In recent years, some of college sports’ long-standing conferences have experienced major changes.
The latest major shakeup involves USC and UCLA, both of which plan to leave the Pac-12 by 2024.
The teams are headed to the Big Ten, which has transformed from a largely Midwestern conference to one that spans coast to coast.
The Pac-12’s power dwindles
While the move comes as a surprise to some, others have seen the writing on the wall with the decline in the Pac-12’s influence in recent years.
As reported earlier this year, payouts for teams in the Pac-12 has dropped significantly, going from $33.6 million in 2020 to just $19.8 million in 2021.
That placed it at the bottom of the Power Five, which also includes the Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, and ACC conferences.
A greater investment also makes schools more attractive to potential recruits, giving the Pac-12 less sway in bringing in top talent.
USC and UCLA’s intended split from the Pac-12 suggests a move toward not only more funding, but more prestige as well.
What does this mean for the Pac-12?
There’s no doubt that losing two flagship teams will be a major blow to the Pac-12.
The move will mark a split between UCLA and Cal, both members of the University of California system.
As two of the conference’s top competitors, USC and UCLA also attract much more attention than some of the less dominant members, such as the University of Arizona, the University of Colorado, and Arizona State.
A loss of elite teams also creates a wider gap in talent. Without as much competition, will teams like the Oregon Ducks, Washington State Cougars, or Utah Utes want to stick around?
With fewer highly ranked teams in their own conference, these teams may suffer a hit to their elite standing.
While it’s a step up for USC and UCLA in terms of securing a stronger position for their team and their brand, there’s no doubt that this change will weaken the Pac-12’s status. Investments in the conference are also expected to dwindle as a result.
The Big Ten grows well beyond its name
With 14 teams already, the Big Ten conference has already expanded far beyond what its moniker indicates.
For most of the 20th century, the conference hadn’t expanded much since its founding in 1896. But a batch of new teams in recent decades (Penn State in 1990, Nebraska in 2011, and Maryland and Rutgers in 2014) significantly altered what was originally a conference based primarily in the Great Lakes region.
If the conference expands to include UCLA and USC, it will feature teams spread throughout the contiguous states and surpass the ACC for the most members.
A shakeup this big will inevitably have major ripple effects on the college sports landscape.
What comes next?
The move to the Big Ten is still in the early stages for both USC and UCLA. Although they’ve notified the Pac-12 of their intentions, they still need to formally apply to the Big Ten.
However, the length of the application and acceptance process could be shorter than expected. Some expect an official announcement within the next 24 hours.
The general consensus is that the switch is already in motion and is very likely to proceed. With both schools’ Pac-12 television contracts ending at the conclusion of the 2023 football season, there are few financial ties to hold up the switch.
And don’t forget that this isn’t the only big move on the horizon.
Texas and Oklahoma were a major college sports news story last year when they announced their plan to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, which is expected to happen prior to the 2025 season. Once that move is complete, they’ll have 16 members — enough to match the Big Ten once USC and UCLA join the fold.
These trends indicate that college sports is shifting away from the original format in which team conferences were primarily aligned in terms of geographic area.
With sports becoming a major source of revenue for many institutions, colleges and universities are considering dramatic changes in order to get their school in the spotlight and attract top talent.