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UCLA, USC's move to Big Ten may mean conferences undergo another seismic shift

UCLA guard Jaime Jaquez Jr., right, tries to get by USC forward Isaiah Mobley during a game on March 5, 2022, in Los Angeles. UCLA and USC are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in a seismic change that could lead to another major realignment of college sports.

Conference realignment in college sports has been going on since 1984, when the Supreme Court invalidated the NCAA's national television contract for football.

The conference juggling has gone through ebbs and flows through the years since, from small schools bumping up to bigger leagues to power programs switching to other major conferences.

The latest move, UCLA and USC bolting the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, could be part of a tectonic shift — not just because of the marquee schools involved, but because it happened at a time when the NCAA is looking to take a more decentralized approach to governing college athletics, handing more power to schools and conferences.

"You might think this is more seismic because it's involving wealthier schools — and arguably it is — but also it's seismic because of the underpinnings of the system, the foundations of the system, are being challenged at a time when the financial structure is exploding," said Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist. "It may have larger ramifications, but it is a process that's been ongoing."

The decisions by UCLA and USC to join the Big Ten in 2024 come roughly a year after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the SEC.

While surprising, even to Pac-12 officials, the announcement Thursday gives the Los Angeles schools stability and exposure in a shifting collegiate sports landscape.

"It's huge for our student athletes, just from a national exposure perspective," UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said. "They're going compete at the highest level in a major elite conference in different time zones. UCLA is always national, but now we have the ability for student athletes to showcase their talent across the country. That's exciting."

For all the other benefits, the bottom line to the defections is the bottom line.

The SEC has become a college football behemoth that distributed $54.6 million to each of its member schools in the 2021 fiscal year. The Big Ten has tried to keep up and had a per-school distribution of $46.1 million last year.

The Pac-12 had the lowest distribution number among Power 5 schools, paying its member institutions $19.8 million in 2021.

At the core, it's all about the TV.

The SEC has a $3 billion deal with ESPN that's set to kick in in 2024 and the Big Ten is negotiating a media rights deal. The Pac-12 has floundered when it comes to TV as the conference's network has struggled to gain footing while many of its games are played late at night.

With costs to run college athletic programs have climbed in recent years, exacerbated by the pandemic, moving to an even bigger conference provides more financial stability. For the Big Ten, adding UCLA and USC gives the conference a foothold in the nation's second-largest media market.

"Money talks," said Tom McMillen, President and CEO of Lead1, which represents Football Bowl Subdivision athletic directors and programs. "I was on the board of regents when Maryland jumped in to the Big Ten and there were all kinds of arguments about it was academics and it was this and that, but ultimately it came down to money. I think that's the same case here."

The defections will create two mega conferences that will hold the majority of power and money, leaving the rest of leagues scrambling to keep up.

The tiering could stratify even more if the SEC and the Big Ten continue to expand, which could be the next step.

The future power structure could consist of two, maybe three mega conferences of up to 20 schools at the top, with the Power 5 joining the Group of 5 conferences in the tier below but still above the Football Championship Subdivision.

More schools in the Pac-12 and Big 12, along with the ACC, could look to bolt for more stability.

Conferences losing members likely will face two options: combining with another league to form a mega conference of their own or expand on the current membership. The Pac-12 it plans to take the expansion route, issuing a statement on Friday that said it is exploring all expansion options.

"You have exploding costs on one end and your revenue sources are being decimated, which is a tremendous pressure," Zimbalist said. "On the other hand, what do you do? Well, something pretty radical I think is going to have to happen."

Uncertainty is the only thing that's certain at this point.

Comments

Dirk Medema

Just saw a tweet that the Big12 extended invitations to AU, ASU, Oregon and Washington. Real?

Interesting that CU was skipped over.

5 months ago

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Brian Skelly

Not really. Since geography seems to be less of an issue now (at least to TV executive).

CU didn't provide the Big 12 much value previously. And it's AD is worse off now. CU just doesn't add the value to make it work.

5 months ago

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Scott MacWilliams

Hey Dirk,
ESPN writers are speculating the opposite scenario:
"But I think the Pac-12 has to consider a merger or some new, nontraditional relationship with the Big 12. If that doesn't work, the league has to reach out to Baylor, Kansas, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Oklahoma State. If the Pac-12 can land two or three of those schools, it can widen its footprint and maintain its competitive value in men's basketball, especially if Kansas and Baylor are interested."
I really hope that NOTHING like this ever happens!! West coast tip-off times would be ridiculous in the midwest!

5 months ago

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Dirk Medema

Also didn’t include Stanford or Cal to get the Bay Area market?

5 months ago

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Brett McCabe

When you think about it, all of this is literally so stupid. If you want the most money, simply merge all of the P5 conferences, add a handful of others (Cinci, Houston, Notre Dame) and get on with it. This idiotic jockeying is just a waste of time. Make the super-conference, hire a commissioner, get the biggest tv deal(s) ever, and move on. Sound familiar? That's because it's the NFL. Are all the teams in the NFL great? The Jets and Jaguars say NO. But you need inventory and you need one negotiating entity to bring in the actual REAL money.

And all of the non-revenue teams can go back to reasonable travel schedules, playing teams in their region.

5 months ago

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Bryce Landon

It's not often anything you say is intelligent or worthy of being liked, but dude, rare moments like this one are absolute gems. Yes, it feels like college football is transforming into a collegiate version of the NFL. And, IMO, that's not a good development - certainly not for other college sports besides football.

Here's what should happen: Let college football be its own thing, and let there be separate conferences for football and for other sports. College football conferences can be separate from conferences for other sports. As an example, Kansas and, say, Nebraska can be in separate conferences for football, but in the same conference for basketball just like they were from the MVIAA, through the Big 6, Big 7, Big 8, and first 15 years of the Big 12. In other words, let's have superconferences or whatever for football, but let's recreate the old conferences for all other sports. Recreate the Big Eight, the Pac-10, the SWC, the Big 10 (with actually 10 members!) and the old 9-team ACC the way they were before the mid-1990s realignment, and we can preserve college basketball, the NCAA Tournament, and all other college sports while allowing football to be it's own thing and have superconferences for that sport.

5 months ago

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Gary McCullough

But doesn't a super-conference just send us back to the 1984 Supreme Court decision when the individual conferences wanted out from under the NCAA's iron fist? This looks to be a Tower of Babel, where the larger the edifice, the more likely that schisms develop. This seems a continual process of building up and breaking down with no reason the cycle will ever find a state of affairs that will satisfy anyone.

5 months ago

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Rodney Crain

Brett these commissioners have jobs, sure they are stupid jobs, but they deserve millions for creating hoavoc as much as anyone else. LOL

I am with you, it is just the rich getting richer.

Can you imagine college sports being ran like the NFL? Worst teams get the chance to draft the best talent. Or trade players? Screw NIL, its all for sale.

Otherwise if corporations are going to run things, is it just going to turn into Rollerball? The sponsors pick the rules, the game, the referee's.

Jonathan, JONATHAN, JONATHAN!!!

5 months ago

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Daniel Kennamore

Prediction of the next events:

- Next domino is Notre Dame joining the Big Ten (seen reports USC is helping recruit them behind the scenes). This brings them to 17 schools.

- Then they invite Washington & Oregon. Big Ten is then 19 schools.

- ACC invites WVU, TCU and possibly KU. WVU accepts nullifying their GOR. Clemson & Florida State bolt for the SEC. SEC at 18 teams.

- Big Ten finally invites KU to get to 20 schools.

- SEC grabs two from Okie State, TCU, UNC, Duke, Virginia or Baylor. They now have 20 teams.

- Remaining Big 12 & Pac 12 schools merge.

- New Super Big & Super SEC break off to form their own division.

5 months ago

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Len Shaffer

I hope to hell you're right, Daniel, because I'd be thrilled if we could join the Big X. But I think there's still the issue of us being tied to KSU.

5 months ago

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Rodney Crain

Daniel, please hold the fireworks away from the beer (or drink of choice).

You left a bunch of stuff out- Grassy Knoll, Planets are flat, and well you know...

Wash and OR are nice but they are not big media markets. No one is paying $100 million a year for those two states. I like track and field and the new OR track is world class, but that is very unlikey.

5 months ago

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Spencer Goff

So these reports about the "Pac 12 expanding," and then they list the targets, and basically every Big 12 school is on their hypothetical list...

How delusional are these idiots? The Pac 12 has zero leverage right now to pull any team away from any of the other four power five conferences. They made the least money with USC and UCLA in the conference, it is not about to get better; the idea that the rest of those teams are going to convince anybody to incur travel costs to add Washington State, Oregon State, or Cal while earning less TV money is laughable.

"Yeah, we'll take less money, and travel to you, piss off all our closest schools that have stuck it out with us, to go have Stanford and Cal tell us how much better they are than us and that we should be grateful they 'saved' us," said nobody, ever.

5 months ago

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Dirk Medema

The PAC12s expansion plans are necessary rhetoric while the next few teams get poached.

Read that Oregon and Washington are proposing and being told to wait until ND replies to the B1G. That leads me to believe the B1G will invite 1 more school if ND joins. Could KU be linked to ND?

5 months ago

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Rodney Crain

If the B1G number is $100m a year for media.  ND has to join them. They have to cash that check.  Plus ND is right in the middle, not counting the new West Coast swing, of the B10.  CO is not a bad pickup from the P12 as a layover between flights lol, kidding.  They would want one more team if ND jumps.  Stanford would be the pick, Top School, Grades, Sports teams (they win a NC in both female and male sports it seems every year).   Great alumni support, nearish to SF and deep pockets (MICH-SFord FB).   The upper NWest is B1G weather but those schools are not like ND, USC (OU-west), UCLA, and Stanford.  

Dirk there is no way and no reason for the B10 to add KU.  B10 is Football, than Football, basketball, and wrestling.  KU brings basketball and that is it.  No Media coverage, no other sports really, no recruiting.  

Thank God we do not have an inexperienced brand new conference commissioner trying to find a house and an office (Richardson, TX, near DFW, warm, and central to the B12 schools).   Oh wait we do, darn the wheel spins and we are left hoping for leftovers again.  

Paging Kevin Warren, Mr. Warren, there is a desperate caller from Kansas waiting on the phone for you.  It's JZ Mr. Warren.  

5 months ago

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Jeff Coffman

Universities haven't been booted yet, but they will be eventually; Vandy and Northwestern still don't drive value to these football conferences, and won't be allowed to stay...eventually.

Between Pac, B12, and ACC, the only football programs worth anything are: Clemson, Notre Dame, Oregon (Nike U), and maybe FSU. Big 12 has zero big boys left. Cal, AZ, UT, CO, and WA are all good, not great names.

ACC is in the drivers' seat because of their teams, and they could become Basketball U, by adding KU and others...PAC12 should not be in the negotiating power, west coast college football is not good.

If it was me, I would get those three Conferences, and pick and choose from all:
I would do one school from each state, and then go from there:
Notre Dame, Clemson, North Carolina, Florida State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, Colorado, Arizona, Baylor, BYU, Oregon, California, Washington to get to 13. Then you got to decide California Texas or Florida for the other 3-7 schools. Arizona and Washington are the two expendable from that list if you want to go heavier with the 3 big states.

5 months ago

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Robert Brock

Notre Dame is not joining the Big Ten. Until the twelfth of never...and that’s a long, long time.

4 months, 4 weeks ago

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Rodney Crain

We will see soon.

4 months, 4 weeks ago

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