Among those enthusiastically backing the almost certain move of Oklahoma and Texas to Southeastern Conference within the next few years, you could with a high degree of confidence count Tennessee’s legal online sportsbooks.
The state’s first four digital sportsbooks launched in November and haven’t been through a full season of football yet, and the partial one they experienced last year was far different from the norm due to the impact of COVID-19.
Now the 2021 season of the nation’s most popular betting sport is barely a month away in a part of the country where college football is at its most popular, due to the perennial strength of the SEC and the smaller number of NFL franchises compared to the more urban Midwest and Northeast. Tennessee’s seven current sportsbook operators took $174.5 million in bets in June, a number that should be far surpassed during football season.
By September, the books will be handling a huge volume of wagers on SEC games by phone or computer, even without the presence of Big 12 powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas. Once those two enter their own version of the transfer portal and arrive in the nation’s most dominant football conference, one could expect such betting to only increase.
What Tennessee Volunteers fan wouldn’t have more interest in a contest vs. the Sooners instead of a tilt with South Carolina? And even if Vanderbilt would be a big underdog against Texas, that game should draw far more betting action than a Vandy-Missouri matchup.
Then imagine dream SEC regular season or conference title game pairings like Alabama-Oklahoma or Georgia-Texas. College football fans across the country would salivate at watching and betting on such marquee games, with the increased likelihood of gamblers from non-legalized border states such as Alabama, Georgia, and Kentucky crossing the state line to use their favorite betting app in Tennessee.
SEC and schools have key meetings this week
Expansion to a 16-team SEC containing two more premier national programs is by no means a done deal — just a very, very likely deal.
Oklahoma and Texas sent a letter to the conference Tuesday formally requesting an invitation to join. It included the joint statement: “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.”
The SEC presidents and chancellors are to discuss the request at a meeting Thursday. Meanwhile, the boards of regents for both Texas and Oklahoma are to meet Friday, with some formal action possible relating to conference realignment.
Considering how quickly and surprisingly this has all come about, no immediate action is certain. SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey has been hesitant to say anything too direct about the conference’s eagerness to poach the Big 12’s most important pair of programs.
“While the SEC has not proactively sought new 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,” he told media outlets.
No statements from the schools, conferences, presidents, or commissioners involved speak directly to money, but anyone familiar with college athletics knows that is always the underlying issue involved.
The SEC pays out more to its members from media rights — a reported $45.5 million to each school in 2020 — than does the Big 12, and it could get more in its broadcast contracts by adding Oklahoma and Texas. The latter two, meanwhile, face potential penalties of $75 million or more if they exit the Big 12 before 2025, which they may try to renegotiate. The attraction of joining the SEC may be worth that cost to them, in any case.
How would Oklahoma and Texas stack up?
Why all the fuss about Oklahoma and Texas? Well, for the Big 12, their loss vastly diminishes a conference that is already at 10 instead of 12 members anyway. As the conference’s two richest football programs in both tradition and revenue, one Big 12 athletic director said back in 2016 that without them, “we’re the Mountain West Conference.”
At the same time, joining the stronger conference would knock both schools down a notch relative to their peer group.
Analyzing where they would fit in the SEC pecking order, football-wise, Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports wrote: “Oklahoma might at best be — what? — the fourth-best program in the Strength Everywhere Conference. Is Texas fifth, maybe sixth? No matter where you come down on that discussion, the Big 12’s two big dogs better be prepared to lose some of their swagger when they head Southeast.”
An examination of the last 10 AP Top 25 football polls conducted at season’s end shows neither program has been anywhere close to Alabama. The Tide closed as No. 1 in five of those years and finished in the Top 10 every other time.
But Oklahoma, with seven Top 10 and two more Top 25 poll finishes in that period, was closer to Alabama than was any SEC school. Georgia was in the Top 10 six times and had one more Top 25 finish. Texas, with one Top 10 and three other Top 25 seasons, was also behind LSU, Florida, and Auburn in those results.
For the 2021 season, DraftKings makes Alabama +250 to win the national title, and FanDuel has it +265. Oklahoma is ranked fifth in such odds (+750 on DraftKings, +820 on FanDuel) and behind Georgia (+600 DraftKings, +500 FanDuel). Texas is projected at +5000 by DraftKings and +80000 by FanDuel, which is also behind LSU and Florida.
None of that will be impacted by conference realignment discussions this year, but depending on how things go, shifts based on a new SEC lineup could begin much earlier than 2025. For Tennessee’s newly emergent sportsbooks, it’s probably a case of the sooner, the better.
Photo: Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman