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Death by a thousand realignments
If we’re talking #rings, the Pac-12 is the most successful conference in the history of college sports, which will soon be *was.
They have, which will soon be *had, the three schools with the most NCAA team championships in history, those being Stanford, UCLA, and USC.
Those last two have been on the way out for a while now, but they’re officially heading for greener (read: richer) pastures in the Big Ten come 2024.
As the Pac-12’s two most powerful members, their pivot to the heartland signaled big trouble for the conference as a whole.
That trouble has arrived. The pasture is mostly red at this point, picked over by those unfailingly mild-mannered Midwestern vultures:
Not a pretty picture. Four teams does not a conference make, and so we throw some dirt on the Pac-4’s grave and pay our respects to what once was.
Many think we’re headed for a world in which the expanding College Football Playoff — which, crucially, is not under the NCAA — subsumes the existing system of conferences and picks off all the best schools to create something of a region-agnostic Champions League.
Georgia plays Clemson plays USC plays Ohio State. That sort of thing.
Where exactly you’d cut things off is not totally clear — would a school like Arkansas make the cut? Utah? Oklahoma State? — but it doesn’t take much imagination to see the basic contours of such a system.
Maybe you’d make a couple regionally sensible divisions to try and get the travel under control, but that’s the broad vision.
Speaking of: everyone was right to point out that when USC and UCLA abandoned ship, it would create all kinds of travel nightmares for college athletes going well beyond the football team.
But money talks, and everybody’s listening.
So now the whole volleyball team has to fly from L.A. to Michigan too, and there are six more of those schools making regular cross-country journeys now, with each of Arizona, ASU, Colorado, Utah, Oregon, and Washington jumping overboard in quick succession.
The latter two are joining their bigger-name buddies in the Big Ten, which will soon confusingly have 18 universities within its ranks.
The Big 12 is losing its top two programs — Texas and Oklahoma — to the mega-conference above, but they’ll still have 16 teams when all the dust settles in 2024, so at least they’re closer to their named number.
What that all says to me is that we’re not really looking at conference realignment so much as conference consolidation.
The Power Five is down to a Power Four, and if the 15-member ACC gets raided next… well, then there were Three.
The best football schools are chasing the money, and the Big Ten in particular has a lot of it, thanks to a crazy $8 billion media rights deal signed last year. That sits atop the whole sport, per this table from Sports Business Journal:
The table above is from August 2022, so you also see a couple deals that have already expired, but I’m using an older one on purpose to show how much they jumped.
The SEC deal jumped a ton too, but it’s the Big Ten deal that carries the day here.
The annual payouts multiplied by six. Six! That’s like, five more than one!
The SEC deal actually shot up more, as you can well see. 13x ain’t bad.
But the fact that all those multipliers still situated the SEC a solid $300M below the Big Ten — despite by most accounts being better at football, the sport driving all this spending — should explain what’s been happening.
USC, UCLA, and now Oregon and Washington — all of whom have been far more relevant in football in recent years than, I would argue, at least half of the Big Ten’s existing programs — are chasing money.
More money than they were going to get from the Pac-12.
Once USC and UCLA dipped, it became clear that the Pac-12 would be unable to negotiate anything even remotely competitive with anyone but the ACC, who, wouldn’t you know it, seems to be the conference pirates’ next target.
Who’s On 1st?
If you’re confused as to who’s where anymore, you’re not alone. This is a mess, and I don’t think it stops here.
I loved this passage from the AP’s Ralph D. Russo this week:
“The ACC’s contractual obligations seem to be the only thing keeping it from being raided. If deals don’t hold, everything about the trajectory of college sports over the past decade points toward the SEC and Big Ten stripping the most valuable parts of the ACC and the Big 12 picking through the leftovers.
But why stop there?
At what point do networks decide they’re done paying for Purdue and Indiana to get Ohio State and Michigan in the Big Ten? When do Georgia and Alabama look across the table during an SEC meeting at Missouri and Mississippi State and ask, ‘What would you say you do here?’”
They don’t have a great answer. And I’m from Missouri, so I can say that.
We can be frustrated by how the haves are clumping and leaving all the have-nots behind. I am. It dampens and may eventually eliminate some of the iconic rivalries that lend college sports their history, including but by no means limited to football.
Here in this new era, though, this is where we’re headed.
Vultures keep circling as long as there’s somebody limping, and you might be better off hoping they just come for your squad next.
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