Conference realignment is like forecasting the weather or flights on Delta. It can change quickly.
That’s why in writing about it, it’s good practice to avoid making predictions. You can quickly get bitten in the derriere.
That’s what happened to me 12 years ago when I projected BYU would be invited to the Big 12, going off a conversation that seemed solid but turned a little sour. I was guilty as charged and deserved the heat, which I swallowed with a Diet Coke and a big dose of humility.
It matters not that last September that Big 12 invite finally came. At the time, in real-time, the opinion was premature and wrong.
It is with this backdrop that my bosses asked that I chime in on all this conference shuffling, although the process is far from over as conference commissioners, presidents, chancellors and athletic directors are going into executive sessions to discuss their athletic futures.
Since the bombshell dropped earlier this month that USC and UCLA would jump the Pac-12 and go to the Big Ten, speculation has run rampant across the land.
One of the points Greg Sankey clearly wanted to make today is that the SEC is *already* a superconference.— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) July 18, 2022
In Pac-12 territory, there are several media voices that frequently surface with “sources” and updates. The first is Jon Wilner, who broke the story and is a dependable Pac-12 media veteran. He is lucky enough to have an open text line to high-ranking folks at either Cal or Stanford — or both. The second is John Canzano of the Pacific Northwest, a columnist who writes the “Bald Faced Truth” newsletter out of Oregon.
Nationally, you have CBS Sports college sports columnist Dennis Dodd and ESPN’s Pete Thamel, who I consider experts with conduits to many collegiate and TV industry leaders.
These guys, among a few other voices, are worth following with the caveat that the real folks who know what is going on are the presidents and commissioners of the conferences.
Even then, they can be left out in the cold or lied to, as has been my experience following this stuff the past four decades.
Now, a few takes.
In the initial phase of this latest round of expansion talks, rumors were flying that some Pac-12 schools approached the Big 12, since half that league’s value just went up in smoke. What is interesting is within a week both Wilner and Canzano sources used them to put out the word that the Pac-12 was moving forward with “solidarity” during a 30-day window of negotiations with ESPN to determine what media rights would be worth. Some schools even sent out official statements to this effect.
In the meantime, the new incoming commissioner of the Big 12, Brett Yormark, spoke at the league’s media days, telling reporters the league was “open for business.” In a subsequent one-on-one with The Athletic, he told Max Olson he was entering an arena that excites his deal-making spirit.
“My preference is to disrupt and not be disrupted,” said Yormark. “And if you don’t disrupt, you will get disrupted. So there’s a balancing act there. I’m excited. … I want to break boundaries. I’ve done that before. I want to do that here. And I think the time is right.”
That brings us to the fate of the Pac-12. Stand pat? Expand with San Diego State and somebody like Fresno State? Look for a merger with the Big 12 or ACC?
Oregon and Washington are the prize jewels remaining in the Pac-12 for somebody to pluck. But as Dodd says, the Big Ten isn’t rushing out to get them.
“That focuses attention back on Oregon and Washington, the two biggest ‘available’ pieces,” writes Dodd. “The reason they’re not already atop the Big 12 list is because they believe they have options centered around the Big Ten. One problem? Multiple sources tell CBS Sports neither the Ducks nor Huskies nor the pair bring enough value to the Big Ten (in the $80 million to $100 million range per year).
“Even if the Big Ten is not open for business, why would Oregon or Washington sign a grant of rights with the Pac-12 knowing the conference is vulnerable? That’s how the Pac-12 got in this predicament: Former commissioner Larry Scott signed a 12-year deal in 2012 that appeared lucrative at the time but locked the conference into below-market valuation.”
The Pac-12 is apparently making its first move with the ESPN negotiations. But don’t sell the talks with the ACC short. It may be more than a scheduling agreement for a championship game between the two league champions in Las Vegas, as was rumored last week.
With the SEC and Big Ten making a huge power play, three remaining P5 conferences are left fighting for relevancy. A merger makes the most sense, although sharing the pieces of the pie with so many will cut into the profitability for all if the merged leagues get into the 18-to-24-team realm.
The problem with a Pac-12 merger with the ACC is the grant of rights signed by the ACC that carries into the next decade. Pete Thamel explains how big of a league hurdle this is for the ACC in this piece.
Opines Thamel, “By extending their grant of rights in 2016, ACC schools did what the legal phrase says: They granted the rights to all their home games to the ACC until the league’s television contract with ESPN expires in 2036. After granting them, schools are finding complications in the legal quagmire of the exploration of getting them back.”
The cleaner move in my opinion would be a merger with the Big 12, which the league offered to the Pac-12 in 2021 only to be turned down. To do that, Yormark would need to be a disrupter. He’d need to force the Pac-12 to commit. His strategy would either be to approach the inclusion of all teams, or weed out some of the nonproducers and take the “value” entities.
As esteemed as UCLA is in the Los Angeles TV market, the truth is the Bruins athletic department is running a $100 million deficit. Stanford doesn’t put fans in the stands, Cal is struggling and Oregon State is, well, at the league’s bottom in most metrics.
UCLA’s “secret” negotiations to leave sister school UC Berkeley for the Big Ten could get pretty politically ugly. Canzano said on Monday UCLA might have to give some of its Big Ten money to Cal. Ouch.
Yormark might just do what many have rumored he will do and force everything by making an SEC-Big Ten type raid and invite the four corners (Utah, Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State).
Interesting that the University of Colorado Board of Regents called an unscheduled executive session Friday to discuss the Pac-12 contract, according to Jason Scheer of Wildcat Authority (University of Arizona). He has 8,500 followers on Twitter.
Of course, this is assuming these Pac-12 schools would view Big 12 expansion as the answer. While both payouts have been similar per team, the Big 12’s projected payouts with last year’s adding of UCF, BYU, Cincinnati and Houston would be $10 to 15 million more than Pac-12 leftovers, according to one study by Jeff Fuller of Alabama.
As expected, there’s a lot of banter back and forth between BYU and Utah fans about conference realignment, who is worthy, who is not, who is wanted, who should be left out, what brand is more valuable and if there was a merger between the Big 12 and Pac-12, what it should be called.
Andy Staples of The Atlantic said he was puzzled at these perception issues in a mailbag column.
“That vibe confuses me as well,” wrote Staples. “The lineup the Big 12 expects to have after Oklahoma and Texas leaves feels like a more fun, more entertaining league than the lineup the Pac-12 (Pac-10 again?) would have, assuming no other changes besides USC and UCLA leaving. Both leagues have programs (Oregon and Washington/Oklahoma State, Baylor, Cincinnati, UCF) that seem capable of regularly being top-10 caliber with the right leadership. But the Big 12 feels as if it has a deeper middle. BYU, Iowa State, Houston, Kansas State, TCU and Texas Tech all feel capable of putting high-quality teams on the field on a regular basis.”
While you totally understand the rivalry banter, these are dire times for a lot of conferences and football programs. The Big Ten and SEC have taken the fruit of the tree and hogged it all. ESPN and Fox are now in control of college athletics and someday it could lead to more of an NFL model with a commissioner in charge, governed by a board of directors comprised of regional commissioners.
One thing is certain, this game we love will never be the same after the changes that started with NIL, the transfer portal and the most recent conference changes.
Our nation’s most esteemed institutions of learning have bowed to the power of the coin.