On October 5, 1996, the Sooners hosted Kansas on Owen Field. Kickoff was 11:30 a.m., which maybe reminds you that the curse of morning football is not all that new.
The Jayhawks won 52-24, dropping OU to 0-4 in the John Blake era and providing no relief that things would turn around. The game drew an announced crowd of 64,333, about 10,000 shy of capacity.
And the Sooners’ relationship with the Fox network was born.
Fox, then under the name of Liberty Media, had secured the cable rights to the fledgling Big 12 Conference, and the network’s OU debut was that windy day in 1996.
Saturday in Lawrence, Kansas, the Jayhawks host the Sooners, and Fox is back. Fox’ Big Noon Kickoff Show will emanate from Mount Oread, overlooking KU’s Memorial Stadium. Call it a countdown to the end.
Fox also has the Bedlam game next week in Stillwater, quite possibly as part of another Big Noon Kickoff, and the OU-Texas Christian game in Norman on Thanksgiving Friday. And then it’s over. No more OU/Fox relationship.
The Sooners will join the Southeastern Conference next July, and the SEC’s exclusive contract with ESPN/ABC begins at the same time. Fox still will have the Big 12 and Big Ten.
But the only time the Sooners will be back on Fox is a potential College Football Playoff game, if Fox gets part or all of the CFP package, or in a road game with an opponent tied up with Fox, like Michigan in 2026, Houston in 2028 or Nebraska in 2030.
“We have a long and storied history with the Fox television network,” said OU athletic director Joe Castiglione, who was AD at Missouri when the Big 12 formed and signed on with Fox/Liberty Media 27 years ago. “They were the first (Big 12) conference television network partner. I’ve personally enjoyed working with so many of the Fox network executives over the years, and we’ve made a lot of good things happen, both for the Big 12 and the University of Oklahoma.”
No kidding. Forget the televised classics — the Boise State Fiesta Bowl, multiple Bedlams and Red Rivers, the Florida national championship game. Some network was going to show those games.
But Fox went much deeper with OU. They partnered in 2012 to form Sooner Sports TV, a counter to Texas’ ESPN-based Longhorn Network. OU games, shows, films and much more appeared on the various renditions of Fox Sports Oklahoma and other Fox regional outlets. Originally contracted to produce 1,500 hours of content a year, Sooner Sports TV eventually went over 4,000 annually, even hitting 5,000 hours one year. That’s 13 hours a day.
Heck, Bob Stoops even spent a year on the Big Noon Kickoff panel, famously leading a “Texas sucks” chant hard by the corner of Jenkins and Brooks, and he remains a Fox loyalist. Fox’s Urban Meyer and Matt Leinart have appeared on Stoops’ Sellout Crowd shows, and Stoops was a special guest when Big Noon Kickoff went to Cincinnati for the OU-UC game in September.
So this is a long-lasting relationship. And it’s about to end.
Frankly, that’s a good thing for the Sooners. In these polarizing days, you have to pick sides, even when it comes to television partners for football conferences.
The SEC chose ESPN and soon will be even more synonymous with each other than already. Fox chose the Big Ten, with the same result.
Only the Big 12, without OU and Texas, will have a foot in each river.
And if you’ve got to pick, ESPN is the way to go.
No one wants to say that, of course. Too many old friends involved. Too many delicate sensibilities. Fox declined even to grant interviews this week for its personalities to talk about the Sooners’ impending departure.
But we are about to enter the age of warring promotion. The SEC on ESPN, the Big Ten on Fox.
And ESPN wins that battle. ESPN has the more noted pregame show (College GameDay, over Big Noon Kickoff) and the better daily PR machine and tradition that trumps Fox’s.
Not that Fox is an inferior presenter of college football. I find little difference in the quality of the broadcasts, and there are times when I like Big Noon Kickoff better than College GameDay. Most of us don’t care which network gets a game, so long as the cameras are running by kickoff.
But the hype is about to go into overdrive. Big dollars are at stake. Television ratings are big business. You’ve been subjected to ESPN and the SEC’s “it just means more” mentality for many years. Fox does not have a piece of the SEC and naturally has gone full-bore with the Big Ten.
The networks will dual even moreso come 2024, as both leagues grapple for additional College Football Playoff berths and viewership. Think Fox News and MSNBC.
But the Big Ten drew the short stick. Sports organizations that try life without ESPN discover a lack of oxygen. The ESPN influence is massive. Game coverage is the least of the problems. The daily shows and internet presence and radio outlets make ESPN the American sports engine. Most news and reaction is funneled through ESPN.
Just ask the National Hockey League, which went without ESPN from 2005-2021, during which the NHL’s reach and popularity declined.
Heck, just ask the Big 12. In 1998, the Big 12 extended its new contract with Fox, giving Fox the exclusive cable rights to the conference’s football games through 2007. Probably a good money deal. And Fox provided quality distribution, particularly in this part of the country.
But the cost was great. In the early part of the 21st century, Big 12 football ranked at least even with the SEC in terms of success and status. But the SEC became an ESPN staple during those days, as ESPN hyped the SEC religiously, and by the end of the Big 12/Fox contract, the SEC had far surpassed the Big 12 in notoriety.
Nick Saban became the Alabama coach in 2007; soon enough Bama was a national power and the entire SEC was lifted by the Crimson Tide. The Big 12 was well behind and never caught up.
The resulting conference realignment — Nebraska to the Big Ten, Colorado to the Pac-12, Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC, all in 2010-11 — might have occurred anyway, due to geography and network financials. But the Big 12’s declining status had started well before, fueled by its lack of access to ESPN.
The Big Ten has been contracted with both ESPN and Fox for the last decade or so. Next season, it bravely marches forward without ESPN. Good luck.
Paul Finebaum, whose SEC-region radio show reached such renown that ESPN bought it in 2013, placing it on the SEC Network and ESPN’s national radio network, has become one of ESPN’s dominant personalities for college football.
Finebaum says the coming exclusive partnerships — ESPN/SEC, Fox/Big Ten (though Fox will farm out some telecasts to CBS and NBC) — will cause major shifts.
“I think it’s going to change a lot,” Finebaum said on The Berry Tramel Show this week.
An example: “ESPN and the SEC will work in concert to really have better windows for games. I can’t imagine people liking the 11 o’clock starts of the Texas-Oklahoma game. I think that will be something that will go by the wayside.”
Fox carved a niche for its Big Noon Kickoff. The Sooners know that well. Let’s see. OU has hosted two Big Noon Kickoffs, Nebraska in 2021 and Iowa State in 2021, plus Red River 2019. The Sooners’ seven total appearances in Big Noon Kickoff games trails only the Big Ten monsters of Ohio State (17), Michigan (13) and Penn State (eight).
But going forward, Fox will have no access to SEC-controlled or Atlantic Coast Conference-controlled games, depending on the Big Ten and the blueblood-less Big 12 for its Big Noon Kickoffs.
Finebaum’s prediction: while ESPN will have to fill early windows for ABC, ESPN and the SEC Network, it will load up its best games in primetime or the middle of the afternoon.
So after OU-TCU on Nov. 24, no more Fox for the Sooners. Not for a long while, and then only sparingly. Fox has been showing and telling the OU story for almost three decades. That’s about to change.
After 43 Sooner games on Fox, and 52 on Fox Sports regional outlets, and 18 on Fox Sports1, and four on FX — 117 total — the Sooners soon will be an exclusive ESPN school. Almost surely for the better.