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Without USC and UCLA, can the Pac-12 survive?

Commissioner George Kliavkoff is working to keep the league together, but the league remains very much in the woods

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UCLA offensive lineman Sean Rhyan, right, lines up against USC’s Nick Figueroa during game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Los Angeles.

UCLA offensive lineman Sean Rhyan, right, lines up against Southern California defensive lineman Nick Figueroa during game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Los Angeles. The Trojans’ and Bruins’ decision to jump ship for the Big Ten has left the league in flux.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press

When the Pac-12 hired George Kliavkoff to replace the unpopular Larry Scott as commissioner a year ago, the league expressed optimism about a more promising future.

It didn’t take long for Kliavkoff, who’s first day was July 1, 2021, to face his first big challenge.

Later that month, Texas and Oklahoma announced plans to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. 

For the Pac-12, there was an opportunity to poach the wounded Big 12 and add a handful of Texas schools. Instead, the league opted to remain at 12 members and not explore expansion options.

“This decision was made following extensive internal discussion and analysis,” the conference said in a statement, “and is based on the current competitive strength and cohesiveness of our 12 universities.”

That decision could come back to haunt the Pac-12. 

The Big 12 stabilized itself by aggressively adding four schools to its fold — BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and Central Florida.

Almost a year later, on June 30, USC and UCLA announced plans to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten in 2024.

And suddenly, it’s the Pac-12 that’s vulnerable. 

J. Brady McCullough of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Kliavkoff “was dealt a losing hand from his predecessor, Larry Scott, and, by not pursuing expansion with the Big 12 schools last summer, he ended up losing more. Kliavkoff’s mistake was putting his faith in USC to stay loyal during an era of college sports in which there is no such thing as loyalty.

“Surely he’s learned that lesson, which can only help him going forward. If Kliavkoff shows up to this year’s Pac-12 media day July 29 and the league still has 10 members publicly signed up for 2024 and beyond, I’ll call that an early victory.”

Indeed, this is when Kliavkoff earns his salary. 

Since the news that USC and UCLA would be fleeing the Pac-12, speculation, reports and rumors have swirled. Have reports of the Pac-12’s demise been greatly exaggerated?

When a blogger in Arizona reported that Pac-12 members Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State were meeting with the Big 12 last week, a high-ranking source at Utah called the report “absolutely false,” adding that the school “is tethered closely and strongly aligned with Pac-12 leadership and league members.”

At the same time, the Pac-12 issued a statement: “The Pac-12 board of directors met this morning and authorized the conference to immediately begin negotiations for its next media rights agreements.”

Last week, the Pac-12 entered into an exclusive 30-day negotiating period with ESPN and Fox.

The league also announced that it is exploring “all expansion options.”

But without the two programs from the Los Angeles market, can the Pac-12 survive financially and competitively? 

“The only way the Pac-12 can stay in the game is to get a good media rights deal and without the L.A. schools to drive it, that’s going to be very difficult,” former Pac-12 Network host Michael Yam told AZCentral.com. “The Big 12 idea might be the only real way to stay competitive and relevant. Yes, they can try and poach some schools from other conferences, but there aren’t a lot out there left that can really move that needle. The Mountain West schools certainly aren’t going to do that.” 

The state of the Pac-12

No doubt, the Pac-12 has been lagging far behind other Power Five conferences in terms of national relevance in recent years. No Pac-12 team has qualified for the College Football Playoff since 2016. 

In hindsight, maybe nobody should have been shocked by the power move by USC and UCLA. 

“Face it, USC had long since outgrown a decaying Pac-12 that had deteriorated into the home of late-night TV games, half-empty stadiums, and national irrelevance,” wrote LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke. “And face it, USC wasn’t going anywhere without UCLA. The athletic departments of both schools are packing up and moving from what had become an increasingly isolated West Coast sandlot to a national playing field where the lights are brighter, the crowds are bigger, and the buzz is better.

“Can you blame them? They just increased their market penetration from one corner of the country by adding a 1,500-mile swath from New Jersey to Nebraska. They just expanded their surroundings from a largely ignored 12-team league to a powerful 14-team group in some of the most visible markets in the country. New York or Phoenix? Chicago or Denver? Philadelphia or Portland?

“The choices here gave them no choice. One can understandably weep for the loss of such Pac-12 traditions as USC football fighting through the rain at Autzen or UCLA basketball playing through the madness at McKale, but those eyes must eventually dry to the new college sports reality.”

So where does the Pac-12 go from here?

The case for standing pat

After initial reports that Pac-12 members were exploring the possibility of joining the Big 12, things have quieted down.

Pac-12 insider John Canzano, based in Oregon, reported that a few Pac-12 athletic directors are “confident the remaining 10 members of the conference would stick together.”

Added Canzano: “It appears television will play kingmaker here in determining what happens, but the prevailing sentiment is that the Pac-12 members are currently unified.”

There’s not necessarily any rush for Pac-12 members to act, as there’s still two years before USC and UCLA leave. Even without the LA market, the Pac-12 still owns a strong footprint on the West Coast, which is valuable to ESPN. 

As a Pac-12 AD told Canzano, “I’m telling my coaches ‘don’t believe everything you read … We’re doing our best to stabilize the conference and make moves that make us sustainable.’”

How much revenue can the 10 remaining Pac-12 programs earn? How much do networks, like ESPN and Fox, value the Pac-12? And can the Pac-12 prevent more defections?

“Oregon, Stanford and Washington are viewed as the most attractive potential candidates as additions to the Big Ten or SEC, but none have been formally invited. Their respective media-revenue numbers don’t come close to penciling out without Notre Dame involved,” Canzano wrote. “Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State were initially thought to be poachable by the Big 12, but I’m now told by multiple Pac-12 sources that those ‘four corners’ universities wouldn’t leave unless the conference splintered apart first.

“That makes sense. If those four ditched, they’d be trading the TV markets in Seattle, Portland and the Bay Area for ones in Dallas, Houston and Orlando. The West Coast television market matters to ESPN, in particular. It already has the ACC and SEC under contract. From a television-strategy standpoint, the Pac-12’s foothold in the Pacific Time Zone is advantageous.”

How much does the absence of the LA teams hinder the rest of the Pac-12 in terms of recruiting? For years, Utah, Oregon and programs all over the country, have mined southern California for prized recruits. 

As a Pac-12 coach told The Athletic, “This doesn’t just feel like USC leaving the Pac-12 behind for more money. It really feels like they get to leave Oregon (the other real West Coast recruiting power) behind. I think this will hurt Oregon recruiting, and USC knows that.”

If the Pac-12 decides to stay together as presently constituted, Washington and Oregon “would likely demand a larger share of the revenue pot, while accepting a short-term contract, which would provide the flexibility to eventually leave,” according to the Denver Post.

Would uneven revenue sharing sit well with the rest of the Pac-12?

Mergers/loose partnerships

There’s been plenty of speculation about the Pac-12 and Big 12 merging. But it would be a marriage of convenience, given the major differences in geography and culture between the two leagues. But it’s a better alternative than becoming extinct. 

To survive, the Pac-12 might have to be creative moving forward. 

What about a “loose partnership” with the Atlantic Coast Conference? ESPN owns the TV rights to the ACC through 2036. But would it be lucrative enough to make it worthwhile? 

A Pac-12/ACC partnership might help both leagues and give ESPN exclusive rights to broadcast Pac-12 games on what’s now known as the ACC Network. The ACC and Pac-12 could stage an ACC vs. Pac-12 championship game in football and hold an in-season basketball tournament. 

More defections?

Will Utah, Colorado, Arizona State and Arizona decide to remain in the Pac-12 or bolt for the Big 12? What about Oregon, Stanford, Cal and Washington?

For Utah, it took decades to finally achieve Power Five status and joining the Pac-12 was a monumental victory. It appears the Utes will do everything in its power to keep the league intact.

Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 at the same time Utah joined the Pac-12. Do the Buffaloes really want an awkward reunion with the Big 12? 

“I do know this, though — that just sitting around thinking what could have been or looking longingly into the past is not going to help (the Buffs) in their current state,” former CU quarterback and current Fox Sports analyst Joel Klatt told the Denver Post. “They’re going to have to work really hard to map out and carve out a future that will allow them to return to a prominent place within the spot which we all know that they can get to.”

Arizona and Arizona State have been flirting with the Big 12 for years. Geographically, a move to the Big 12 could make sense for those schools.

Oregon and Washington would love to join the Big Ten with USC and UCLA, but the Big Ten haven’t issued any invitations. 

The Big Ten covets Notre Dame. But the Fighting Irish are in a position of strength and is expected to remain as an independent in football. 

Thamel reported that Notre Dame’s preferred Pac-12 partner would be Stanford, not Oregon or Washington. 

“Such a pairing would provide the Irish with another traditional rival while appeasing USC and UCLA, who likely prefer not to throw their West Coast recruiting rivals a lucrative lifeline,” according to the Seattle Times. “Plus, perhaps more important: Notre Dame could wait years to make such a move, if it does so at all. Which all makes an imminent Big Ten invite increasingly unlikely. And yet, the Huskies still might need a place to play.”


The Pac-12 could expand, but there aren’t many viable options. It could raid the Mountain West with programs like Boise State, San Diego State, SMU, UNLV or Fresno State. But none of those schools would enhance the Pac-12 coffers significantly. 

“The Pac-12 may want to look at dividing along football and basketball-only members,” according to The Athletic. “I think Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s basketball only. And then explore SDSU, Fresno, Boise and UNLV as football only.” 

And should the Pac-12 break up, with certain schools leaving for the Big 12, the remaining programs could end up in the Mountain West. 

So what’s the Pac-12’s fate? 

In the coming weeks, we’ll see if Kliavkoff can keep the conference together. 


UCLA running back Zach Charbonnet (24) runs the ball in for a touch down as Southern California defensive lineman Jacob Lichtenstein (97) tries to stop him during game Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Los Angeles.

Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press