Pac-12 conference destroyed, realignment, feature, Big Ten takes Oregon and Washington, super league


The very fabric of college football is on the brink of collapse, with some of the largest steps towards a radical reshaping of how the game is played and consumed taken over the past week.

And, as always with the USA’s second-most watched competition, it comes down to money.

It begins at the top level of the sport, the Football Bowl Subdivision, where 133 schools with an enormous range of assets compete.

Of course, some of them simply can’t compete. Theoretically the smallest, poorest schools, like Louisiana Monroe in the rural south, and the largest, like perennial contenders and NFL factories Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State, are all challenging for the same championship each season.

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But they’re not. The very structure of the FBS, where teams are separated into conferences (leagues ranging in size from nine to 14 teams, typically grouping schools near each other to ensure local rivalries are played), means some teams are naturally advantaged – financially, and in terms of prestige and expectations.

If you’re not in the Power Five, the most-watched and typically successful conferences, you’re rarely even getting a shot at the national championship (even if you go undefeated). Particularly because you get way more money each year from your TV deal, as they’re negotiated by each conference with the networks.

The problem is the gaps keep growing between the haves and have-nots. The SEC, based in the southeast of the USA, and the Big Ten, centred in the mid-west, already make plenty more cash than their rival conferences – and those leads are expected to grow.

In 2021, powerhouses Oklahoma and Texas announced they’d be leaving the Big 12 conference (based in and around their states) and heading to the SEC. It was a mammoth shift, from power conference to even more powerful conference, and suggested a consolidation of the sport was on the cards.

The famous Texas-Oklahoma rivalry game will in future be played in the SEC. (Photo by Tim Warner/.)Source: .

After all, the biggest games of the year are when the biggest brands face off – and some of them simply don’t play each other very often, because they’re in different conferences. A majority of a team’s schedule is in conference play, so Alabama (in the SEC) and Texas (in the Big 12) would only play each other if they happened to match up in an end-of-season bowl or playoff game, or if they were daring enough to play each other in out-of-conference play. (Teams typically play one big-name school in out-of-conference play, not wanting to risk too many losses.)

But in the new SEC, Alabama and Texas should face off every two years at worst; that means more TV viewers, more money on the next broadcast deal, and a continued growth of the gap between the haves and have nots.

Last year, it was the Big Ten who struck, poaching Los Angeles-based schools USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 (based on the west coast).

This was, in many ways, an even bigger shock than the Oklahoma and Texas move. At least their states are near the south-east of the country (though the idea of Oklahoma playing conference mate Florida remains a bit ridiculous).

Rather than planning for games against fellow California schools, and those in the nearby states, USC and UCLA’s closest Big Ten rival was set to be some 2400 kilometres away in Nebraska – a world away from cosmopolitan LA.

But the Big Ten has a mammoth TV deal, and the Pac-12… well, it had one, but not for long.

That’s where we sat coming into the 2023 off-season, and once again, the Pac-12 became the centre of attention – for all the wrong reasons.

The conference isn’t that far gone from having quite a bit of success, with USC dominating the sport for a period in the early 2000s under future Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, plus top-five finishes and national title challenges from schools like Oregon and Stanford.

But some poor on-field results, and more importantly poor decisions from then-commissioner Larry Scott, the Pac-12 began to tank.

The former grand slam singles competitor and WTA CEO attempted to take the conference into the future in the early 2010s, when creating your own conference TV network was all the rage.

While most conferences partnered with an existing network, like ESPN, to create and run their network – which saved them a lot of money, and ensured they would get carriage on cable – the Pac-12 tried to go it alone.

This was not only expensive, especially when the conference set up a glitzy headquarters in super-expensive San Francisco (costing them $US92 million in rent alone over 11 years), but when they couldn’t get onto most cable networks. People simply couldn’t watch the Pac-12 Network, meaning they couldn’t pay for it.

These issues saw the schools losing money compared to some of their powerful rivals; yet Scott’s replacement as commissioner, George Kliavkoff, still tried to spin the situation as a positive as the conference’s TV rights came onto the market heading into 2024.

Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff looks on as head coach Tommy Lloyd of the Arizona Wildcats and Bennedict Mathurin celebrate the team’s 84-76 victory over the UCLA Bruins to win the Pac-12 Conference basketball tournament championship game at T-Mobile Arena on March 12, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/.)Source: .

His argument was the schools could capitalise on the changing TV landscape, with brands like Apple and Amazon keen to splash the cash for their streaming services, driving up the price of their next contract.

That’s why Kliavkoff was a beacon of positivity in December 2022, when he said there was “no rush” to complete the rights deal.

And why Arizona State’s athletic director Ray Anderson said in February 2023 he was expecting “something resolved in the next couple, three weeks”.

And why Arizona’s president Robby Robbins declared in June the deal would be done “soon”.

And why later that month, the league began to leak to reporters it would have a deal done likely in August.

And why Kliavkoff said on July 21 at the conference’ Media Day “the longer we wait, the better our options get.”

The problem was two-fold.

One is that, as that sliding timeline makes clear, the deal discussion wasn’t actually going that well.

By August 1, the Pac-12 did finally have an offer to present for approval to its school presidents, but it was an estimated $US23 million a year on the Apple TV streaming services, potentially getting as high as $US50 million a year if they drove 5 million new subscriptions.

But that not only required an enormous amount of optimism to hit figures that were competitive with the other conferences at their level, but it took them off broadcast TV, forcing fans and potential future school recruits to subscribe to watch any games.

“This was about national visibility for our players, being on linear TV so they can be seen, so they could have the national exposure,” Washington president Ana Mari Cauce explained in the days after the offer.

The most likely scenario was the offer, flawed by its very nature because of the platform, wouldn’t even get the schools more money than rivals were receiving. It was a sacrifice for little to no gain.

The second problem was, even before the offer arrived, the schools were getting nervous.

They had watched on as USC, their biggest name, and UCLA, still one of the bigger names despite a lack of recent success, departed the conference for greener pastures and left them without a presence in Los Angeles. They had to wonder; would another school try and make the leap, and leave us in the lurch?

It was a prisoner’s dilemma. The 10 remaining schools were strongest together; but if some abandoned the group, those who didn’t try and abandon the group would be much worse off, especially if they were left behind in a dwindling conference receiving even less TV money (because schools leaving would ensure their new deal would become less valuable).

Oregon and Washington were the two biggest schools left in the Pac-12 after USC and UCLA announced they would leave. (Photo by Tom Hauck/.)Source: .

Eventually someone flinched; perhaps surprisingly, not one of the conference’s mightiest schools but lowly Colorado, who had only joined some 12 years earlier from the Big 12 (in an attempt to leave the Texas region for a better cultural fit with the west coast schools).

Their former conference, smarting from the loss of Oklahoma and Texas, had kept working to try and recover their losses. They plucked some of the best schools from outside the Power Five conferences, including playoff participant Cincinnati, adding four fresh faces. If they didn’t have absolute quality, they’d at least have quantity.

The Big 12 was also very smart with its new TV deal. Rather than going into the market, they re-upped with their existing partners ESPN and Fox until 2030-31, essentially at a similar rate. While they may not have absolutely maximised the dollar figure, they locked in a very solid amount which kept them safe – especially with cable TV subscriptions declining across the US (meaning the bubble of ever-rising rights deal was threatening to burst).

They were originally behind the Pac-12 in line, coming out of contract afterwards, but they cut in front and made the deal first. They therefore sucked up quite a bit of the available money, at a time where ESPN (for so long the most dominant force in college football because of its broadcasting deals with the top conferences) has been cutting back.

Colorado watched on, knowing the Pac-12’s options had been minimised, and decided to make the leap. They were heading back to the Big 12.

That left the remaining nine Pac-12 schools in a dilemma. Colorado wasn’t a huge loss, in terms of TV interest, but when someone grabs a lifevest and jumps overboard, it suggests something’s going wrong.

A two-way race developed. Conferences like the Big 12 and Big Ten were lurking, asking whether the existing Pac-12 schools would be interested in joining them – perhaps taking less money at first when they signed up, but eventually getting a full share of their confirmed TV deals, and security.

The schools themselves didn’t necessarily want to tear the conference apart, but Kliavkoff’s inaction and eventual poor offer could not stop them.

So, last week, Oregon and Washington – the biggest brands left in the Pac-12, right in the north-west of the nation – leapt to the Big Ten, reuniting with USC and UCLA but otherwise deciding to play every year against schools in New Jersey, Indiana and the like, with whom they have no natural connection.

In the process they left behind their most natural rivals, Oregon State and Washington State, effectively their younger brothers.

Down at the southern end of the conference, the schools nearest Colorado – Arizona, Arizona State and Utah – leapt to the Big 12. This was slightly less of a ridiculous fit with the core of the Texas-centred conference, but because of the Big 12’s 2022 expansion round which included the University of Central Florida, it now almost stretched all the way from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans.

These blows have destroyed the Pac-12. It will not survive with just four schools – rural Oregon State and Washington State, plus the academically-minded Cal and Stanford who perhaps aren’t as invested in football in their respective head offices.

Christian McCaffrey, seen here in 2016, was a superstar at Stanford before becoming an NFL superstar. (Photo by Steve Dykes/.)Source: .

Perhaps the quartet can get the second-tier west coast schools, currently in the Mountain West conferences, to join up with them under the Pac-12 banner because of its prestige; perhaps they’ll have to take the step down, or perhaps there’ll be a merger.

Or they could even have to go independent, organising their own TV deals with the networks and creating yearly schedules against whoever’s available, living something of a nomadic life that comes with many more risks than clear positives.

All of this matters for a few major reasons.

The first is that it’s simply shocking to see power conference schools being left behind like this; Stanford, in particular, was a powerhouse within the last decade, led by Andrew Luck and Christian McCaffrey. Their futures are incredibly uncertain, and their fans will no longer see yearly match-ups against the biggest schools in their region – and instead cop likely a lower standard of product, because they’ll have less money and draw lesser recruits.

The second is how it completely abandons the regionality of the sport. It has always been impossible to truly analyse the best school in the country, because teams play such different schedules, but at least they were playing their local rivals – and thus it meant a lot to win a conference championship. The journey was the reward, until the post-season developed to a point where a proper playoff was being held.

Now the Big Ten stretches from Washington to New Jersey, and the Big 12 from Arizona to Florida. These are not local conferences; these are loose collections of universities, sticking together because people know their names and will thus watch them on television.

The Power Five is, at most, now a Power Four. And it’s arguably a Power Two, because of how much money the Big Ten and SEC schools will soon be earning – some analysts predicting they’ll soon earn more than double the yearly income as their alleged rivals.

So what’s stopping the best schools left outside the Power Two from leaving their conferences, just like the best Pac-12 schools left theirs?

There aren’t any big names left out west, but on the east coast, the ACC’s Florida State is already complaining publicly about how it’s being left behind – and asking for a larger-than-equal portion of the conference’s deal. There’s no reason for the ACC to accept that, because it wouldn’t stop Florida State – and fellow power Clemson, plus fallen giant (but still popular) Miami – from leaving once they’re contractually able.

There is a growing view it’s inevitable the biggest schools will all flock together, with even the Big Ten and SEC’s giants leaving behind their local rivals, for a mega-conference where the best-of-the-best play – effectively the European Super League proposal which rocked football in recent years. This may be a couple of decades away, but then nobody thought the moves of the last few years would happen so quickly.

At that point, the core of the sport would be lost. Just like the Super League idea, sure, it might’ve been cool to know Manchester United was facing PSG one week, then Real Madrid the next, and then Bayern Munich; but not only is that a completely unnatural state of being, but it loses what makes the rare meetings of the giants special.

Perhaps this was inevitable, in the chase of the almighty dollar.

But it’s not hard to look at Larry Scott and George Kliavkoff, the men paid millions to oversee the destruction of the Pac-12 conference through their mistakes, and think they’ve helped ruin things for everyone else.

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