Are super conferences inevitable? Where will Utah end up when realignment music stops?
Will the Utes remain in the depleted Pac-12? Or will they move to the Big Ten or the Big 12?
About 24 hours after the shockwaves from reports about USC and UCLA ditching the Pac-12 Conference for greener (as in money) pastures of the Big Ten, there are still more questions than answers when it comes to the future of college athletics.
The only real consensus among those covering, or involved in, this latest round of realignment is, it’s not over yet.
That could be good news, or unsettling news, for programs like Utah, which joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
Just a couple weeks ago, the school amended coach Kyle Whittingham’s contract, guaranteeing him more money as part of his contract that runs through 2027.
Where is that money going to come from now? The Pac-12, which is negotiating a new media rights deal, is, of course, in a much weaker position than it was before Thursday with the departure of the two Los Angeles schools.
The Pac-12 issued a statement Friday: “The Pac-12 Board of Directors met this morning and authorized the conference to explore all expansion options. The 10 university presidents and chancellors remain committed to a shared mission of academic and athletic excellence on behalf of our student-athletes.”
Some are writing the Pac-12’s obituary. But as we learned from the Big 12 after it lost Texas and Oklahoma to the Southeastern Conference a year ago, that might be premature.
Or maybe not.
What is going to happen to Utah and the remaining Pac-12 schools, Washington, Oregon, Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado?
“The prevailing theory is that Oregon and Washington would love to tailgate the Los Angeles schools and follow them into the Big Ten. But I’m not convinced either university brings enough value to make splitting the Fox television revenue with two additional partners a no-brainer,” wrote Pac-12 insider John Canzano, who’s based in Portland. “Be sure, the end of the Pac-12 as we know it, is about television money.
“Fox coveted the Los Angeles television market and aimed to buy it by preying on the biggest vulnerability of the Pac-12 — its lousy TV deal. The Pac-12’s woeful media rights deal, negotiated by former commissioner Larry Scott, continues to haunt the conference. In the last fiscal year, every Pac-12 member received $21 million less in distributions than Big Ten universities did. That difference will swell to more than $50 million a year, per university, by 2024.”
Jon Wilner, author of the Pac-12 Hotline, broke the story about USC and UCLA Thursday. Among the many nuggets he provided: “Reminder that Big Ten expansion in ’22 was entirely driven by Fox, just as SEC expansion in ’21 was entirely driven by ESPN. They are the grandmasters calling the shots behind the scenes.”
It’s no secret that the Pac-12 has been in a slump for quite some time, on and off the field. Its relevance on a national level has been diminished. The league hasn’t had a team in the College Football Playoff since 2016. Meanwhile, USC and UCLA have noticed how the Big Ten and the SEC have increased their coffers considerably.
“Both Pac-12 schools — motivated by the ‘drastic difference’ in the league’s media rights revenue — initially approached the Big Ten about joining, sources said,” wrote Brett McMurphy of actionnetwork.com. “Negotiations became serious in the past few months, a source said. While a number of logistics are still to be determined, USC and UCLA would double their media rights revenue in the Big Ten compared to the Pac-12. The Big Ten is currently negotiating its new media rights deal, but the addition of the Los Angeles market would increase those ‘substantially,’ a source said. Some estimates have the Big Ten’s new deal worth $100 million annually per school.”
The gap between the Big Ten/SEC and the other Power Five leagues have widened. For now, it appears that we have a Power Two.
Some, like The Athletic’s Andy Staples, believes that 20-team super conferences might be inevitable.
“At this point, nothing sounds crazy. In fact, the only thing that sounds impossible is college football’s structure bearing any semblance in 2030 to the sport at the turn of the century. Texas and Oklahoma deciding last year to move to the SEC shook the ground. USC and UCLA deciding to move to the Big Ten opened the hole through the center of the earth. There is no bottom. Anything you can imagine feels possible at this point,” Staples wrote. “That includes college football’s version of a super league. Last year, when international soccer clubs actually tried to form such a league and after Texas and Oklahoma announced their intentions, I took cracks at figuring out which programs would populate a hypothetical college football super league. But that concept doesn’t feel so hypothetical now.”
What might those super conferences look like, if they expand to 20 programs?
For the Big Ten, Staples only added schools that are members of the Association of American Universities. Utah is an AAU school, and the Utes are included in Staples’ Big Ten super league, along with other newcomers — USC, UCLA, Oregon, Washington and Notre Dame.
The Big 12, which added four new members, including BYU, last year, is expected to be proactive in this round of realignment as well.
“The Big 12, with newly named commissioner Brett Yormark, plans to go on the offensive and seek more new members, sources said,” McMurphy wrote. “The Big 12 could add Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado along with new members BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF to get to 16 teams after OU and Texas leave for the SEC, a source said.
“Other Big 12 sources prefer Washington and Oregon as part of the Big 12. ‘The Big 12 has never been aggressive (in conference realignment), but they should contact those four Pac-12 schools and tell them ‘come on board because there’s nothing left’ in the Pac-12,’ a source said. Added another source: ‘We’re not sitting back this time. That killed us in the past. We’re looking to strengthen our conference.’ There is some hope among Pac-12 sources that the league will add schools from the Big 12 or maybe even some type of merger between the leagues. Whatever happens, one source summed up the future of conference realignment best: ‘Buckle up, because this is going to be one helluva ride.’”
The Pac-12 is trying to figure out how to proceed from here after being blindsided by USC and UCLA.
According to ESPN’s Pete Thamel, the Pac-12 presidents and athletic directors had an emergency call Thursday night. “Moving forward, the league is prioritizing who is ‘in’ and can be counted on to recalibrate the league, which is on the cusp of a TV negotiation,” Thamel wrote.
“In the next 72 hours, the primary focus of the Pac-12 has to be retaining Oregon/Washington and keeping the Big 12 from poaching Utah/Colorado and ASU/Arizona,” Canzano wrote. “Beyond that, it needs to get proactive. Would ESPN — or another media partner — swoop in with a lucrative media deal aimed at holding what’s left of the Pac-12 together? ESPN needs programming in the western part of the country. The Pac-12 needs an immediate infusion of cash to sell its current members on sticking around. Along those lines, I wonder if some sort of Pac-12/Big-12 merger might materialize, creating a third super conference with 20+ teams and multiple time zones for ESPN. It feels like the most viable path to relevancy.”