College football has always been a factional exercise. Rival organizations fight over their version of resources—players, coaches, and the cash to woo them—and try to bleed out the rest until the only people who can even flirt with their supremacy are their peers in a tiny, exclusive circle. Over the past decade and a half, the Southeastern Conference has mastered this game of Settlers of Catan. SEC universities have poured money into football, and they have taken advantage of the South’s favorable recruiting terrain to build a collective war machine that has won 13 national championships this century. Two of the other titles went to Oklahoma and Texas, who will join the SEC no later than 2025. The OU and UT additions were the detonation of a 2021 realignment bomb, which came alongside a megadeal with ESPN that is poised to make the conference’s lucrative enterprise much more so.
The SEC has not, however, been the historic richest conference in college sports. That has been the Big Ten, which lacks the SEC’s easy recruiting footprint but has other assets—bigger population centers and some enormous alumni bases—that have brought it even more television money. The Big Ten has been ruthless about securing that bag, starting with its westward expansion to grab the Big 12’s Nebraska in 2011 and its eastward move for the ACC’s Maryland and Big East’s Rutgers in 2014. (I refuse to call them “the AAC’s” Rutgers.) Those additions shored up the Big Ten in some valuable TV markets, albeit not much in football competitiveness. But they are all minnows compared to what the league announced on Thursday, when it reached into Los Angeles for two crown jewels of Western college sports and added USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. That may not be the end of it. Jon Wilner, the Pac-12 Hotline reporter who broke the news, was among several who suggested the Big Ten’s shopping spree might not stop now that it has matched the SEC at 16 schools. (The two L.A. programs will start in the Big Ten in 2024.)
The Big Ten will avoid saying that it is responding to the SEC. It pursued similar messaging when it co-founded “The Alliance” with the Pac-12 and ACC last August, a few months after the SEC raided the Big 12’s pantry for Oklahoma and Texas. (The leagues’ detente probably ended when the Big Ten speared the Pac-12 in the neck on Thursday.) But it is impossible to accurately describe the Big Ten’s wheeling and dealing as anything but a countermeasure. In realignment, you are a poacher or an elephant. The SEC made itself too big to fail and secured a lot of years of enormous media-rights payments. The Big Ten has stayed narrowly ahead of the SEC in the TV-cash arms race, but it was poised to fall a bit behind. When the conference soon announces a new media deal with several partners, led by Fox, it will bake in the value of having USC and UCLA onboard. Big Ten schools will dive into a pot of gold coins again. You should expect that each will eventually roll around in more than $100 million a year in TV money.
It goes back to that resource war. Since 2014, the 10 conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision have been in two broad classes: the Power Five (with the money) and the Group of Five (without it). But it has in effect bifurcated into something more like a Power One (with the SEC winning most of the titles) or a Power Two (with the Big Ten joining it on a dominant financial footing). The 32 schools with tickets to these two superconferences are the only ones in major college sports who really have stability at the moment. They’ll have opponents to schedule, revenues to fill their coffers, and the most valuable currency of all: the pride of not being one of the peasants looking in from the outside. They’ll also have access to the national championship, something that may or may not stay on the table for other leagues and will at least be a harder slog for those in them. Everyone outside these two leagues is in flux.
But the situations awaiting college sports’ other stakeholders are variable. Let’s talk about where the Big Ten’s Angeleno outreach initiative leaves some of those players.
The rest of the Pac-12 is in a world of hurt. It sucks to get dumped, and the other 10 schools were blindsided. The league’s official statement acknowledged its “extreme surprise.” Sports Illustrated’s Richard Johnson, my cohost on the podcast Split Zone Duo, said that some Pac-12 sources wouldn’t even make initial comments while off the record—a sign that they truly had no idea what had just hit them. There are a lot of pieces to pick up, and conference commissioner George Kliavkoff will have to pick them up against a backdrop of at least some remaining schools trying to get on a lifeboat elsewhere. (S.I.’s Ross Dellenger reports that several have already inquired with the Big Ten.)
Oregon, with Nike’s help, has molded itself into a premium national brand. The Ducks and Washington are responsible for the Pac-12’s only College Football Playoff appearances. The Huskies play in Seattle, an attractive market for any marketing-obsessed executive. Both seem like they should be in the sweepstakes if the Big Ten continues growing. It helps that the Pac-12’s existing media-rights deals expire in 2024, the same horizon that made it simple for USC and UCLA to head Midwest at that time. Stanford would look great on a Big Ten press release and is great at a bunch of nonfootball sports, but it’s the smallest school in the Pac-12 and nonfootball sports aren’t often realignment needle-movers. Cal is also very good at school and much better at sports that do not happen to be football.
Speaking of nonfootball sports teams, they are passengers on both the real and metaphorical journeys here. Football travel between Los Angeles and Piscataway, New Jersey, is no big deal. Teams play four or five conference road games per year, on weekends, and travel on chartered planes. It gets more complicated when the women’s basketball team has to fly from LAX to play on a Wednesday night in State College, Pennsylvania, a place that lacks a big airport with lots of flights. Maybe the travel issue will work out fine. UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond said that “the resources” in the Big Ten might allow for “more efficient transfer options.” Maybe that means chartered flights for more teams, but there isn’t a good way to repeatedly crisscross the country during school weeks.
Along the same line, the moves will be a mixed bag for actual fans of the teams involved. If you care about a Big Ten team in any sport and live on the East Coast, it now seems possible that you will have to wait for late start times on the Pacific Coast. If you like USC or UCLA, you will probably watch some football games that kick off around the time you are taking your coffee. Maybe you’ll like that, and maybe you won’t. Plenty of Big Ten schools have big West Coast alumni bases that will get to see more of their teams in person. But this move isn’t for us, as members of the sports-guzzling public. We are not going to cash any checks as a result of it.
The Big 12, which in 2023 welcomes four reinforcements to offset Oklahoma and Texas, could be in more of a position to capitalize. The Big Ten and SEC are at 16 teams apiece, with nothing stopping them from getting bigger. None of the Big 12’s 14 post–OU-and-UT members are going to get invites to the Big Ten or SEC parties. Size is power, and while there are about 70 logistical and cultural hurdles to a Pac-12–Big 12 conglomerate with 20 or 24 teams, the Overton window on what is doable in college sports is widening with a quickness. Geographically, that would not be any sillier than this:
The Big 12 and the Pac-12 doing business together would be no good for the ACC, which would be a teeny, tiny “power” conference swimming in an ocean with a mega–Big Ten, a mega-SEC, and a merged Pac-12 and Big 12. The ACC is already a long way behind the Big Ten and SEC in the money war. Its own agreement with ESPN goes until 2036, making it inevitable that the financial gap will get bigger as those conferences move on to their next rounds of deals. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips could come up with something creative, but it’d have to be really creative. And that only scratches the surface of the ACC’s problems, anyway. Duke and North Carolina seem like obvious items the Big Ten would want if it chose to keep growing. Florida State and Clemson are already SEC football schools in everything but name and schedule. Everyone in the ACC has granted its media rights to the conference for the next 13 years, but that won’t make fans of the conference’s middle-class schools (Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, and others) sleep all that much better for the next few nights. I’m not sure where any of this would leave Miami, and that’s fine, because Miami will always be just fine being Miami. NC State’s status would be uncertain, too.
The Pac-12 is in trouble now, but at least its remaining schools will have some options: Go it alone, or collaborate with the Big 12. If the ACC fell apart in or before the 2030s, its remainders would have a narrower menu of choices. Maybe it would lead to a reconstitution of something like the old Big East, with Pitt, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, and Boston College all playing together among many others. (It’s not realignment if you do not let yourself do at least a little bit of Reddit-style daydreaming of what could be.) To that end, the Mountain West might feel a touch anxious, too. Boise State has spent decades as the most consistently great program outside the power conferences, but it’s never gotten the call to the richer leagues. The Broncos will at least cross some Pac-12 minds as a contingency, right?
In all of this fracas, Notre Dame might be the biggest winner. The Irish are the sport’s strongest and most famous football independent, and they have spent generations sidestepping the need to link up with another league. Every realignment round includes predictions and implications that this will be the moment in which Notre Dame is forced to shack up somewhere. This time is no different. But Notre Dame is already rich. The College Football Playoff still does not require them to have a conference championship in order to make the field, and that still does not appear anywhere near the verge of changing. The Irish already fill their schedule with rivals and opponents their fans are happy to watch. They are in theory not supposed to be able to join any conference other than the ACC, where they have parked their nonfootball sports. But unlike the ACC, Notre Dame is not in grave danger if college sports stay on their present trajectory. The South Benders would bolster the ACC if they joined, sure. But they could just as easily stand pat for a while, or they could one day align themselves in the Big Ten, which now stands for dollar bills rather than against Catholicism. (Oh, is there a history there.) No school controls its own fate these days quite like Notre Dame does. Please, win a New Year’s bowl sometime.
Speaking of those bowls: The Rose Bowl usually pits a Big Ten team against a Pac-12 team. I guess it could keep doing that, in the years when it isn’t a Playoff semifinal game. The Tournament of Roses, the Pasadena organization that puts on the game, does not like change and has gone to the mat time and again to ensure a prime New Year’s Day slot for its game, no matter what else might be going on that week in college football. The Rose Bowl is iconic enough to survive no matter what, but the Tournament of Roses will have to figure out if the game persists as a Big Ten–Pac-12 affair or something else. Whether the Pac-12 keeps existing in anything like its current form might have something to do with that.
Much like the only country that plays it, college football is riding out an era of deep uncertainty and inequality. And much like that country, Rupert Murdoch is driving a good bit of the upheaval. This time, it is less about a Fox TV channel fomenting the end of democracy and more about convincing the Big Ten to make itself as big as possible so that Fox can air Ohio State versus USC early in the afternoon on a Saturday.