The USC Trojans and UCLA Bruins are Big Ten bound. By 2024, both teams will be likely in the Big Ten West or a mega-conference without divisions. A shocking development, this is the biggest conference-shaking move since Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC last year. What’s next?
Money, Money, Money
Obviously, the big picture impact that has yet to be realized by the entire move is monetary. I mean…what move isn’t? USC and UCLA join a conference looking to increase their revenue share and compete at the highest level. While I’m not convinced that’s within the Big Ten itself, it does set up a longer-term strategy of expanding the upper tier of college football.
The big impetus here is the Big Ten TV contract. Negotiated for the 2023 season and beyond, adding USC and UCLA, two Los Angeles schools to their portfolio drastically increase the contract value and what each school will likely get. The kicker with these two schools is their market. Los Angeles is the second-largest media market in the US. Whoever signs the contract with the Big Ten now has access to that market that it didn’t previously. That’s a huge coup for whoever wins this contract.
This has made the timing of this move possible. The PAC-12 media rights deal expires in 2024. This allows USC and UCLA to avoid financial penalties due to media rights commitments. Again, the negotiations from the PAC-12 are sure to pale compared to the SEC and Big Ten. On a per team revenue basis, this makes it a clearly financially beneficial move for the Los Angeles teams.
Interestingly, it’s also likely the reason that the details of this deal have been delayed. A massive TV rights deal is in the works, but knowing two teams that open an untapped market are coming down the pipeline has surely delayed it. Ultimately, this is one small (but monetarily large) piece of the puzzle being ironed out.
Who’s Next – Big Ten
It’s clear this isn’t over yet. The big two conferences are going to continue to add top-flight programs, which will trickly downstream to other moves. Many teams deserve and likely want to be in the “super conferences” power structure that will be vying for a spot in the next handful of weeks and months.
One of those teams in Oregon. Eugene isn’t exactly a sexy media market but having Oregon and Phil Knight money on board is a no-brainer. I expect them to move to the Big Ten, which is now a sea-to-shining-sea conference. There’s a natural rivalry to be had between USC and UCLA for the league. This is also true if they move to a protected rivalry or pod format as well. Oregon makes too much sense as the next domino to fall, given the state of the program.
Washington is another likely addition to the Big Ten. This has been a quality team for the majority of the last decade, attending ten straight bowl games from 2010 to 2019, including an appearance in the CFB playoff. This is the second biggest target behind Oregon for the SEC and Big Ten, but logistically, it sure makes sense for them to go to a new coast-to-coast conference.
A handful of other teams can and will be added to the super conferences at some point in the near future. The biggest gets from the PAC-12 remaining are California, academic powerhouse Stanford, Utah, and the Arizona schools. The two California schools would be natural additions and expand a growing Big Ten footprint but don’t discount either or both Arizona schools making a move. It’s an advantageous market to target and geographically fits. Utah is tough, but the quality of play is hard to argue with, and they will be included in a super conference anyway.
Who’s Next – SEC?
The Big Ten will continue adding and expanding their footprint west of the Rockies makes sense. However, the SEC will continue to do the same after already poaching Texas and Oklahoma. There are a few candidates, namely ACC schools, that make sense.
Clemson is the top-tier program not associated with either impending superconference. Their dominance in the ACC under Dabo cannot be taken lightly, making them the perfect target for the SEC. They already have a natural rival in South Carolina and should bolster an SEC East, which has lagged behind the West in recent years. The TV contract with ESPN is minuscule compared to the Big Ten and ACC, but with ESPN looking to find value in this product, don’t discount a move from Clemon and a restructured media rights deal.
The expansion in Florida almost feels inevitable, but we’ll see where it goes. Florida State and Miami are the two premier programs in the ACC. Despite being underwhelming in recent seasons, that doesn’t affect the national attention and media value they draw. Florida State in Tallahassee is almost perfect for the Alabama, Louisiana, and Georgia teams. Miami, especially in the Cristobal tenure, has shown to be flashy and potentially reminiscent of “The U” days. Both make excellent additions to media rights.
Don’t count out UNC and the rest of the schools in the triangle. The Tarheels have proven to be a football powerhouse again under Mack Brown and give the SEC access to a market they don’t have. Noticing a theme here? The Tarheels bring quality play and access to the Raleigh-Durham market. Depending on what sports move, Duke is also a quality addition to their basketball program and provides an easier opponent in what will be a dominant SEC gauntlet.
I think the inevitable outcome is the formation of a Superleague. In theory, this league would have between 50 and 60 teams like the Power 5 structure. However, they would be independent of NCAA governance and be allowed to enforce their own rules. For these teams, the NCAA and the idea of a student-athlete are antiquated notions. Name, Image, and Likeness have changed the game for these schools, and going from “they get a scholarship!” to nearly eight figures has necessitated this change.
What this league ultimately looks like is anyone’s guess. What we can accurately speculate is that it will include programs that are serious about prioritizing the monetary value of football. The Big Ten and SEC are included as no-brainers, but it will take certain schools who want to be part of this model to be invested. The ACC and commissioner Jim Phillips have stood on the sidelines and opposed expansion for this reason. The schools in the ACC have different motives and priorities than the SEC making alignment difficult.
The issue will come to a head soon with the latest news and will force schools to determine what they value. I believe certain schools, like UNC, will stick with the superleague structure and emphasize football over academics. However, I don’t expect that to be true for ALL the remaining Power 5 schools. The eventual Superleague will consist of teams moderately aligned with priorities. While not everyone will be Alabama in this aspect, it will take a certain level of commitment, leaving some schools in the dust.
Remaining Conference Plans
Above, I mentioned how the ACC is somewhat of the red-headed stepchild in this situation with their titular focus on academics. I do believe they could be part of a realignment plan with the remaining institutions, but I’m more in the we’ll see bucket. The remaining conferences are likely to bring forward some version of The Alliance.
This version, which will not include the Big Ten, could be centered around the Big 12 and PAC 12. Both leagues faced massive attrition over the last year from their top members but have the quality of play to put together a third conference. While anything proposed will likely fail to match the SEC and Big Ten’s next steps, this alliance could be foundational in two ways.
First, the alliance is likely the next step into the super league. Despite the attrition, there are very good schools that consistently finish in the top 10 and, on strong years, compete in the CFB playoffs. The remaining schools will form an elite group and would be the next step in adding to the two conferences. Nailing down membership and a package between the two could be incredibly important to expansion outside of the NCAA.
Second, the groups banding together would be forming a voting bloc in the current structure. Similar to the Alliance last season, this group can influence changes and decision-making within the current NCAA…however long that lasts. They should have some say as long as this structure is in place.
Where the ACC or potentially either of these conferences fit is up in the air. With more expansion coming at some point, one of these could be gutted soon. Ultimately, this would be a short-term solution at best.
The Notre Dame Factor
One thing not mentioned above is what happens with Notre Dame. The Irish have remained independent and without conference but may be forced to decide soon. Notre Dame will play a role regardless of what happens with realignment and the potential incoming super conference. They will inevitably be involved in the conference as a major player but whether they link up before then is to be determined.
A potential move is the ACC pivoting and adding the Irish full-time. Whether Notre Dame accepts is a different question, but given their relationship from 2020, it’s one of few options. Interestingly, the 2020 conference schedule in the ACC involved a provision in which Notre Dame is forced to stay independent for the next 14 years, not so coincidently, when the ACC media rights deal expires.
If the ACC and or the super league make moves before then, the Irish are a major player. With the Peacock network, they represent one of the biggest brands in the nation. However, the status quo restricts their possibilities. I know that South Bend will be a massive influence in the next steps for college football, whatever they may be.
The move from the PAC 12 to the Big Ten has massive implications for all parties involved. USC and UCLA secure a substantial increase in their revenue under what could be the largest media rights contract ever. They also get put front and center into the superleague conversation. Whatever happens with the Big Ten and SEC, both parties will have a say as they represent the Los Angeles media market in these negotiations.
Downstream there are so many impacts we could see. Multiple teams are shifting conference alignments, the dissolution of conferences, or reorganizing and combining multiple leagues. The major players who haven’t been involved yet will play a significant role in which conferences expand and who they add.
At the end of the day – the new era of college football is here, and it’s exciting.