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Sen. Roger Marshall calls for DOJ investigation into ESPN

Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.) wants the United States Department of Justice to investigate the SEC’s latest round of expansion.

Marshall released a statement on Wednesday saying that he had asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to open an investigation into ESPN’s role in the move of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. Marshall cited Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby’s cease and desist letter to ESPN in his letter to Garland and claimed there could be possible anti-trust issues with ESPN owning all of the SEC’s football media rights starting in 2024.

From Marshall’s statement:

While the terms of the contract are unknown to me, it’s important to note the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that the exclusive right to televise all league games is a violation of anti-trust laws. While the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 was passed to overturn this decision for professional football, college football broadcast packages are not subject to the antitrust exemption in that law.

 I write today to ask that the DOJ investigate ESPN’s role in the potential destruction of the Big XII Conference and if any anti-competitive or illegal behavior occurred relating to manipulating the conference change or ESPN’s contractual television rights.

Marshall went to Kansas State for undergrad and went to the University of Kansas’ school of medicine. Both of those schools are in the Big 12. Marshall was elected to the Senate in 2020 to replace the retired Pat Roberts.

Will the DOJ actually get involved?

Bowlsby said that he knew ESPN had worked with another conference to potentially poach remaining members from the Big 12 after Texas and Oklahoma’s move to the SEC. In its response to Bowlsby, ESPN said it “has engaged in no wrongful conduct” and told Bowlsby that the “accusations you have made are entirely without merit.”

Texas president Jay Hartzell also said the school had not talked with ESPN before making the move. 

It’s unclear how ESPN could have engaged in any illegal behavior no matter its role in the SEC’s expansion. ESPN currently has all of the rights to ACC games as it owns the ACC Network. Does that agreement potentially violate anti-trust laws in Marshall’s eyes?

And besides, TV contracts are frequently awarded to the highest bidder. If another network wanted to pay more for a conference’s media rights, that conference and its member schools would be happy to oblige that network to get more revenue.

It’s indisputable that ESPN will get more marquee football games with Oklahoma and Texas in the conference and that it’s not unhappy that it will soon have the television rights to their annual rivalry game. But it sure doesn’t seem likely that the Department of Justice will get involved in conference realignment. Especially without significant leads pointing to illegal wrongdoing. At the moment, Marshall’s letter looks like nothing more than some good old fashioned political grandstanding.

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