By Alan Scher Zagier/The Associated Press
ST. LOUIS — Missouri is hoping to join the Southeastern Conference but would have preferred an offer from the Big Ten that never came, a university official said Wednesday.
Missouri hoped to join the Big Ten last year but the league instead chose Nebraska. The university official said the Big Ten remains Missouri’s top choice but that conference “has no interest.”
“That’s what’s left,” the official said, referring to the SEC. The official, who is familiar with school discussions involving conference affiliation, spoke on condition of anonymity because the school has not commented publicly about its intentions.
Missouri curators agreed unanimously Tuesday night to give Chancellor Brady Deaton the authority to look elsewhere rather than immediately commit to the reeling Big 12. Just one day earlier, Deaton and other Big 12 chancellors and presidents agreed to equally share revenue from the conference’s most lucrative television deals if member schools agree to give those top-tier rights to the league for at least six years.
The agreement is subject to approval by university governing boards. It was a step Missouri curators don’t want to take until the school is able to “fully explore options for conference affiliation … which best serve the interests of the University of Missouri,” board chairman Warren Erdman told The Associated Press.
The Big 12 is down to 10 members and will lose Texas A&M to the SEC next year after the departures of Colorado (to the Pac-12) and Nebraska.
SEC athletic directors and Commissioner Mike Slive met Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala., to discuss the logistics of Texas A&M’s arrival. Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said there were no discussions about a 14th team, though Slive has not ruled out further expansion.
Sticking with the Big 12 remains an option, Deaton said Tuesday, and the costs of leaving could prove troublesome — Missouri is likely to forfeit most of its annual conference revenues.
The revenue-sharing plan approved Sunday by the Big 12 board of directors — a move designed to keep Missouri and other potential stray members in the fold — would give each school an estimated $20 million in June.
And that figure is expected to grow by 2013 when the league’s new 13-year contract with Fox Sports kicks in, according to two people with knowledge of the deal and ties to the Big 12. They spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the revenue-sharing plan.
The Big 12’s television contract with ABC/ESPN expires in 2016 and also likely will bring in additional money when renegotiated.
The SEC, by contrast, distributed $18.3 million in revenue to each of its 12 members this year. But that league can also expect more lucrative contracts when the next round of TV rights negotiations occur.
State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican whose Columbia district includes the Missouri campus, said his constituents are “hands down” in favor of an SEC move. Now that Missouri has made its desire to roam known, he has doubts that a union with the Big 12 can be salvaged.
“It’s kind of like a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship,” said Schaefer, a Missouri graduate. “Once it’s fractured and somebody gets a wandering eye, can you repair that? It’s not clear.”
While Missouri is a charter member of the Big 12, founded in 1996 when the Big Eight schools added four members of the defunct Southwest Conference, dissatisfaction with the conference has grown. In the early ’90s, with the Big Eight on the verge of collapse, Missouri pushed to join the Big Ten and a group of state business leaders even formed a lobbying group.
A year ago, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, an avid sports fan, was an outspoken supporter of a move to the Big Ten, noting that its schools, like Missouri, are members of the invitation-only Association of American Universities.
The Big Ten instead chose another AAU school in Nebraska.
Besides being a fresh blow to the Big 12, a Missouri departure would threaten its long-standing rivalry with neighboring Kansas, one of the oldest in college sports.
Kansas basketball coach Bill Self told The Associated Press on Wednesday he would be in no hurry to schedule Missouri as a nonconference opponent if the Tigers decided to leave the Big 12 and sever a conference tie with the Jayhawks that dates to 1907.
“I don’t know why we would want to do that, if they’ve done something that put KU in jeopardy,” Self said.
Such a move would not be unprecedented for Kansas. When Notre Dame negotiated its own football television deal with NBC, causing the television contract held by the College Football Association to collapse, Kansas canceled its home-and-home basketball agreement with the Irish.
Erdman, a Kansas City attorney, said Missouri takes long-term relationships and regional affiliations seriously. But the financial allure of seven-figure TV contracts and the broader benefits of such deals to a university are equally if not more important, he said.
“The cultural and economic effects of a decision like this on all parts of the state are important,” he said. “And we should be sensitive to those factors as part of our overall consideration. However, when it’s all said and done, our fiduciary duty is to the University of Missouri.”
Missouri alumni, donors and fans haven’t been shy about sharing their opinions with university leaders, barraging curators with emails encouraging a Big 12 exit.
“It’s been pretty overwhelmingly positive to leave the Big 12,” said Todd McCubbin, executive director of the Missouri Alumni Association. “And the SEC has been a popular choice.”
AP sports writers John Zenor in Birmingham, Ala., Jim Vertuno in Austin, Texas and AP writer John Milburn in Topeka, Kan., contributed to this report.