College sports experienced yet another seismic shift Thursday when the Big Ten Conference announced that it was adding the University of Southern California and UCLA to its ranks, starting in 2024. A conference that once was the domain of flinty Midwesterners will soon become a bicoastal affair, and the aftershocks of such a move are nowhere close to being over.
Here, we attempt to explain the basics of USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, along with what it means for the entirety of college sports.
Why are USC and UCLA leaving the Pacific-12 Conference for the Big Ten?
On its face, two teams from Southern California joining a conference rooted mainly in the U.S. Midwest does not make sense. But geography and natural rivals mean little in the grand scheme of conference realignment. Money does.
USC and UCLA stand to make somewhere around $80 million annually by joining the Big Ten, which is in the process of negotiating new television contracts that will bring in a massive influx of cash, and could become the first conference to bring in $1 billion annually from its television deals. The addition of two brand names from a huge media market will only sweeten these deals for the Big Ten.
The Pac-12 distributed only $19.8 million to each of its members in fiscal year 2021, a pittance compared with the other Power Five conferences. Each SEC team received $54.6 million, and each Big Ten team received $46.1 million, and those payouts will only increase because of new television deals, which are written to ensure conferences get more money by poaching other major schools.
The influx of money will be especially important to UCLA, whose athletic department has racked up a $102.8 million budget deficit over the past three years.
By waiting until 2024 to join the Big Ten, UCLA and USC also will not suffer any financial penalties for leaving the Pac-12. The conference has what’s known as a grant-of-rights agreement with its schools that’s tied to its current television deal. This means that the Pac-12 would receive the media-rights money that any departing team would receive from its new conference, even if they no longer were in the conference. However, this grant of rights deal expires after the 2022-23 academic year, meaning UCLA and USC will owe nothing to the Pac-12 if they leave after that.
What will the Pac-12 do without USC and UCLA?
Pac-12 officials reportedly were blindsided by the news that its two Southern California anchors were leaving. The two powers had been playing in the Pac-12 or its forebears since the 1920s, and their departures leave the remaining schools—Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Colorado, Washington, Washington State, Stanford, California, Oregon and Oregon State—with an existential problem and few good options.
One possibility for the Pac-12 would be to simply replace USC and UCLA with other Western schools that have generally competitive football programs, such as San Diego State, Boise State and Fresno State. But none of those schools have the brand names that the Trojans and Bruins have, and television networks would not see these additions as worthy of massive rights deals.
Another option would be to approach the Big 12 about some sort of merger. That conference already has dealt with crippling losses after Texas and Oklahoma announced that they would leave for the Southeastern Conference starting with the 2025 season. After that announcement, the Big 12 reportedly reached out to the Pac-12 about a merger but was rebuffed. Instead, the Big 12 replaced those two football titans with Cincinnati, Brigham Young, Houston and UCF.
But again, the big question is whether such a conference would garner interest from the television networks, which would be hesitant to pay hundreds of millions to a mega-conference lacking in mega-names.
Is conference expansion over now?
Don’t expect conference expansion or realignment to stop with USC and UCLA leaving for the Big Ten.
Another worry for the Pac-12 is that the Big Ten or Big 12 will try to poach more schools from what is now a severely weakened conference. What if the Big Ten decides that the Trojans and Bruins need more West Coast partners? Oregon and Washington have the most prestige, while Stanford and Cal have the academic pedigree the Big Ten ostensibly desires. What if the Big 12 views Utah and Colorado as good fits? The Utes have a natural rivalry with BYU, and the Buffaloes previously were a member of the Big 12 before leaving for the Pac-12 in 2011.
Broadening this line of thought nationally leads to further questions.
What does this mean for Notre Dame?
Notre Dame’s football brand is one of the strongest in the nation, and what the school decides to do could be the ultimate bellwether of what top-level college football will look like in the future.
As it stands now, Notre Dame is a full member of the ACC in all sports except football. In that sport, the Fighting Irish has a scheduling agreement with the ACC in which it play five games per season against teams from that conference.
It’s widely assumed that Notre Dame’s quasi-independent status in football is untenable when considering the amount of money that Big Ten and SEC schools will end up making from their television deals. The Fighting Irish’s television deal with NBC, the football team’s broadcast home since 1991, is worth $15 million annually, and Notre Dame gets an estimated $10 million or $11 million annually from the ACC. It’s estimated that Big Ten and SEC teams annually could receive $80 million to $100 million each when the conference’s new television deal is worked out.
Do the math. Notre Dame’s days as a football independent are probably numbered, particularly when its NBC deal—for decades a financial bulwark against the need for any full conference affiliation—ends after the 2025 season. The Big Ten as a destination would make the most sense in terms of geography and traditional opponents, but with UCLA and USC joining a Midwestern-based league of non-rivals, those considerations now seem to be a moot point in the modern college sports landscape.
What does this mean for the ACC?
An ACC without Notre Dame football would put that conference in dire straits, particularly because the long-term television deal it worked out with ESPN that started in 2019 now looks downright quaint compared with the ones either in place or soon to be done for the SEC and Big Ten. The conference as a whole gets about $240 million per year from the deal. Again, the Big Ten is looking at an annual television payment of around $1 billion per year.
Oh, and that ACC television deal is locked in through 2036.
The ACC also has a grant-of-rights agreement with its schools, and it’s rumored to be hefty. If any school wishes to leave, it reportedly would have to pay more than $50 million to break the grant of rights or else surrender its new media-rights deals to the ACC. But if the SEC or Big Ten could promise a school $80 million annually to leave, that penalty would be hardly onerous.
If we’re speculating, Clemson, Florida State, Miami and maybe Virginia Tech would be natural targets for the SEC, while North Carolina, Duke, Virginia and perhaps Syracuse would likely be Big Ten targets.
What will college sports look like in 2026?
We’re pegging this question to 2026 of two reasons: College football is driving all of this, and the College Football Playoff’s television contract with ESPN expires after the 2025 season. After that, the college sports landscape as we know it could receive a wholesale makeover.
What if the Big Ten and SEC continue their likely raid of other conferences to the point where their size and strength are such that they decide to leave the NCAA entirely, entering into talks with the television networks about creating their own personal fiefdom? Any school not desired by one of those two conferences would be left with scraps.
What if the Big Ten and SEC decide to break away from the NCAA but bring along all 64 teams in the Power Five conferences (Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, Pac-12) plus Notre Dame? There would be fewer teams left out, but still plenty of them.
And let’s not forget about college basketball, which doesn’t bring in nearly the money that college football does but still generates a lot of revenue, thanks in great part to the NCAA’s television contracts for its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. The NCAA’s deal with CBS and Turner Sports for the men’s tournament runs through 2032, and its blue-bloods-and Cinderellas format makes for compelling television every March. But what if all those blue bloods—basking in the prospect of further college football-generated riches—decide to leave the NCAA and create their own tournament?
It seems unthinkable now, but until Thursday, so did the prospect of USC and Rutgers being conference foes.