Poaching USC and UCLA, and gut-punching Pac-12

Last summer, the universities of Oklahoma and Texas abruptly announced that they wanted to save their old home in the Big 12 Conference to join the much wealthier and much more competitive SEC.

It should have been a warning to every conference to make sure their flagship athletic programs were happy and determined to stay. You know, like USC and UCLA, big brands in a big market, yet part of a conference trying to find a competitive edge – in football and finance at least.

If the Pac-12 tried, well, it didn’t try hard enough.

Or perhaps nothing would have mattered, given that the Big Ten were about to negotiate a new media rights deal that would have to pay more than $1 billion a year. The Pac-12’s concurrent negotiations were not nearly as robust. Even conservative predictions had Big Ten schools making $40 million more per year from media. It could easily be more.

So now Jon Wilner, the veteran Pac-12 reporter, broke the news Thursday that USC and UCLA negotiated to leave for the Big Ten in 2024. The schools later made it official in an announcement.

The move is amazing, but somehow not at all surprising. It is tectonic in nature for college sports in general and disastrous for many parts of it, namely the Pac-12 schools that have been abandoned. It would be a huge win for the Big Ten as long as you ignore the “tradition” that the league did years ago, or if you shout “hypocrisy”.

It’s the next step in the evolution towards a smaller, rich superconference setup at the top. The Big Ten and the SEC have television deals that dwarf the competition. The Big 12 and Pac-12 are now stripped.

The ACC is held together by its relatively low-paid, but long-term media contract that runs until 2036. The deal grants the media rights of every school at the conference, making valuable programs such as Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina, Miami, and others untouchable.

For now.

At least we think.

The Big Ten wanted to add USC and UCLA, and USC and UCLA wanted to be added. A source said the whole thing came together over the past few weeks.

Pasadena, CA - December 12: USC Trojans v. UCLA Bruins in the second half of an NCAA Football game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on Saturday, December 12, 2020. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty -Pictures)

UCLA and USC are reportedly close to joining the Big Ten. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

Big Ten’s Devilish Move in Breaking Up Pac-12 and Alliance

Let’s start with the Big Ten. The deal is awkward at first, but a good idea for the competition. First, as the Texas-Oklahoma-SEC marriage showed, if big, powerful schools want to move, they move. If USC and UCLA offered admission to Southern California, someone would take them. It could even have been the SEC.

By fortifying the Big Ten, it also helps ward off any wandering eyes from, say, the state of Ohio.

It’s depressing, but that’s the reality now with college athletics. If you don’t get stronger, you get weaker. You act or react.

The duplicity of the Big Ten is, of course, almost impossible to quantify. A year ago, the league grabbed its pearls, bemoaning the SEC’s aggressive and destabilizing moves to seize Texas and Oklahoma. It was ridiculous then, because if UT and OU had called the Big Ten first, the Big Ten would have done exactly what the SEC did.

Still, the Big Ten tried to claim a morale high. It even formed a so-called “Alliance” with the ACC and Pac-12 – yes, the Pac-12 – to supposedly offset the obvious fate of the SEC.

Less than twelve months later, it gave up its alliance partner and probably did even more than the SEC to blow up the long-standing college athletics system.

This was undoubtedly a devilish behavior.

That’s where the world is now. The Big Ten will mute the criticism by stuffing thousand-dollar bills into its ears as they enjoy midwinter basketball trips to Venice Beach.

For the Big Ten, the two LA schools will make an expected historically rich media package even richer. The competition now literally stretches from coast to coast, with Maryland and Rutgers on one side, California on the other. The opportunity to enter the Los Angeles market for recruiters (both athletic and academic) is a boon.

Plus, is this a welcome development for so many Midwestern transplants and Big Ten alumni who live in the state of LA Ohio and play a regular-season soccer game at the Coliseum? Tom Izzo brings his basketball team to Pauley Pavilion? Done and done.

January 1, 2022;  Pasadena, California, USA;  Ohio State Buckeyes players celebrate after the Rose Bowl in 2022 against the Utah Utes in Rose Bowl.  Ohio State defeated Utah 48-45.  Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Trips to the Rose Bowl may not be primarily reserved for New Years Day for the Ohio State football team. (Kirby Lee-US TODAY Sports)

What USC, UCLA’s Departure Means for Pac-12

As for USC and UCLA, we’ll see. Yes, they have more money, but that means more money for athletic departments to waste on unnecessarily lavish facilities, ridiculous purchasing of coaching contracts and general deductible. None if it translates to the fans, who want to win more than anything and now face deep and daunting competition.

Beyond its historic rivalry, or a regular presence in the Bay Area or other locations. Road trips are getting long, longer and longest. And they will be frequent. The basketball and other Olympic sports teams will hardly ever be near home.

This will be a shock to the system. Anyone who is confident it will go smoothly or as planned is selling a fantasy. Nobody knows. Nobody ever knows about this kind of deal. Nebraska football used to be the most consistent winner in college sports. Then it joined the Big Ten and nothing has been the same; and Lincoln is a lot closer than LA

Finally, there are the Pac-12 and other conferences. However the media rights negotiations for the Pac-12 went, they are now officially over. Losing LA schools will drop the value of any deal by at least a third, a source said. More relevant: who will even be in this conference? The remaining 10 schools must investigate their own exit plans.

Will the stronger schools join the Big 12 or will they try to loot that league to fill in gaps? What about the Mountain West with maybe San Diego State and Boise State, neither of which bore the academic power that the Pac-12 used to demand.

Oregon, among others, must now be desperate. It’s built an athletic prowess thanks to Phil Knight and Nike, but with no solid access to LA recruits, dwindling money and its geographic isolation, can that continue? Will Oregon State and Washington State Be Left Out of a Shuffle?

It’s all uncertain. It’s all a mess. It’s all an uncertain mess, a year after the last uncertain mess.

College sports sift through things, none of which is good for the overall health of the industry. True fans love the 100-plus team circus of college football, love that conference races and far-flung rivalries matter, love that there’s enough passion across the country to generate wall-to-wall action every weekend.

This stuff affects that.

That’s the company. No way back. Texas and Oklahoma sent the warning shot last summer. USC and UCLA went just one step further.

So brace yourself, summer has only just begun.

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