By JOHN MARSHALL, AP Sports Writer
Conference realignment in college sports has been going on since 1984, when the Supreme Court invalidated the NCAA’s national football television contract.
Conference juggling has gone through ebbs and flows over the years as small schools moved up to bigger leagues and energy programs shifted to other major conferences.
The latest move, Southern California and UCLA riding the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, could be part of a tectonic shift. Not just because of the big-name schools involved, but because it happened at a time when the NCAA is looking to take a more decentralized approach to governing college athletics, giving more power to schools and conferences.
“You might think this is more seismic because it involves the wealthiest schools, and arguably it is, but it’s also seismic because the pillars of the system, the foundations of the system, are being challenged at a time when the financial structure is exploding. Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, said Friday. “It may have larger ramifications, but it is a process that has been ongoing.”
USC and UCLA’s decisions to join the Big 10 in 2024 come about a year after Texas and Oklahoma announced they would leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.
While surprising, even to Pac-12 officials, Thursday’s announcement gives Los Angeles schools stability and exposure in a changing college sports landscape.
“It’s huge for our student athletes, just from a national exposure perspective,” said UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond. “They are going to compete at the highest level in a major elite conference across different time zones. UCLA is always national, but now we have the ability for student athletes to showcase their talent across the country. That’s exciting.”
For all other benefits, the bottom line for dropouts is the bottom line.
The SEC has become a college football behemoth, doling out $54.6 million to each of its member schools in fiscal 2021. The Big Ten has tried to keep up and had a per-school distribution of $46.1 million on last year.
The Pac-12 had the lowest distribution number among Power Five schools, paying its member institutions $19.8 million in 2021.
In essence, it is about television.
The SEC has a $3 billion deal with ESPN starting in 2024 and the Big Ten is currently negotiating a massive media rights deal. The Pac-12 has floundered when it comes to television, as the conference network has struggled to gain ground as many of its games are played late at night.
Since the costs of running collegiate athletic programs have risen in recent years, exacerbated by the pandemic, moving to an even larger conference provides more financial stability. For the Big Ten, adding UCLA and USC gives the conference a foothold in the nation’s second-largest media market.
“Money talks,” said Tom McMillen, president and CEO of Lead1, which represents the Football Bowl Subdivision’s directors and athletic programs. “I was on the board of regents when Maryland jumped into the Big Ten and there were all kinds of arguments about it being academic and it being this and that, but ultimately it came down to money. I think it’s the same case here.”
Defections will create two mega-conferences that will have most of the power and money, leaving the rest of the leagues struggling to keep up.
The layering could layer further if the SEC and the Big Ten continue to expand, which could be the next step.
The future power structure could consist of two, maybe three mega-conferences of up to 20 schools at the top, with the Power Five joining the Group of Five conferences at the bottom tier but still above the Championship Subdivision of Football.
More schools in the Pac-12 and Big 12, along with the ACC, could seek greater stability.
Conferences that lose members are likely to face two options: merge with another league to form a mega-conference of their own, or expand the current membership. The Pac-12 plans to go the expansion route, issuing a statement Friday saying it is exploring all expansion options.
“You have exploding costs at one end and your revenue streams are being decimated, which is tremendous pressure,” Zimbalist said. “On the other hand, what are you doing? Well, I think something pretty radical is going to have to happen.”
Uncertainty is the only sure thing right now.
AP sportswriter Joe Reedy in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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