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What's the Latest on Conference Realignment?

After the news that Texas and Oklahoma were departing the Big 12 for the SEC in the summer of 2021, there was a significant domino effect of movement across the country in the subsequent months. From the Big 12 poaching the American Athletic Conference to replace Texas and OU to the American poaching Conference-USA to replace UCF, Houston, and Cincinnati, the trickle-down effect was unprecedented. The landscape was altered from the highest level of Division I college athletics all the way down to the D2 and D3 ranks.

This summer, more landscape-altering news dropped when USC and UCLA announced they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Initially, many in the media and around college athletics pondered that the Pac-12 wouldn’t survive the blow of two of their flagship institutions departing. Speculation that Oregon, Washington, Cal, and Stanford would follow the Los Angeles schools to the greener pastures of the Big Ten was rampant. Reports circulated that Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah were being aggressively pursued by the Big 12. However, nearly three months removed from the bombshell announcement, there haven’t been any additional moves to this point.

Where do things currently stand on the conference realignment front? Let’s dive into the developments that have either already occurred or will surface in the coming weeks and months.

College Football Playoff Expansion

Just before the start of the college football season kicked off at the beginning of the month, the College Football Playoff’s board of managers unanimously voted to expand the CFP from four to 12 no later than 2026. While many believed expansion was inevitable, the announcement was still significant news for the sport, especially in this climate of conference realignment.

Even more important than the addition of eight teams to the CFP is the format. The current four-team playoff simply selects the four “best and most deserving” teams in the country, regardless of what conference they’re in. In the new format, 12 teams will consist of the six highest ranked conference champions and six additional at-large teams. The four highest-ranked conference champions will receive a first-round bye, leaving the five through 12 seeds to play to advance to the quarterfinals.

Playoff expansion has long been viewed as a positive thing for the health of college football. Since the beginning of the CFP era in 2014, many have complained about the sport’s lack of parity, and rightfully so. Through seven years, only 13 different programs have made the four-team field. Programs like Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Georgia have separated themselves from the rest of the sport because many recruits believe they had to commit to one of those powerhouses to compete for a championship. As a result, many schools and conferences were left with little hope to ever crack the CFP.

In the newly expanded playoff, conferences and schools have something they’ve lacked in the past: access. With six bids reserved for the highest-ranked conference champions, every team in the FBS conceivably has a path to the national championship. Sure, the most well-resourced and talented programs will win in the end in most years, but the power of hope in college athletics is very strong, and the CFP expanding only increases that sense of hope.

In terms of realignment, the six highest ranked conference champions piece is huge. The narrative around college athletics in the aftermath of USC and UCLA’s move was that we were living in the era of the “Power two” with the Big Ten and SEC dominating the landscape. The thought was if you weren’t in any one of those two leagues, you would fall behind. Even though that might be true from a financial perspective in terms of media rights deals, it’s not necessarily true in terms of championship access. Teams now don’t have to join the Big Ten or SEC to compete for a CFP bid. In fact, the path to the playoff might be easier in the Big 12, Pac-12, ACC, and the group of five leagues. Sure, the “Power two” will gobble up most of the at-large bids, but the depth of talented teams in those leagues will make every SEC or Big Ten team’s schedule incredibly difficult.

With six spots reserved for conference champions, at least four bids will go to teams outside the “Power two.” Could the expansion of the CFP slow conference realignment? I believe it’s a strong possibility. If you are Oregon or Washington, are you more inclined to stay in the Pac-12 now? It’s an interesting dynamic. Instead of going through Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, USC, etc. in the Big Ten, you would only have to beat out the likes of historically good, but not great programs like Arizona State, Stanford, Utah, and Washington State to win the Pac-12 crown. Of course, the revenue gap between the SEC and Big Ten to the other conference is not insignificant, but does the better path to the CFP outweigh it? It will be fascinating to watch play out.

Speaking of the revenue gap between the “Power two” and the rest of college athletics, here’s the other important factor in the current state of conference realignment.

The Pac-12 and Big 12’s New Media Rights Agreement

Shortly after USC and UCLA departed for the Big Ten, the Pac-12 decided to expedite the process to negotiate their next media rights agreement. The current deal with ESPN and Fox is set to expire in 2024. Obviously, with USC and UCLA leaving along with the presence of the Los Angeles market, the deal won’t be as lucrative as it would’ve been with those two in the fold. With that being said, there is still some optimism within the Pac-12 and their remaining ten institutions that their next deal will be sufficient to stay competitive moving forward.

Similarly, even though the Big 12’s current media rights deal doesn’t expire until 2025, they recently announced they were opening their negotiations with networks ahead of schedule. One of the few advantages the Pac-12 had was that it was next in line among the major conferences to sign a new deal. When the Big 12 smartly opened their negotiations, that advantage went out the door. Ever since reports circulated that the Big 12 was rumored to be targeting Pac-12 schools, there has been a lot of tension between those two leagues. During media days, new Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark claimed his conference was “open for business” in regards to adding new members. Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff clapped back with "With respect to the Big 12 being open for business, I appreciate that. We haven't decided if we're going shopping there yet or not."

Given ESPN lost out on bidding for the Big Ten rights, many believe the Worldwide Leader will play a huge role in deciding the future of the Big 12 and Pac-12. Is ESPN more interested in securing the rights of the new look Big 12 or the new look Pac-12? Could they sign deals with both? These are all questions that will shape the next round of realignment. Andrew Marchand of the New York Post recently reported that the Pac-12 and ESPN are “hundreds of millions of dollars apart.” If this is true and the remaining Pac-12 schools are unsatisfied with the negotiation process, would they look to jump? It’s possible. Another variable to point out on the media rights subject is the presence of Amazon or other streaming services. We’ve seen the NFL dip their toe into streaming with Thursday Night Football, but how would it work in college athletics? The Pac-12 Networks are often criticized for a lack of distribution, so would the upside of potentially getting more revenue from an Amazon or Apple be offset by the lack of visibility? With the Big Ten and SEC having nearly all of their games on cable television, would it be wise for the Pac-12 to be the only major conference on streaming services? Probably not. George Kliavkoff has expressed optimism about the conference’s ability to sign a good deal and keep its remaining members, but as we know, actions are a lot more powerful than words in conference realignment.

All in all, while we haven’t seen the immediate trickle down like we saw after Texas and Oklahoma joined the SEC, there is still a lot to be sorted out in the coming months. The CFP expansion could definitely lessen the incentive to jump to a more profitable league, but everyone needs to keep an eye on the media rights agreements signed by the Big 12 and Pac-12. I believe college athletics are better when all regions of the country are relevant and regional rivalries are present. We can still have that, but there’s a lot to be decided in the near future.

Brendan can be found on Twitter @_bbell5

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