EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) – I woke up on Thursday morning and witnessed something I thought I’d never see: Usher performing on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert” series.
Turns out, he was just preparing me for something else that I must confess I thought I’d never see: reports of UCLA and USC leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
Let it burn, folks.
As Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News first reported and many college football reporters have now confirmed, UCLA and USC will depart for the Big Ten as soon as 2024, after the Pac-12’s current media rights contracts with Fox and ESPN expire, and increase the size of the Big Ten to 16 schools. An official announcement of the move came around 6 p.m. MT from the Bruins, Trojans and the league itself.
Those institutions are the first massive dominoes to fall in what is sure to be another big edition of everyone’s favorite show: conference realignment.
We watched this happen a year ago, too, when Oklahoma and Texas jettisoned the Big 12 in favor of joining the SEC in 2025 and sent conferences around the nation scrambling. When the dust settled, BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston had joined the Big 12, nine schools had left Conference USA for the American Athletic and Sun Belt Conferences, respectively, and New Mexico State and UTEP were placed into C-USA together, back in the same league for the first time in 60 years.
There’s no reason to believe that a similar outcome won’t happen again, this time with schools on the west coast and perhaps, farther down the line, in the ACC.
I’m reminded right now of the European Super League, a proposed 12-team soccer league in Europe in 2021 that would have put some of the top soccer clubs in Europe (FC Barcelona, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Manchester City, Manchester United, Real Madrid, to name a few) in the same league.
Plans of the new league leaked and backlash from fans and pundits, not only around the world but of those teams, was harsh and immediate. The outpouring of vitriol against the top teams in Europe banding together was so strong, that the idea for the league was scrapped almost immediately.
In American college sports, that will never happen. The Three Musketeers’ mantra is nowhere to be found in this equation; look out for yourself, or get left behind.
The move for USC and UCLA, first and foremost, is all about money. In the era of NIL in college athletics, those who have the cash rule all, more than they ever have.
According to the Associated Press, the Pac-12 distributed only $19.8 million per school in fiscal year 2021, by far the least among Power 5 conferences and almost $30 million less than the Big Ten’s per-school distribution of $46.1 million (the SEC was first at $54.6 million).
For UCLA and USC officials then, the move is basically a no-brainer; simply put, who in their right mind would pass up $30 million? Plus, there’s no telling how much more money the league could make with those two institutions in the fold.
On it’s face, this is an abject disaster for the Pac-12 Conference which has already been viewed as the weakest Power-5 conference for a few years. Losing two of the most successful and visible universities in its footprint, not to mention the Los Angeles market, makes this perhaps the darkest day in the league’s history.
But it could get worse. Wilner reported on Thursday that the Big Ten likely isn’t done adding schools. For universities like California, Oregon, Stanford and Washington that have experienced success in the 21st century, it would behoove them to begin positioning themselves as potential candidates for the new Big Ten, if the league wants to continue expanding its west coast footprint.
(I have to pause briefly here to give credit to my good friend, Kyle Hinstorff, who effectively predicted the exact scenario that seems primed to play out last summer when OU and Texas left for the SEC. He was on it; kudos to him.)
The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 entered into a three-conference alliance last year after the SEC added OU and Texas. It appears, however, with the Big Ten pilfering UCLA and USC, that the alliance is in jeopardy. And that means the ACC also finds itself in a precarious position.
Top universities in the ACC – think Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina, Syracuse and Virginia, just to name a few – have to be thinking hard about their futures today. Is it possible that some of them would consider jumping ship to a different league to keep pace? The SEC, not just the Big Ten, could benefit from decisions those universities could potentially make.
Eventually, it appears possible that instead of five “Power” conferences, things could be pared down to two “Super” conferences. So, where would that leave the rest of the college athletics landscape?
Brett McMurphy of the Action Network reported on Thursday that the Big 12 may get aggressive and look at adding Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah (McMurphy later reported that some in the Big 12 would also like to make a run at Oregon and Washington) to shore up its league. That would then put the Big 12 at 16 teams and keep them competitive.
The remaining members of the Pac-12 could then band together, maybe adding teams from the current Mountain West Conference – Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada, San Diego State, to name a few options – and perhaps Gonzaga to keep afloat.
And then, that’s where this would inevitably trickle down to the Borderland. A year ago when Oklahoma and Texas left the Big 12, it wasn’t on anyone’s radar that three months later Conference USA would disintegrate and UTEP would be left scrambling to secure its future.
C-USA did its absolute best last fall to make lemonade from lemons in a tough spot, adding Liberty, Jacksonville State, New Mexico State and Sam Houston after losing nine schools.
UTEP brass as well as Miner fans have long-wanted a move to the Mountain West; this may be the time for it to finally happen, but the league wouldn’t look like it does right now. It could end up as a hodge-podge of current MWC members, WAC schools, C-USA teams and maybe others.
Of course, that is pontification to the highest degree, but given what happened last fall, absolutely nothing can be ruled out at this point with regards to where things may go during this round of college athletics plate tectonics.
One thing is certain, however. New Mexico State and UTEP have seen firsthand what can happen when you get left on the outside looking in of conference realignment. For athletic directors Mario Moccia and Jim Senter, I would expect them to be as proactive as possible this time around to find the best fit for their respective universities, if it comes to that.
College sports aren’t what they used to be in 1990, or 2000, or 2005, or 2010, or even 2020. The game has changed and everyone, at all levels of the sport, have to change with it.
And, unlike Usher, the change won’t be Nice and Slow.
- DRIED UP: Lakes Mead and Powell at epicenter of biggest Western drought in history
- Driver arrested in west El Paso crash, multiple migrants injured
- Ferrari recalling 23,555 cars dating back to MY2005 over possible brake failure
- Bolton ’embarrassed’ at ‘low price’ allegedly offered in assassination plot
- GOP scrambles to unify as ‘red wave’ hits obstacles
- Monkeypox spread: 3 things CDC admits we still don’t understand