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<p>(Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)</p>
(Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)

Pac It In: Realignment Tears Down Conference of Champions

“You have a row of dominoes set up; you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is that it will go over very quickly.”

These words of President Eisenhower describe the “Domino Theory” of the 1950s, which served as America’s foreign policy guide throughout the early years of the Cold War. Seven decades later, his sentiments ring true in a different aspect of American culture, one so deeply entrenched in the times and traditions of those who follow it. 

For the last three years, one domino after another has fallen that, when completed, will drastically change the landscape of NCAA Football, one of America’s most beloved pastimes. Over the last 14 months, the black and white blocks have claimed its first victim, toppling over the Pac-12 Conference and sending all but four of its members out of the pile. In addition to the priorly announced moves of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten and Colorado’s move to the Big 12, ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported on Friday evening that Oregon and Washington will join the Los Angeles schools in departure to the Big Ten. Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah quickly followed and will join Colorado in the Big 12 Conference.

Conference re-alignment isn’t necessarily new to college sports, but never had it occurred on such a grand scale as in the past few days. While major conferences have collapsed on similar scales (see the Big East in 2013), never before had the walls of a Power Five conference tumbled so quickly.

So what’s to blame for this unbelievable faltering? Economics? University greed? Network intervention? There’s no one true factor that became the fatal shot, but plenty of bullet wounds would cause the bleed out. 

The emergence of Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) laws has helped boost the brands of each school and its student-athletes. Due to this new variable, each conference could take advantage of the increasing value in its member schools to seek out more lucrative television contracts with bigger networks, such as ESPN, CBS, and FOX. 

At first, the Pac-12 looked well-suited to thrive in this new college sports landscape. As the premier conference on the west coast, the league held strongholds in major television markets with large fanbases such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Denver. Each member school had launched its own NIL collective (following its legalization in 2020) for all its student-athletes, not to mention the individual endorsements accrued by the conference’s biggest stars. These partnerships combine to make each school and league worth more on the television market. ESPN, the worldwide leader in sports television, recognized this and offered the conference a near decade-long extension that would keep the Pac-12 exclusive to ESPN and FOX into the mid-2030s, with their current deal with the networks set to expire after 2023. Their current deal, signed in 2011,was  easily the richest among all NCAA conferences, bringing in $3 billion to the conference over the contract’s 12 year life..

For context, In 2011, the conference signed a 12-year, $3 billion TV deal, easily the richest among all NCAA conferences. Believing there was more money out there for them in the future since they had already seen so much of it in their current deal, former commissioner Larry Scott and the university head’s turned the offer down. Five years later, this decision, in retrospect, was the first domino to fall in the eventual end of the conference as we know it. However, the second domino would not fall within their ranks.

The storied athletic programs of Texas and Oklahoma reignited the re-alignment trend in 2021 (dormant since ~2013), but not for the same reason as the Pac-12’s would-be defectors. UT and OU left jumped their comfortable Big 12 ship for the star-studded Southeastern Conference (SEC) for 2024, with distinction and dollars as their primary motives, not unlike their soon-to-be successors in the re-alignment roulette.

The Sooners and Longhorns stood out both on the field of play and in their brand exposure. According to Heartland College Sports, the athletic programs combined for 46% of the Big 12’s public institutions' total revenue from the 2022 athletic season (over $400 million combined), including incoming programs Houston, UCF, and Cincinnati. Simply put, they were sharing too much money they brought in with less profitable universities. In the 2022 fiscal year, SEC-member schools made about $50 million off revenue sharing, $6 million more per school than the Big 12. In eight years, Texas and Oklahoma would make about $42 million more in the SEC than they would’ve in the Big 12, nearly matching their annual share of revenue had they stayed in the Big 12 on top of the $50 million check they would get yearly from the SEC. For Texas and Oklahoma, the move made sense, and it wouldn’t be long before Pac-12 teams followed.

USC and UCLA were in similar situations in the Pac-12, akin to Texas and Oklahoma in the Big 12. While neither was making the most revenue from athletics in 2022, they announced their intentions to move the Los Angeles market to the Big Ten Conference in 2024 last summer. Colorado would follow suit one academic year later, looking to maximize its newfound athletic’s popularity courtesy of Deion Sanders in the Big 12. Standing as the lone Power Five conference without a long-term television rights deal with a major network, the lack of security, combined with the greener pastures of revenue and national identity to be found elsewhere, the Trojans and Bruins weren’t amiss to seek out a new, more lucrative home.

They found that in the Big Ten Conference, throwing out the regional norms established for over a century. One could hardly blame them. The Big Ten’s member schools are making north of $60 million off its revenue sharing agreement due in large part to its mega-deal with NBC, FOX, and CBS worth well over $7 billion in comparison to a currently non-existent future on television where they were at.

 With their two most profitable schools already on the way out and the increasing uncertainty surrounding its networking future, the Pac-12 was on life support. All they had on the table to keep their member schools was a subscription-based deal with Apple TV that provided no set-in-stone figures for which the schools could expect. Uncertainty in this scenario made it inevitable that a better situation lived beyond the borders of the Pac-12. August 4th, 2023, would be the unofficial death date. Oregon and Washington officially announced their moves to the Big Ten, while Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State bolted for the Big 12 hours later. After being together since 1915, the Pac-12, as the college sports world knew it, ceased to exist.

Oregon State, Washington State, California, and Stanford are the last dominos standing now, with the four schools representing the entirety of the conference come 2024. Their futures are uncertain, but the possibility of a merger with the Mountain West Conference seems to be the most viable option for them. Whatever move that quartet takes next, the Pac-12 as we know it is dead with its blood on the dollars of its ill-fated, unstructured leadership.

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