Updated: Jul 19, 2022
When news broke today that USC and UCLA are reportedly leaving the Pac 12 for the Big Ten, nearly everyone involved in college athletics was floored, and rightly so. Similar to how Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC last summer, the two biggest national brands of a power five conference are leaving for a more nationally relevant league. We all know the chaos NIL and the transfer portal have caused across the landscape, but news like this will fundamentally change the power structure of college sports as we know them.
Throughout most of history, the most prominent teams across a multitude of college sports have been members of the “power conferences.” In recent times, being a part of the “Power 5” meant your school had more prestige and recognition than the majority of Division I schools. While the Big East still boosts great basketball, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC have garnered much attention and coverage in comparison to mid-major leagues like the Sun Belt, Conference USA, and Big West to name a few.
Until the late 2000s, the gap between each of these power 5 conferences wasn’t tremendously noticeable, if at all. As hard as it is to imagine now, the SEC was not the dominant conference in college football on an annual basis. At the turn of the century, schools like Miami, USC, Texas, Oklahoma, and Ohio State were winning titles at the same rate as any SEC program did. The same goes for other revenue-generating sports as well. Sure, the SEC and Big Ten still were the most successful and most profitable conferences during that time, but the gap between them and the three other power leagues wasn’t large.
But over the past 20 or so years, the shift of power and prestige has moved incrementally more to the SEC and Big Ten each year. From 2006 to 2012, an SEC team won the college football national championship every year. Conference realignment has seen big-time brands like Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas, and Oklahoma leave the Big 12 for the SEC and Maryland leave the ACC for the Big Ten. The SEC signed a lucrative$3 billion media rights deal with ESPN/ABC in 2020 and the Big Ten’s new deal is expected to be worth at or near $1 billion and should be announced shortly. The number of NFL draft picks coming from SEC in Big Ten schools across multiple sports recently has far outpaced that of the ACC, Big 12, and Pac 12. All of these developments have highlighted that we were moving closer to a “Power 2” instead of a “Power 5.”
When the new Big Ten media deal is signed, each school is expected to receive approximately $100 million annually, which would be five times what the Pac 12 pays out to its member institutions. USC and UCLA joining the league obviously might enhance that number. By 2028, the SEC is expected to distribute a nine-figure sum to each of its members as well. With the ACC locked into a not-so-great media rights deal until 2036 and the Big 12 losing two of its biggest brands last summer, all signs have been pointing to the SEC and Big Ten dominating the rest of the conferences financially for the last year. Today’s news only moves us closer to that.
Where things go from here is hard to predict with 100% accuracy. Is the Pac 12 dead? Where do schools like Oregon, Washington, Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State go? Do the Big 12 or Big Ten pursue them, or are they done expanding? What about Clemson, Miami, and Florida State? How long will it be before they look to join the SEC? Does Notre Dame stay independent? All of this is up in the air. But what is not is the fact that the future of college athletics points to the SEC and Big Ten being the two most powerful conferences. It’s a sad day for the Pac 12 conference and schools like Washington State, Oregon State, and Colorado, who may not have the attraction that a school like Oregon does to other leagues. Hopefully, for them, they can land on their feet in a good situation like how the remaining Big 12 members did last year. But the reality in college athletics today comes down to this: if you’re not in the SEC or Big Ten, you’re trying to get into one of those two leagues.
Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5