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A seismic wave continues to shake the college athletics landscape after news broke of USC’s and UCLA’s clandestine desire to join the Big Ten starting in 2024. Jon Wilner, who reports for several Pac-12 markets, broke the news early Thursday morning. By the end of the day, the Big Ten had issued a statement welcoming the two universities after a unanimous vote from the conference’s chancellors and presidents.
“The unanimous vote today signifies the deep respect and welcoming culture our entire conference has for the University of Southern California, under the leadership of President Carol Folt, and the University of California, Los Angeles, under the leadership of Chancellor Gene Block,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren wrote.
The imminent departure of the Los Angeles’ schools leaves the Pac-12 and Arizona State in uncharted and uncertain territory. Two of the most storied programs in the Pac-12 will play their final conference games this season, putting pressure on the conference and its remaining members to sort out their future in short order.
“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,” the Pac-12 said in a statement. “The Pac-12 is home to many of the world’s best universities, athletic programs and alumni, representing one of the most dynamic regions in the United States. We’ve long been known as the Conference of Champions, and we’re unwavering in our commitment to extend that title.”
Public assurances aside, the so-called Conference of Champions is in danger of crumbling. Brett McMurphy, a college football insider for Action Network, reported Thursday evening that the Big 12 could be interested in poaching some of the other remaining schools in the Pac-12, including Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah. There have also been reports that the Big Ten may not be finished poaching Pac-12 schools, with Oregon, Washington, Stanford and even potentially Cal in its crosshairs.
The loss of the LA schools could very well signal the end of a conference whose history dates to 1915. But what’s driving this fundamental transformation of college sports? As usual, the answer is money.
“College athletics is changing, and UCLA has always led in times of change,” UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond wrote to ESPN. “For the sake of our student-athletes, and for preserving the legacy of Bruin excellence, we cannot afford to stand still.”
Most recently, college athletics have undergone a remodel with the adoption and implementation of name, image and likeness deals for student-athletes in June 2021. Some schools have embraced the move. Others, including ASU, have criticized the move as a drain on already-depleted athletic department coffers.
“We’re not going to be able to get in an arms race with the new free agency and the new pay-for-play (NIL) structure that is now very prevalent,” ASU AD Ray Anderson told Arizona Sports 98.7 FM in February. “We’re going to have to differentiate ourselves by training and developing at a superior level for those who aspire to go to the professional ranks. We’re going to have to adjust our model because the college model has changed.”
In a broader revenue view, television deals are wildly beneficial to universities that boast top-tier athletic programs, specifically football and basketball programs. The Pac-12’s television rights expire after this season, which is exactly why USC and UCLA are able to leave the conference on such short notice without a massive financial penalty. Their departure will be the Big Ten’s gain when it adds the massive LA market — the nation’s second largest — to its ever growing stable.
It’s no secret that the Pac-12’s media rights revenue and overall revenue have paled in comparison to the major conferences such as the SEC and Big Ten. UCLA and USC are clearly seeking a larger piece of pie.
Yet while USC and UCLA claim that the move is in the best interest of the schools and their student-athletes, that’s not entirely true. Just about every athletic program rings that hollow bell, but many USC and UCLA student-athletes chose to attend their respective schools specifically so that relatives and friends could attend their games. That may still happen for home games, but the idea of flying to Rutgers, Maryland or even the Midwest-based Big Ten schools will be cost prohibitive to many families, while a trip to many Pac-12 locations was feasible by car, and that’s true for all sports, not just major revenue sports such as football and men’s basketball.
What’s to be done to accommodate families now left unable to afford travel to away games? Does UCLA’s and USC’s leadership even care about that aspect?
Families are just a part of the wreckage. The student-athletes will have to endure an even more grueling test with road games on the opposite coast. Most schools have academic staffs that help teams sort through these challenges, but UCLA and USC are thousands of miles and two or three time zones away from their new conference opponents. Those challenges cannot be ignored.
Think about the issues that this change presents for a sport like softball. Back-to-back road series could have relatively young athletes traveling to Michigan and Ohio on consecutive weekends. The toll that excessive travel takes on these athletes’ bodies and minds cannot be dismissed.
It’s one thing for UCLA and USC to switch conferences. It’s another issue entirely for those same universities to issue statements suggesting that this somehow benefits their athletes. Playing games at Maryland isn’t beneficial in any way other than the school’s bottom line, and possibly in expanding the school’s recruiting footprint.
Whither the Pac?
While the LA schools and the Big Ten have already made their decision, it’s unclear what’s next for the remaining members of the Pac-12. The conference’s statement noted that the 10 remaining university presidents and chancellors have authorized the conference to explore all of its options with regard to expansion, but it remains to be seen what this actually entails. Fans could see the addition of two schools in an attempt to replace the Los Angeles schools, but there have also been reports of a Pac-12 and Big 12 merge.
As it stands, the Pac-12 is made up of 10 rather lackluster programs in terms of revenue sports. Stanford baseball, Oregon football and Arizona basketball are the outliers in the sense that those three programs are consistently among the best in their respective sports. If it weren’t for those three teams, the Pac-12 would have little to nothing to offer. The Phoenix, Seattle and Denver media markets still matter, but as the conference begins television rights negotiations, it is clearly negotiating from a weakened position after the loss of Los Angeles.
What becomes of the Pac-12 if two more schools depart? What if those next schools to leave are Oregon and Washington?
Sources within the athletic department told PHNX Sports that it is too soon to speculate on what comes next for ASU, but it’s worth noting that everything is on the table for the Sun Devils. University president Dr. Michael Crow and athletic director Ray Anderson will pursue whatever they feel is the best option for the university.
It’s fair to assume that Anderson and Crow will lean toward a decision that offers the most money for Arizona State. Whatever their decision, the Pac-12 as we have known it is dead, and ASU’s prospects for fully recovering from this loss do not look promising.
College sports fans are witnessing changes in collegiate athletics that have never seen before. Athletes are signing NIL deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars before they turn 20, and schools on the West Coast are jumping ship to play conference opponents a couple thousand miles away.
In this sea of cataclysmic change, nobody knows what’s coming next.