It was a year ago this Summer that the ACC, the Big Ten, and the Pac-12 announced a three-conference alliance. The point of it was to create a unified voting block to fend off the SEC and ESPN shoving their playoff expansion plans down the throat of college football. Newly named Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff could not have imagined at that time, that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren would be poaching his teams just a year later, and stabbing Kliavkoff where it hurts; in the pocketbook. Is it the beginning of the end for the “Conference of Champions?” Are we preparing to say goodbye to the Pac-12?
Goodbye To The Pac-12?
UCLA made it official with its statement Thursday night from athletic director Martin Jarmond and chancellor Gene Block. They will be going to the Big 10 beginning in the 2024-25 academic year. USC will be joining them at the same time.
Oklahoma and Texas leaving the Big 12 for the SEC was huge news. Two blueblood football programs going to the monster of all athletic conferences caused ripple effects throughout college football. This, however, is much more formative. The Pac-12 is not just losing two of the most successful athletic programs in the country, (UCLA is #2 in the country in NCAA titles. USC is #3). But it is losing the #2 television market in the country. That is something that none of the other conference realignments can even measure up to. It also ends college football being a regional product, which has been its driving force for a hundred years.
This likely means the untimely death of the Pac-12 Network. It is entirely possible that the beleaguered regional broadcast entity was never going to see 2024 anyway, but this gives that certainty. With no L.A. TV market, there is nothing to sell to the advertisers.
Years Of Missteps
This also brings an ignominious end to the Larry Scott era of the Pac-12. As commissioner for a decade, Scott was always putting on airs of being an innovator. But behind the scenes, his Pac-12 Network never produced anywhere near the revenue he had committed to the schools. And with a series of dubious management decisions, he had the conference in financial trouble and going to investment firms across the country looking for a $750 million handout. While he annually said the conference was preparing for the future with media cord-cutters, his compatriots at the other conferences were racking up record figures in new TV deals.
Kliavkoff has only been at the helm a year, but he has already been dealt a blow that could be the death knell for the conference. It is widely sourced that UCLA and USC are not the only teams that would bolt from the Pac-12. Various sources have told us that Washington, Oregon, Stanford, and Cal could also uproot. If true, that would give the Big 10 an addition of the Seattle, Portland-area, and San Francisco media markets in addition to Los Angeles. That would be a coup unlike we have seen in any of the other conference shake-ups.
It would also leave the Pac-12 with six schools, desperately searching for additions, with no ability to land anything close to what it lost.
Our sources told us Thursday afternoon that Kliavkoff had no warning this was coming until mid-morning that day. He all but said in a statement issued to the media Thursday night. “While we are extremely surprised and disappointed by the news coming out of UCLA and USC today, we have a long and storied history in athletics, academics, and leadership in supporting student-athletes that we’re confident will continue to thrive and grow into the future.” He went on to talk about the bright future of the conference going forward as if there were anything else he could say.
Jarmond and Block issued their joint statement about a half-hour earlier. In it, they said, “For the past century, decisions about UCLA Athletics have always been guided by what is best for our student-athletes, first and foremost, and our fans. Our storied athletics program, based in one of the biggest media markets in the nation, has always had unique opportunities and faced unique challenges.”
They added, “In recent years, however, seismic changes in collegiate athletics have made us evaluate how best to support our student-athletes as we move forward. After careful consideration and thoughtful deliberation, UCLA has decided to leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big Ten Conference at the start of the 2024–25 season.”
Follow The Money
The statement went on to talk about new challenges in a changing landscape and taking care of student-athletes. But the motivation is clear. Money. Thanks to a superior media rights contract, the Big Ten handed out a total of $680 million dollars to its member schools last year. The Pac-12 allocated $344 million. With a new TV deal on the horizon, the Big 10 is expected to see upwards of $1 billion per year. Adding the Los Angeles media market will help it get there.
UCLA’s athletic department is currently carrying a budget deficit north of $100 million. USC is a private school so does not disclose all budgetary figures. But all conference schools have taken a hit in recent years. Coaching buyouts, playing in empty stadiums during Covid, reduced TV contracts for truncated schedules, and facilities enhancements have created financial hardships. UCLA must still get approval from the University of California Board of Regents. A simple presentation that shows that joining the Big Ten’s financial juggernaut is the only way out of its financial morass is going to get them the stamp of approval they need.
Jarmond’s statement seems to indicate the move is for all sports, though it does not come right out and say that. There had been speculation that it would be basketball and football only. Sending non-revenue sports to New Jersey for a three-game weekend softball series against Rutgers is sure to cut into the newly found pot of gold.
USC had not issued an official statement at the time of this writing. But we have been told by two reliable sources that Lincoln Riley was not informed this was a potential future for the Trojans when he was hired by athletic Mike Bohn back in late November 2021.
If more teams leave the conference, and all indications are that it will happen, the future of the Pac-12 is murky. And with that comes some of the unintended consequences that plague every change in college sports over the last few years. If there is no Pac-12/Big Ten alignment anymore, what becomes of the glorious New Year’s afternoons at the Rose Bowl? No Big Ten-Mountain West showdown for the Rose Bowl is going to cut it. The game would likely just become a throw-in like the rest of the bowl games that will eventually make up the expanded playoff system unless a new conference tie-in agreement is done quickly.
Watch Your Back, ACC
This also leaves the ACC vulnerable. Commissioner Jim Phillips has been slow to embrace expansion. Just this week, after the Pac-12 and Mountain West had already done so, the ACC eliminated divisional play starting next year so that the top two teams overall will play for the conference title.
But while it is the job of a commissioner to look out for his or her conference, it is the duty of the athletic directors and administrators to look out for their own schools. With the college football world inching closer to an NFL = AFC/NFC, with the Big 10 and SEC being the players, some ACC schools are keeping their eyes open for invitations to the wealthier dance. The ACC TV contract with ESPN pays $155 million per year for the next dozen years, for football and basketball. Of course, there are also sources of revenue, but that is a lot of stretching over 14 schools.
Logic says Clemson, Miami, and Florida State to start with are sending up a bat signal to the SEC. That leaves others for what Warren likes to call a “like-minded” fit, i.e. academics, for the Big Ten.
Change And Drama
It was a year ago, July 1st, 2021, when NIL became legal in college sports and shook up the sports world. In the category of nothing stays the same for very long, Thursday’s news from the Pac-12 is likely to have just as big of an impact on the college sports landscape for years to come.
If this is not enough intrigue for you, the schools that kept a secret from Kliavkoff, and the commissioner will be getting together for Pac-12 Media Day in Los Angeles in four weeks.