the first step in the long-awaited break between haves and have-nots in the college sports world. Most of those scenarios have involved four superconferences of 16 schools each, but the observer said the eventual winnowing down could result in an NFL-like scenario with as few as 20 to 30 schools in the top tier.

The eventual impact, the second source said, could be the biggest change agent in college sports since the 1984 court decision involving Oklahoma and Georgia that allowed schools to market certain media rights without being limited to conference-only agreements.

“You’re going to see shifts happen like they’ve never happened before,” he added, “but it’s not going to happen for another three years.”

The recent developments in athletics (possible expansion of the college football playoff) and legal circles (players’ ability to profit from their name, image and likeness) are leading Oklahoma and Texas to consider moves based not on regional or competitive ties but on economic forces.

The Big 12’s TV contract with ESPN and Fox expires in 2025. Texas Tech president Lawrence Schovanec said in May that the two networks had declined to discuss extending the contract past 2025.

“The general result is that, at this time, with so much uncertainty in the media marketplace as well as the landscape for collegiate athletics, our partners, ESPN and FOX, are not interested in acting preemptively with regard to our contract,” Schovanec told the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal in late May. “They recognize the importance of our partnership, but there’s just too much uncertainty, and they do have four years to go.”

As colleges face new challenges with name, image and likeness reforms and the recent Supreme Court decision that cast doubt on the NCAA’s beloved “student-athlete” model, the second source said, more powerful schools will seek to protect their economic base by flocking to like-minded superpowers.

“Schools have worked so hard to hide the fact that the collegiate game is nothing but the NFL hiding behind the veil of education,” the second source said. “Sports is mirroring what is happening in the broader context of society. It is not exempt from the same forces that affected K-mart or Blockbuster, who enjoyed success but were not able to change. To survive, you have to be able to change in real time.”

As the story notes, it’s been nine years since Texas A&M and Missouri left the Big XII for the SEC; Nebraska and Colorado also departed the conference, for the Big 10 and the PAC 12, respectively. A&M’s athletic director is quoted in the story as being unfavorable to the idea – basically, A&M got there first and they deserve to have the SEC to themselves – but I doubt that will carry much weight in the end. Money talks, and UT and OU represent a lot of it.

If this happens, and I’m inclined to believe it will, we will wind up with a vastly different college athletics landscape in short order. For one thing, the Big XII will lose pretty much all of its glamour, and may well end up on the outside looking in when that “four 16-team superconference” world comes into existence. (On the plus side, UH might finally get accepted into the Big XII.) As a longtime fan of a school that’s never going to be more than cannon fodder in this world, I’m not interested in the palace intrigue of it all. You have to be able to handle a lot of cognitive dissonance to be a college sports fan. The recent NCAA ruling over “name, image, likeness” rights makes things a little better for the athletes themselves, but this is never going to be an equitable world. You make your peace with it or you find some other thing to occupy your Saturdays in the fall and weekends in March. ESPN and Texas Monthly, which is warming up the death knell for the Big XII, have more.

We’ll be paying for the freeze for a long time

What’s more, we have done nothing to prevent the same thing from happening again.

Publicly funded state agencies needing to keep the lights and heat on during the freeze racked up huge bills. In February 2020, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which operates the state’s prisons, paid about $1.2 million for natural gas. This February the cost soared to nearly $8.5 million.

The University of Texas-Austin paid $940,000 for gas in February 2020. In 2021: $3.65 million.

Last month, state legislators passed laws to help companies borrow billions of dollars to pay for storm-inflated power costs and bill ratepayers over time to pay it back. Yet well before that, many Texas cities that own public utility companies already had been forced to scrounge up additional millions to cover gas and electric bills hugely inflated by the storm-caused shortages.

Outside of Dallas, Denton borrowed $140 million. Georgetown, just north of Austin, borrowed $48 million to cover the cost of providing electricity to its residents during the storm. Ratepayers will have to cover that, as well as a projected $5 million in interest and costs over the term of the loan.

Other cities dipped into their savings accounts to pay the storm-inflated power costs, depleting reserve funds. Garland siphoned millions from its rainy-day account. Weatherford, a small city outside of Fort Worth, drew down $13.7 million.

Wherever the money came from, eventually it will be repaid by local citizens, said Steve Moffitt, vice president of Schneider Engineering, a Boerne-based company working with municipal utility companies across the state to find the extra money. “At the end of the day, it has to come from customers somewhere,” he said.

The small city of Hearne borrowed $1.9 million to cover costs incurred by its publicly owned electric utility company. Ratepayers will pay off the debt over the next 10 years, said City Manager John Naron.

“Usually if we get a $2 million loan, we’re fixing streets, the sewage system, street lights,” he said. “Now we’re borrowing $2 million and getting nothing for it.”

When the dust cleared on the biennial legislative session that ended June 1, one thing was clear. Although it was ordinary Texans who suffered when the freeze hit four months ago — millions were left shivering in the dark for days; hundreds died — it is also ordinary Texans who would foot much of the bill, said Tim Morstad, associate director of AARP Texas.

“Consumers are being forced to prop up the system that failed us,” he said.

[…]

The magnitude of the financial fallout is difficult to digest. Experts estimate that based on the sky-high prices, nearly $50 billion-worth of electricity was consumed in Texas during the one-week storm — 250 times the normal cost, said Beth Garza, an energy analyst for R Street who from 2014 to 2019 was ERCOT’s independent market monitor, which watchdogs the electricity market.

Companies that had gas and electricity to sell cashed in on a Uri  windfall. Some Wall Street investors made millions, too.

For those forced to buy gas and electricity during the height of the freeze it was expensive at best, catastrophic at worst. Brazos Electric Power Cooperative, the state’s largest and oldest member-owned electric company, declared bankruptcy after racking up about $2 billion in charges when its generators failed.

To spare ratepayers the financial pain of getting hit with giant utility bills all at once, last month state lawmakers passed several laws to help the biggest losers borrow money and pay it back over time. The laws are complex, and analysts and companies said they are still deciphering how they will be used.

Pending high-stakes legal battles over the storm’s giant bills add more uncertainty to the final tab. “There are a zillion contractual disputes underway right now,” said Garza, pointing out that those, too, will end up costing companies – and their customers — giant legal fees.

Still, analysts projected the taxpayer tab would come to roughly between $7 and $9 billion. Yet that doesn’t include numerous other hidden costs.

The primary advantage to our market for power and electricity has always been low prices. Lots of firms offer a variety of plans, both fixed and flexible rates, and for the most part it has worked pretty well, as long as you do a bunch of research and remember to switch plans again before your low-rate plan ends and you get dumped into a default higher-rate plan. (Some people do lots of research.) All of this is predicated on the Texas energy market being geared towards low prices, and the way it does that is by not mandating capacity. There’s no backup power, no plants generating extra power that isn’t used, and that means we’re not paying for anything we’re not using. It’s efficient, and that efficiency keeps prices down.

The down side is what we saw in February. Because there was no extra capacity, when a number of plants went down, there wasn’t any power to spare. The only way to get more juice was to pay for it, and when prices are allowed to be unconstrained, you can be sure someone is going to make a buck off of it. We also learned that another key ingredient to our everyday low prices for electricity was that the power plants could be and were run as super low-cost operations, which in this context meant no money spent on weatherization. I think we all know how that turned out.

The argument in favor of our system is that we have paid a lot less for our electricity over a long period of time, so that even with the price shocks of February and the borrowing that various municipalities and utilities and co-ops have had to do, we’re still coming out ahead. But that isn’t of much help right now, and as we did nothing to change the fundamentals of our power market, we could face the same situation again at any time. People will be paying more now for what happened his past winter, and they have no insurance against a repeat. Even more, I don’t think a lot of people understand that. I don’t think we’re any more prepared mentally and emotionally for the next time this happens than we were this February. Maybe if we go another ten years before it happens again it won’t much matter. Do you want to make that bet? Like it or not, you already have.

Coronavirus and college sports update

What life is like for Texas’ college football teams.

In the world of COVID-19-era college football, Sunday is a day not for resting but for testing.

Each Sunday this fall brings a new set of checklists and guideposts that players and staff members must negotiate before they can think about playing, let alone winning, on any given Saturday.

It has not been a uniformly smooth road for Texas’ 12 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. Nine of the 12 have had at least one game on their revised schedules affected by their own positive COVID tests or those of an opponent.

This weekend alone, Texas A&M and Rice were idle because their games against Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, respectively, were postponed as college football enters the final month of its truncated, delayed regular season. Nationally, 15 games were postponed or canceled this weekend.

But with the exception of Rice, which delayed its season opener into October, each of the 12 Texas schools will exit this weekend having played at least a half-dozen games, which speaks to their success in maintaining the discipline required for success and health.

“We’re asking 18- to 22-year-olds in the most social time of their lives to be more mature than many adults are being,” said Baylor athletic director Mack Rhoades. “They’re doing a pretty darn good job of following the rules and being disciplined.”

A month remains, though, in which things can go awry quickly.

“We can’t let our guard down,” said Texas A&M athletic director Ross Bjork. “We can’t get too comfortable, especially with our communities surging right now. But everyone has done a great job.”

While each of the five conferences represented by the 12 Texas schools — the American Athletic, Big 12, Conference USA, Southeastern and Sun Belt — have their own weekly procedures, all are on the same approximate schedule.

You can read on for the details, but basically it’s testing on Sunday and at least one other day, contact tracing and quarantining anyone who was in contact with someone who tested positive, coordinating with the visiting teams, and so on. With the exception of Texas State, every school that is playing football has had at least one game postponed, with those that had scheduled non-conference games having them mostly or all canceled. I’ll be honest, this has gone better than I expected in terms of getting the games played – the effect of the outbreak in the towns that have these universities is another story, but that’s about more than just the games – though the wisdom of doing this at all seems to have been accepted regardless of the outcome. I think we’re going to be debating that for a long time.

Meanwhile, this is the time of year when college basketball normally gets underway. Suffice it to say, there are challenges. At least football is played outdoors, where some of the COVID risks can be minimized. If there’s going to be basketball of any kind before a vaccine is fully rolled out, I don’t see how it can be done with fans in the stands. We’ll know what they’re up to soon.

How are things at college these days?

About as can be expected.

Students at a Baylor University dormitory are required to “reside in place” after a spike in positive coronavirus cases in a campus dormitory.

Baylor officials wrote in a letter to the community that the number of positive COVID-19 cases within Martin Hall increased from five to 21 cases within three days. All Martin Hall residents on the two affected floors — about 80 of 250 students — were notified about the next steps and university officials asked students to not leave their respective floor for four days.

Other Texas campuses also saw an increase of positive cases following the return to campus in mid-August.

Two people living in on-campus dorms have tested positive at the University of Texas at Austin, according to UT spokesman J.B. Bird. Since the beginning of August, 37 positive cases have been reported at UT.

[…]

Since dorms opened on Aug. 20, eight students and five UT faculty and staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, but it is unclear how many of those individuals live in on-campus facilities or are working on campus.

The UT flagship has reported 493 COVID-19 cases since March 1 on its dashboard, which tracks the number of cases of the virus.

Baylor now plans to conduct daily rapid testing and assessment of symptoms and complete contact tracing. All positive cases have been isolated and are no longer in the dorm, university officials said. And residents on other floors were asked to not visit any of the upper floors and to contact Baylor Health Services to schedule COVID-19 testing.

In the meantime, Baylor also hopes to “tailor its response” to the outbreak without requiring a full quarantine for the residence hall. The university launched “weekly surveillance testing” Monday, which will conduct ongoing testing of 5 percent of the campus at random.

Additionally, officials reminded its campus community to wear face coverings, maintain social distance, upkeep hygiene and hand sanitizing, and to monitor for any COVID-19 symptoms.

The outbreak is just a fragment of the 645 positive cases at Baylor since the beginning of August, according to the university’s dashboard. The dashboard, updated daily at 3 p.m., showed that of those cases more than 450 are still active, and about 400 of those cases were produced in the last week.

It’s just two schools, so we shouldn’t rush to conclusions, but other schools around the country have had major outbreaks and caused all kinds of disruptions. The fact is, you’re bringing a lot of people into a relatively small geographic area, into mostly indoor spaces, with loads of opportunities for in-person gatherings. What did you think was going to happen? To be sure, if I were a college student, I’d rather be on campus with my friends and hope for the best, rather than continue to quarantine somewhere and pay tuition for online classes. As with everything else, if we’d done a better job – or, really, any job at all – combatting the virus at the national level, we’d be in a much better position today than we are. Ain’t happening with the current President, or the current Governor. Someday, hopefully soon, but not now.

The Big XII will play football

That’s their plan, anyway.

The start of the Big 12 Conference’s college football season will move forward as scheduled, conference officials said Wednesday, meaning four major Texas football programs are one step closer to playing this fall.

“Ultimately, our student-athletes have indicated their desire to compete in the sports they love this season and it is up to all of us to deliver a safe, medically sound, and structured academic and athletic environment for accomplishing that outcome,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby in a statement. The season will kick off Sept. 26, with the conference championship pegged for Dec. 12.

Baylor University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas at Austin are Big 12 members. The conference presidents’ decision to allow football during the coronavirus pandemic was made official Wednesday morning, a day after the Big Ten and the Pac-12 announced their seasons would be postponed until the spring semester.

Bowlsby said member schools have committed to enhanced COVID-19 testing, with three tests per week in high contact sports. Non-conference football opponents must also adhere to testing protocols that match conference standards.

Texas A&M University is part of the Southeastern Conference, which has also signaled its intent to allow teams to play this fall.

“We will continue to further refine our policies and protocols for a safe return to sports as we monitor developments around COVID-19 in a continued effort to support, educate and care for our student-athletes every day,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey in a statement Tuesday.

So that’s two Power 5 conferences not playing in the fall, two that say they are, and the ACC. Of course, there are a ton of questions that will have to be addressed before this can be taken seriously, such as “how exactly are you going to keep all those people safe”, “what will be the protocol when someone (or several someones) tests positive”, and “do you really think that allowing fans in the stands is a good idea”. You can have all the bravado you want, but you better have some idea of what you’re doing when something inevitably goes wrong. In the meantime, all I can say is that it’s going to be an interesting autumn. Or possibly spring, if things do change. Reform Austin has more.

UT prepares for fantasy football

I have no idea what they’re thinking.

The University of Texas at Austin will kick off the football season Sept. 5, albeit with a stadium open at half its capacity, athletics officials told ticket holders Monday.

While both NCAA and Big 12 Conference officials have yet announce firm decisions on how college football will proceed as schools grapple with the pandemic, Texas athletics director Chris Del Conte sent an email Monday to season ticket holders announcing the season would move forward as planned.

“I want you to know that as we are working toward hosting football games this season, our number one priority remains the health and safety of our student-athletes, staff and fans,” Del Conte wrote.

To align with capacity restrictions designated by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this summer, Del Conte said seating at the Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium will be reduced to 50% to facilitate social distancing, meaning around 50,000 Longhorns could potentially be seated in stands next fall.

The decision comes on the heels of an outbreak among student athletes shortly after they arrived on campus to begin voluntary summer workouts. The school also reported its first death, a staff member, earlier this month. There have been more than 500 COVID-19 cases at UT-Austin since March, according to the school’s dashboard.

But officials have pushed forward with kicking off the football season as planned. The annual game between the Longhorns and Oklahoma Sooners occurs during the State Fair of Texas, which organizers canceled this year. Still, Del Conte said earlier this month that the game will be played.

I mean, I know that Greg Abbott says its OK, but there’s just no way on God’s field-turfed Earth that this makes any sense. I certainly hope that we will have this current outbreak under some control by September 5, but does anyone think that virus levels will be low enough to allow for this kind of mass gathering? Again, I remind you, professional sports is gingerly and haltingly trying to play games in front of empty stadia, in some cases with teams that have been and will continue to be completely isolated from the rest of the world. What makes the NCAA think they can do better than that?

(Can you imagine being the owner of a restaurant that’s classified as a bar, or a winery, or a craft brewery with a beer garden and reading this story? The risk assessment here is just off the charts wacko.)

(Apparently, the beer gardens can reopen now. If they are aware of this very quiet decision, anyway.)

OK, I get that Chris Del Conte needs to address his season ticket holders, and assure them that the Longhorns are on top of this situation, and that if by some miracle they can play football in front of fans this year, UT has a plan to accommodate as many of them as they can. But geez, this is amazingly tone deaf.

Meanwhile, in something closer to the real world.

The Southwestern Athletic Conference on Monday became the latest conference to move its fall athletic calendar to the spring of 2021 due to concerns related to the COVID-19 global pandemic. The safety of its student-athletes was at the forefront of the decision.

“We’re still going to play football. It’s just a matter of moving it to the spring,” Texas Southern football coach Clarence McKinney said. “I like the decision. It gives us a chance to slow down and come up with a true plan to protect our student-athletes.”

Texas Southern, along with Prairie View A&M, is part of the SWAC’s five-state footprint that includes schools in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas. Other fall sports impacted in the move are volleyball, cross country and soccer.

A part of the Football Championship Subdivision, the SWAC will go to a seven-game schedule in the spring of 2021, with the conference championship game hopefully to be played no later than April 30. Each football team will play six conference games (four divisional/two nondivisional) with an option to play one nonconference game.

I like their chances better than I like UT’s, I’ll say that much.

UT athletes take a stand

Good for them.

Several athletes at the University of Texas at Austin are refusing to participate in recruiting incoming players or show up at donor-related events if university and athletics officials fail to respond to a list of demands geared toward supporting black students, according to a statement posted Friday afternoon by dozens of the student athletes on Twitter.

Brennan Eagles, the school’s sophomore wide receiver, and Brandon Jones, a senior defensive back, were among the students who posted the statement, detailing a list of actions Longhorn athletes want the university’s athletics department to take. These include donating 0.5% of the department’s annual earnings to the Black Lives Matter movement and black organizations, establishing a permanent black athletic history exhibit in the Athletics Hall of Fame and renaming parts of the football stadium after Julius Whittier, the first black football letterman at UT-Austin.

In addition to demands specific to the athletics department, athletes also want UT officials to rename campus buildings named after Texans who were proponents of segregation or held other racist views, remove a statue of prominent segregationist James Hogg and discontinue the school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” which has ties to minstrel shows and was created during segregation. Other calls to action include requiring a module on the history of racism at UT and increasing outreach efforts to inner-city schools in Austin, Dallas and Houston.

“We, as student athletes, and collectively as the University of Texas Longhorn football team, are aware that we are an athletic department made up of many black athletes, and believe that it is time we become active on our campus,” the statement reads.

Athletes will continue to practice and participate in workouts and team activities this summer but are asking for a “plan for implementation” before the fall semester begins.

[…]

After a widely circulated petition and statements from more than 100 student organizations, the larger UT student body sent a letter detailing student demands to interim President Jay Hartzell earlier this week. Their requests mirror those of the athletes — students want UT to “acknowledge its racist history” by renaming seven campus buildings and structures, removing the Hogg statue and discontinuing the school song.

Additionally, they are asking UT to cut ties with the Austin Police Department and campus police and adopt inclusive practices in recruiting and selecting UT faculty. UT leadership said it would respond to those demands in the coming weeks.

“We are aware of three petitions created by students and look forward to working with them and the UT community to create the best possible experience on our campus for Black students,” UT spokesperson J.B. Bird said in an email.

Like I said, good for them. My guess is UT will concede on a few things but not everything. I have a really hard time imagining that “The Eyes of Texas” will stop being the school song, but you never know. I hope some other school’s athletes are looking at this and getting their own ideas. The Chron has more.

Abbott expects there to be college football this fall

Pretty optimistic, if you ask me.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he believes college football will begin on schedule in Texas with some fans in the stands, he told KXAN during an interview Friday.

“My prediction is yes we’re going to have college football beginning as scheduled, on schedule, with at least some level of fans in the stands,” the governor said.

Abbott said what is unclear at the moment is what the capacity level would be.

“Would it be strategic and limited to ensure that we have safe distancing practices, there are factors we simply do not know at this time,” Abbott explained about the potential health risks of reopening UT football in the fall.

Abbott stated that the University of Texas at Austin’s athletic director needs a decision by early August. He said the state thinks it should be able to make a decision by then.

This isn’t out of the blue. In April, the chancellors of Texas A&M and Texas Tech said they expect there will be football when they reopen in the fall, though that story didn’t address the question of fans. ESPN quoted Abbott referring to the reopening plans of MLB and the NBA, though those sports and others like MLS are all talking about fan-free games, possibly at a single location. It’s one thing to imagine the games happening, especially if the campuses are open anyway. It’s another to imagine sixty thousand people or more packed into a stadium screaming their lungs out, especially if the pro sports leagues are still playing before nothing but empty seats. Texas A&M at least is thinking about what this might mean.

“We have not gone down the path of examining every section,” A&M athletic director Ross Bjork said of exactly how many fans Kyle Field will hold with mandated social distancing in place. “There are a lot of scenarios being discussed.”

Like that proverbial glass, Bjork prefers to envision a stadium as half full, not half empty, should restrictions be in place this season.

“We want a full experience, and we’re staying positive — that’s the approach we’re taking right now,” Bjork said. “We know we can pivot quickly if we have to, but we have not mapped that out.”

[…]

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has gradually reopened the state in the past month, but he has held off on potentially crowded events such as county fairs. With that in mind, what exactly would Kyle Field look like at, say, 25 percent capacity?

Roughly 25,000 fans would be spread throughout the stadium, and which fans would be allowed in would be determined in a potentially convoluted process.

“You’ve got 102,733 seats,” Bjork said. “Last year we sold about 85,000 season tickets, including right around 35,000 student tickets. That leaves you about 18,000 empty seats. The great thing about Kyle Field is we have a lot of space. So you would start with your infrastructure and analyze it from there, but we would not (ideally) want to decrease our season ticket base. …

“We have a huge footprint, and we just haven’t had to go down that (downsizing) path yet.”

Should social distancing be required at Kyle Field this fall, not only would fans be spaced at least 6 feet apart throughout the stadium, but multiple measures would be in place to try to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.

That might mean everyone but the players and those on the sideline would be required to wear masks (further muffling touchdown celebrations and the Aggies’ tradition of kissing after a score); an abundance of hand sanitizers spread throughout the stadium; and scheduled times for different sections to enter the stadium so there is no squeeze at the gates, where body temperatures might also be checked.

Bjork added that it might be helpful for fans to bring their own beverage containers to limit the number of hands on a cup, making last year’s new policy of selling alcohol throughout the stadium a bit trickier. A&M and its concessions cohort made more than $1 million off alcohol sales at Kyle Field in 2019, according to the university.

“One of the things that we’ve had to do with the alcohol policy is have (employees) pour the bottle or can of beer into a cup (for fans); that’s an SEC policy,” Bjork said. “Does that need to change so you limit as many contacts as possible? Those approaches are being studied right now.”

So are the possibilities of limiting the university-sanctioned tailgating scene around Kyle Field, and the myriad activities in the Aggie Fan Zone on the plaza north of the stadium that create a festival-like atmosphere in the hours before kickoff.

“There’s nothing you can really put in writing right now or have a ‘backup’ plan yet, because there’s too much uncertainty, and it’s way too early,” Bjork said of the Aggies’ plans for Kyle Field starting with the Sept. 5 opener against Abilene Christian.

Which fans would get to attend would also present a knotty question for them. I do expect there to be a lot of pressure for playing college football, for various financial and social reasons. How that manifests remains an open question, and that’s before we take into account the possibility of a resurgence, in which case all of this will seem extremely stupid.

This is an issue that has more than the usual amount of resonance for me. As you know if you’ve been reading this site for awhile or know me in Real Life, I’ve been a member of the Rice Marching Owl Band (MOB) for many years. I don’t know at this point what Rice plans to go regarding its sports teams, nor do I know at this point what the MOB plans to do. (They’ve been busy with the usual end-of-semester activities, saying goodbye to graduating seniors and installing the new drum major and drum minor, that sort of thing.) I really don’t know what I plan to do just yet if everyone is going ahead like normal. On the one hand, we’ll be outside and there will be a reasonable amount of space for us all in the stands. On the other hand, there’s only so much social distancing a band can do and still sound like a band, the deep breathing that playing a wind instrument requires is an extra risk factor for COVID transmission, and everything else about the stadium experience will involve a lot of closer-than-I’m-comfortable-with contact with other people. Maybe if we’ve really got infection rates under control, or there’s true universal testing, I’d be willing to trot out there for another season like it was the Before Times. I’m not feeling that right now. Ask me again in August and we’ll see. The Chron has more.

Whither college football?

All NCAA spring sports were canceled due to coronavirus, beginning with March Madness and going through baseball and softball and soccer and everything else. Everyone has been looking forward to the fall when things were supposed to be back to “normal” again, but no one knows for sure what might happen.

NCAA Division I college sports in Texas is a billion-dollar business for the 23 participating schools, and athletic directors estimate 75 percent to 85 percent of that revenue is tied directly to football in terms of ticket sales, sponsorships, media rights fees and, for most schools, direct contributions from the students or the university.

All those revenue streams are in jeopardy with 20 weeks to go before the scheduled football season openers in late August, which is why college athletic directors are game-planning every potential scenario that comes to mind.

“The financial repercussions of not playing a football season are so significant there is going to be a way to do it and play it and do it responsibly,” University of Houston athletic director Chris Pezman said last week on KBME (790 AM), the school’s sports flagship station.

“If you don’t have that revenue stream that is associated with football, it gets dire very fast. … I am confident we are going to find a way through this and we’ll be able to play the season, whether it’s pushed back a little bit or the idea of playing in the spring.”

At Texas A&M, athletic director Ross Bjork is running through similar scenarios involving the mathematics of time and money.

Regular and postseason football requires four months with the addition of the College Football Playoff, and that must be preceded, Bjork said during a conference call last week, by a 60- to 75-day preparation period for players who have been outside the watchful, demanding eyes of strength coaches for several weeks.

John Sharp, Texas A&M’s chancellor, said last week October would not be too late to begin a complete 2020 season, which would presume a return of players, based on Bjork’s time model, in mid-July.

However, what flies in Texas might not work in other states.

As an example, the executive officer of Santa Clara County in northern California, which includes Stanford University and Levi’s Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers, said last week he did not expect “any sports games until at least Thanksgiving, and we’d be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”

A&M, Bjork noted, is scheduled to play Colorado at College Station on Sept. 19. There’s no guarantee, however, Colorado will be in the same stage of recovery as Texas by mid-September.

Accordingly, Bjork said he expects a “layered” approach to football’s return, based on the advice of conference and university leaders and local and state governments.

“There’s not one trigger point,” he said. “We’re all just guessing, really. We don’t know what the data will tell us. We can model, but until you know when you’re starting or when you can have togetherness, it’s kind of hard to predict.”

It’s hard to imagine how sports like Major League Baseball can contemplate their return if the start of the NCAA football season is in jeopardy. Of course, MLB has the “play their games in hermetically sealed stadia in a small number of locations with no fans” option, which college football does not. I don’t doubt the desire or the intent to bring the games back, even if starting the season in December and essentially playing a spring season is a possible way forward. But as with everything else, there’s only so long you can push back one season before you push up against the next one, and there’s no way to know what the effects will be on fans, who may not be ready to tailgate and pack into venues just yet. It’s good for the leagues to prepare for all possibilities. You never know, things might go better than expected. It’s just all so massively weird right now.

The difference a week makes

Imposing a stay-at-home order sooner rather than later ha a profound effect on how many people come down with coronavirus.

The person-to-person spread of the coronavirus in the Houston region would peak in two weeks and burn out by mid-May if the stay-at-home order invoked Tuesday is continued until then, according to modeling by local scientists.

The modeling, which informed Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s order, considered the effect on the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, if she’d taken the stringent intervention immediately or waited a week or two weeks to act. Spread would increase exponentially had she waited, it found.

“From our modeling, it was clear that waiting is not a good thing,” said Eric Boerwinkle, dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health, who conducted the study with a biostatistician at that Houston institution. “The numbers are sobering, but the message is clear: early intervention is better than late intervention and more stringent intervention is better than less stringent.”

UTHealth released the modeling data as the city of Houston began gearing up — scouting sites that easily can be converted into medical centers, looking for hotel rooms for COVID-19 patients who cannot isolate at home or in a hospital — for what’s expected to be the next, worse phase of the pandemic: the exponential increase in disease numbers.

[…]

The UTHealth modeling, shared with city and county officials Monday, provided data backing the warnings. It found that intervening immediately would limit the number of cases in the region to a peak at about 150 a day around April 7 and stop the spread around May 12. In that time, the cumulative total of cases would reach nearly 3,500, it found.

Cases would peak at more than 1,000 a day on April 15 if Hidalgo had waited a week and more than 6,600 a day on April 22 if she’d waited two weeks. Transmission would last until May 29 under the first scenario and June 16 under the second.

All three of the scenarios are based on the premise the restrictions would continue until mid-May. Hidalgo’s order is scheduled to expire April 3.

This is what “exponential growth” means. The basic idea is that if everyone is out there living their normal lives, anyone who has coronavirus – remember, it takes about a week for people to become symptomatic, so you can be walking around for quite some time not knowing you have it, infecting people wherever you go – will be spreading the disease to a larger number of people, who will then do the same thing, than if everyone were at home where they will encounter far fewer people. This is one of the reasons why South Korea was as successful as it was at stopping the spread in that country – they jumped on this kind of action right away. (They also did a crapload of testing and were able to aggressively track people’s movements, but never mind that for now.) For that matter, look at the difference between Kentucky and Tennessee. Which outcome would you prefer?

Point is, putting the stay-at-home restrictions in place now, or even later, after the disease has had time to spread even if the known number of infections is still low, would mean we’ve given it an unfettered head start. That’s the scenario we need to avoid, and it’s the reason why the death wish cultists aren’t just wrong, they’re deeply dangerous. Listen to the experts. The fondest hope we have right now is that in a few weeks, when we can think about beginning to go back to normal, we can say it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. We have a chance for that now.

UPDATE: Read this. Look at the chart. Consider this excerpt: “It means that on average, every infected person infects three other people, not 2.5 other people—which makes the spread of the virus much wider and faster. Without any control measures, for example, it means that after ten generations a single person will be responsible for 80,000 infections instead of 10,000 infections.” That’s what we’re talking about here.

Boosting student turnout at UT

Cool story.

Between 2013 and 2016, Texas eliminated more than 400 polling locations, the largest drop in any state during that time. In 2013, after years of litigation, it implemented a strict voter ID law. The law, which lists seven kinds of acceptable IDs, became infamous for its brazenly partisan implications—handgun licenses are okay, for example, while student IDs are not.

All of which makes the following statistic so surprising: at the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship university, undergraduate turnout increased from almost 39 percent to 53 percent between 2012 and 2016. Over that same time period, national youth turnout stayed roughly constant. The National Study of Learning, Voting, and Engagement at Tufts University, which calculates campus voting rates, has not yet released numbers for last year’s midterms. But at UT Austin’s on-campus polling locations, the number of early ballots cast was more than three times higher than it was in 2014. (Travis County only provides polling site specific data for early voting.)

[…]

On August 5, 2015, a federal appeals court ruled that Texas’s voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act. The state’s attorney general vowed to enforce it anyway.

Later that month, a friendly and fast-talking former journalist named Kassie Phebillo arrived in Austin to begin a PhD in political communications at the University of Texas. To support herself financially, she took a job overseeing TX Votes, the nonpartisan organization charged by the university with increasing turnout. At the time, the group barely existed. It had just one returning member, and both of Phebillo’s would-be supervisors had left the school before she even showed up.

Still, Phebillo was drawn to the opportunity to learn more about her field and to mentor students. “I’m a first-gen college student,” she said. “Having those relationships changed my life, and so I try to do that for others.” She sat down with the sole returning TX Votes member—then senior Zach Foust—and began discussing how to restructure the group. They studied how other schools worked to get out the vote and found themselves particularly interested in colleges where students partnered with diverse groups to boost registration and turnout. The two decided to establish a civic engagement alliance and began recruiting a host of student clubs, political and nonpolitical alike, to come on board. By the end of the 2015–16 school year, a small but eclectic group of campus organizations had joined—from the Longhorn League of United Latin American Citizens to the chess club.

Phebillo and Foust asked that clubs in the alliance have one member become a volunteer deputy registrar, part of a broader strategy to create a network of students who could register voters across campus. To accomplish that, Phebillo brought county officials to campus to hold registrar training sessions and asked TX Votes members to bring their friends. Like any good college event planner, they provided free pizza to attract a bigger audience. The events were popular. Between September 2015 and the 2016 election, TX Votes helped train well over 100 volunteer deputy registrars. Together, they registered more than 17,000 voters.

I met Phebillo at UT Austin in early July 2019, in the middle of one of the university’s many freshman orientation sessions. She gave me a partial tour of campus. Inside the offices of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life, she showed me a shelf stocked with national turnout awards and trophies won by TX Votes. One award was for having the most improved undergraduate turnout rate of any college in the country.

Later, I joined Phebillo at the student activities fair, where representatives of TX Votes were trying to recruit new members. Rising sophomore Janae Steggall was especially busy, hustling for the attention of what seemed like every incoming freshman who passed by. “What’s your major?” she would shout. Whatever the reply, Steggall would motion the student closer and deliver her pitch: “Awesome! We’re TX Votes, a nonpartisan organization on campus focused on voter registration and education.”

As I chatted with Phebillo and her team, it became clear that TX Votes has developed a sizable footprint on campus. Phebillo told me that during the 2016–17 school year, TX Votes deepened its involvement in the network of national organizations that help universities bolster turnout. It participated in both the ALL IN Campus Democracy Challenge and the Voter Friendly Campus program, drawing up a detailed plan that both created new initiatives and evaluated past work. After the 2016 election, the group further expanded its civic engagement alliance, which now has more than 100 organizational members. In March 2017, Phebillo became certified to train volunteer deputy registrars herself, allowing TX Votes to increase its training output.

One year later, in March 2018, several TX Votes members successfully campaigned to get the county to open a second polling place on campus. The group also devised a new strategy for registering students: visiting classrooms. Class, they reasoned, is where college students go (or, at least, are supposed to go), and students might be more tempted to register if everyone around them were registering as well. But to take advantage of this, TX Votes first needed permission from the university’s faculty.

“We emailed every single professor teaching a course at this university in fall 2018,” Anthony Zhang, the group’s incoming president, told me. “We had to manually compile that list, starting with accounting and going all the way down to Yiddish.”

I asked how long it took to get contact information for the school’s roughly 3,000 faculty. Zhang shook his head. “I honestly don’t even want to think about it,” he said.

There’s more, so go read the rest. As the story notes, TX Votes was helped by having a great working relationship with Travis County elected officials, in particular the two that are directly involved with elections, the County Clerk and the Tax Assessor. Thanks to the 2018 election, we now have a County Clerk in Harris County that is invested in helping people vote – the recent announcement about early voting centers coming to the UH and TSU campuses being a prime example of this – so now we also have an opportunity to follow TX Votes’ example. Let’s see if we can get those two added to the Best Colleges for Student Voting list next year. In the meantime, you can follow TX Votes on Facebook and Twitter.

UT’s new tuition policy

Nice.

Seeking to make college more affordable, the University of Texas will use some of its oil money to dramatically expand the financial aid it offers to low- and middle-income undergraduates on its flagship Austin campus.

The system’s governing board approved a special $160 million distribution from its endowment Tuesday, which school officials expect will fully cover the tuition and fees of students whose families earn up to $65,000 in adjusted gross income a year starting in 2020. The funding, which will be used to create a new financial aid endowment, will also let UT-Austin alleviate tuition costs for students whose families earn up to $125,000 annually, if they demonstrate financial need.

“Our main focus at the UT system is our students. That’s it, that’s what we’re in business for is to provide an affordable, accessible education for our students,” board Chair Kevin Eltife said in an interview after the vote. “We all know the struggles that hardworking families are having putting their kids through school. What we’ve done here is repurposed an endowment into another endowment that will provide tuition assistance to a lot of the working families in Texas.”

The funding marks a significant expansion for UT-Austin, which currently has a financial aid initiative that guarantees free tuition to students whose families earn up to $30,000 a year. The median household income in Texas was just over $59,200 in 2017, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

School officials estimate about a quarter of its undergraduates from Texas — 8,600 students — would have their tuition fully paid under the new plan, and an additional 5,700 would receive financial aid from it. The program will not pay for students’ living expenses, which were estimated to be around $17,000 for the 2019-20 academic year. Tuition and fees averaged $10,314 for Texas residents.

This is good, and a decent number of students will benefit from this policy. Remember, though, the main reason why tuition is as high as it is now, not just at UT but at all Texas public universities, is because the Republican-controlled Legislature deregulated tuition in 2003, as a way to help balance the budget by spending less on higher ed. You can see what happened next. It’s great that UT’s endowment allows them to take this step, but UT-Austin is just one school. If we really want to fix this, it’s going to take a lot more than this.