Editor’s Note: This post was updated on the evening of Friday, August 4, 2023 to reflect the news that the Big 12 accepted the membership of Arizona State and Utah.
What has been building since the summer of 2021 is finally being realized two years later just as a new college football season is about to kick off. The Pac-12 has seen
four six schools opt for greener pastures in the span of a week and the realignment moves may not be done yet. Let’s take a look at an abridged timeline of events starting with 2021 followed by some burning questions that may or may not be answered any time soon.
July 2021: Oklahoma and Texas Leave the Big 12 for the SEC
The current realignment cycle started when Oklahoma and Texas decided to leave the Big 12 to join the SEC. That gave the SEC – already one of the best conferences in all of Division 1 – an additional two national brands and 16 teams beginning with the 2024-25 academic year. It was inevitable that the move would elicit a response from other conferences while the Big 12 would also have to reload.
The Big 12 ended up raiding the American Athletic Conference to bring in Central Florida, Cincinnati, and Houston while BYU joined from the West Coast Conference/FBS independence. That led to an avalanche of other moves between the AAC, C-USA, and Sun Belt but those moves won’t be discussed here.
June 30, 2022: UCLA and USC Leave Pac-12 for the Big Ten
The Big Ten ended up waiting a year to respond and ended up going Westward with UCLA and USC announced as the next two additions. This also brought them up to 16 teams beginning with the 2024-25 academic year and it left the Pac-12’s future in limbo. This uncertainty has been documented since UCLA and USC left along with the negotiations beginning for the next media rights deal.
July 27, 2023: Colorado Leaves the Pac-12
Colorado leaving the Pac-12 will be the seminal moment of summer 2023’s realignment shuffle. As mentioned above, this isn’t entirely accurate as there were other happenings that directly led to Colorado’s decision. The rumblings of unhappiness among certain Pac-12 members remained but there wasn’t a serious threat… until the next Pac-12 media deal was presented. The deal was primarily based on streaming with Apple TV+ along with the chance for subscription escalators.
The media deal was the last straw and, frankly, the decision by Colorado (and other subsequent Pac-12 departures) makes sense. The deal called for a base in the $20-$25 million range, which is lower than the Big 12’s $31.7 million for TV revenue. Add in other revenue streams plus the fact that Colorado would get a full share of the Big 12 money immediately, and this was an easy decision. Colorado announced they were leaving the Pac-12 to rejoin the Big 12 effective with the 2024-25 academic year and with them was a new wave of moves…
August 3, 2023: Arizona Gets Approval From Big 12
Less than a week after Colorado left, Arizona had already begun to make its move to the Big 12. The Wildcats – along with Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah – were one of the long-rumored possible Big 12 teams should the Pac-12 fall apart. Well… here we are. Like Colorado, it makes sense from strictly a financial standpoint with higher revenues but the geography works for the most part. Yeah, the trips to the Eastern half of the US aren’t ideal but the majority of members are relatively close and that will actually increase if Arizona State and Utah join as well (Update: they did leave to join the Big 12).
August 3 and 4, 2023: Pac-12 Tries to Salvage Itself… and Fails
While the Arizona news broke, the Pac-12 was attempting to keep the final 8 members committed. In fact, it was reported that Oregon and Washington leaving for the Big Ten wasn’t as strong after a night’s rest. The Pac-12 had a meeting scheduled for the morning of Friday, August 4 and there was an expectation that a new media deal and Grant of Rights would be signed off for approval.
A key question comes up here: why were the Pac-12 folks so optimistic? Literally, none of the previous expectations from other members’ concerns or the media deal were met. What made them think this meeting would go as expected when nothing had changed in the previous 8 hours to allay the concerns of the schools? Sure, the schools might have had a good poker face but when nothing changed leading up to the meeting, how was the outcome expected to be good?
Following the news that Arizona State and Utah are headed to the Big 12, the Pac-12 is left with 4 schools: California, Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington State. It makes sense that Arizona State and Utah followed Arizona and Colorado because the Pac-12’s ship is sinking fast and they have a life raft in the form of the Big 12. That does leave some major questions about the Pac-12’s future.
What Happens to the Remaining Pac-X Schools?
What becomes of Cal, Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington State? Will the Pac-12 attempt to reload? Will the Pac-12 even be able to? The Power 5 moniker is important but with only 4 teams, does it do them any good, especially with a much lower expected TV deal? Will the Pac-12 merge with the Mountain West or the ACC? There are a ton of questions surrounding these schools and what’s left of the Pac-X such as intellectual property, TV rights, etc. should the conference completely dissolve.
Trickle Down Realignment
What happens beyond the Pac-12 shuffle? If it’s just a merging of the Pac-12 and Mountain West, then realignment may not have a huge trickle-down effect. However, if the Pac-12 only takes some of the Mountain West teams (assuming they can), then the MW needs to reload. They’re going to consider teams in C-USA or maybe attempt to convince some AAC teams. Most likely, we’d see some FCS teams poached, either by the MW outright or C-USA in the ensuing avalanche. That leads to the FCS realignment and possibly Division 2, Division 3, or NAIA schools making moves as well. There are many possibilities depending on how the Pac-12 reloads if they do at all.
Florida State Looking For a New Home… and the Pac-12 is the Future
Since we have entered a new paradigm in college athletics, Florida State to the Pac-12 isn’t that farfetched. For starters, FSU really HATES the Grant of Rights they signed with the ACC in 2016. In fact, they are working with JPMorgan Chase to finance the revenue shortfall they face in the ACC when compared to other conferences like the Big Ten and SEC. If FSU managed to somehow get out of the ACC’s Grant of Rights, they’d owe $120 million in exit fees. If they take the ACC to court, that number grows. If they try to force a settlement, that number also grows even if it doesn’t go in front of a judge because the ACC isn’t about to let FSU walk away without taxing them first.
This is where the Pac-12 comes in. They need new members and Florida State wants a new home. The cross country travel shouldn’t be an issue either because that’s the new norm in college athletics. Plus, they could probably find a few travel partners from the ACC to tag along such as Clemson, Miami, or North Carolina for starters. FSU can even work out a sweetheart deal with the Pac-12 where they get a bigger slice of the revenue just like how they want it to be right now in the ACC.
Does the Big Ten Stay at 18 Teams? SEC at 16?
One of the bigger questions: what will the Big Ten and SEC do? Any further action from either conference will unleash another tidal wave of moves. The Big Ten could go after more Pac-12 remnants or try to move further East into ACC territory. Will the SEC be content to stay at 16 if the Big Ten continues to grow its TV media revenue? It doesn’t seem likely that the SEC will open itself up to legal action by interfering with the ACC Grant of Rights but if a school like FSU takes the lead, they may be keen on inviting teams if the GoR is defeated. Then again, maybe the SEC won’t go after the ACC and look toward the Big 12 again.
What Becomes of College Football?
The breadth of the Pac-12 demise to this point has been fascinating to watch… and worrisome. Just 2 weeks ago, the conference was at 10 teams and now it’s down to 6, possibly even 4 in another week. If the Pac-12 does disappear, it wouldn’t be the first major conference to fall apart as we’ve seen with the Big East and Southwest Conferences. The era of super conferences has been ushered in but what happens beyond that? There’s a host of additional issues that could truly alter the sport as we see it now and that’s saying something considering how it has changed in the last 15 years. Some issues that could change the sport are a national NIL law, the unionization of the players, federal oversight, the NCAA continuing to crumble, and the commercialization of the sport to name a few.
College athletics has been driven by college football, which in turn has been driven by money ever since 1984 when the Supreme Court basically allowed teams and conferences to negotiate their own TV contracts. We have an entire article dedicated to TV contracts since 1984 and the themes are the same here: money runs the show. What’s paradoxical about all the realignment is the cycle is self-perpetuating from the very reason the FBS and FCS split in 1978.
Schools will always want more and leave to get it. The cycle will continue for two reasons: 1) the money doesn’t keep growing especially as more people cut cable and live sports become cost prohibitive and 2) the conferences get so large they end up breaking up because the “bottom feeders” are reducing the revenue per school. That will lead to more realignment and the possibility of an NFL-lite system of only a few conferences comprised of top schools, which is essentially why the Division 1 split in 1978 occurred – to separate schools that wanted more autonomy. Well, in this case, it’s because schools want more money, which is why we call it “NFL-lite”.
The realignment wheel never stops moving. It may slow down, it may speed up, but it never stops. Right now, it’s spinning as fast as ever.
Photo courtesy of Brian Murphy / Icon Sportswire