JOHN MARSHALL /AP Sports Editor
The conference’s realignment in college sports has been ongoing since 1984, when the Supreme Court struck down the NCAA’s national television contract for football.
Conference juggling has had its ups and downs over the years, from small schools moving to larger leagues to powerhouse programs moving to other major conferences.
The latest move, with Southern California and UCLA 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, giving schools and conferences more power.
“You might think it’s more seismic because it involves richer schools – and it arguably is – but it’s also seismic because the foundations of the system, the foundations of the system, are being challenged. at a time when the financial structure is exploding,” Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College, said on Friday. “It may have bigger ramifications, but it’s an ongoing process.”
USC and UCLA’s decisions to join the Big Ten in 2024 come about a year after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.
While surprising even to Pac-12 officials, Thursday’s announcement gives Los Angeles schools stability and visibility in a changing college sports landscape.
“It’s huge for our student-athletes, just from a national exposure perspective,” UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said. “They are going to compete at the highest level in a big elite conference in different time zones. UCLA is still national, but now we have the opportunity for student-athletes to showcase their talent across the country. That’s exciting.”
For all other benefits, the bottom line of 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 fiscal year 2021. The Big Ten tried to keep up and had a distribution per school of 46.1 million dollars last year.
The Pac-12 had the lowest payout count among Power Five schools, paying its member institutions $19.8 million in 2021.
At its core, it’s all about the TV.
The SEC has reached a $3 billion deal with ESPN set to begin in 2024 and the Big Ten are currently negotiating a massive media rights deal. The Pac-12 has floundered when it comes to television as the conference network has struggled to gain a foothold with many of its games played late at night.
With running costs for college athletic programs rising in recent years, exacerbated by the pandemic, moving to an even larger conference provides more financial stability. For the Big Ten, the addition of 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 when Maryland got into the Big Ten and there was all kinds of arguments about it, it was academics and it was this and that, but ultimately it was a question of money. I think it’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 the leagues scrambling to keep up.
The hierarchy could stratify even more if the SEC and the Big Ten continue to grow, which could be the next step.
The future power structure could consist of two, possibly three mega conferences of up to 20 schools at the top, with the Power Five joining the Group of Five conferences at the lower level but still above the football championship subdivision .
More schools in the Pac-12 and Big 12, as well as the ACC, may seek to lock down for more stability.
Conferences losing members will likely face two options: combine with another league to form their own mega conference or expand current membership. The Pac-12 plans to go the expansion route, releasing a statement on Friday saying it is exploring all options for expansion.
“You have costs exploding on one side and your revenue streams being decimated, which is a huge pressure,” Zimbalist said. “On the other hand, what are you doing?” Well, something quite drastic, I think, is going to have to happen.
Uncertainty is the only thing certain at this point.