In college athletics, the rich get richer. Others get left in the lurch.

by | Jul 1, 2022 | Journalism, Miscellaneous | 1 comment

Thursday’s news that USC and UCLA will defect from the Pac-12 Conference to join the Big Ten in 2024 struck at first like a thunderbolt — it certainly caught the other 10 members of the Pac-12 by surprise — but maybe it shouldn’t have been such a shock.

After all, the move by the two Los Angeles schools is driven, first and foremost, by cash — as The New York Times reported, the Big Ten is on the verge of signing a television rights deal that’s expected to be the richest in college-sports history, and adding two schools in the nation’s second-biggest TV market can only sweeten that deal. That means more money for USC and UCLA. (By contrast, as the Times noted, the Pac-12 has been “hamstrung by a television deal that pays its schools tens of millions of dollars less per year than the Big Ten’s contract.”)

The Times reported that UCLA and USC made the initial contacts with the Big Ten about joining that conference — and, from a money standpoint, that makes sense.

The move certainly made sense to the Big Ten — the addition of the two California schools sets up the conference as the major rival to the Southeastern Conference, which has dominated college football in recent years. It also moves college athletics, dominated so thoroughly by the revenue generated by football, a big step closer to having a handful of “super-conferences” with substantial financial advantages over other conferences. It’s another step toward a college athletics landscape with a few “haves” and many “have-nots.”

That means kicking other conferences, such as the Pac-12, to the curb.

And it leaves the conference’s smaller schools, such as Oregon State and Washington State, in a tough situation.

OSU officials tried to put their best faces on the situation in statements on Thursday. Becky Johnson, OSU’s interim president, said the university was “surprised and disappointed” by the decision by USC and UCLA and said OSU “continues to strongly believe in the continuing strength of the Pac-12 Conference as a conference of champions made up of globally recognized Tier 1 research universities.”

Added Scott Barnes, OSU vice president and director of intercollegiate athletics: “We are engaged in ongoing discussions with the Pac-12 Conference and Oregon State University leadership to ensure that Oregon State and the Pac-12 remain at the highest level of intercollegiate membership and competition nationally.”

That’s what you would expect OSU officials to say. But it may be difficult to accomplish.

Jon Wilner, the longtime Mercury News writer (and the best reporter covering the Pac-12) broke the story Thursday morning, and had this assessment of what it meant for the Pac-12: “Without an anchor in Southern California, the league is a shell of its former self.”

The Times was almost as bleak: “The exodus of U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. also imperils the Pac-12 Conference, a proud league that has counted the schools within its ranks since the 1920s but has struggled in recent years to keep pace financially and on the field with the Big Ten and the SEC.”

Added a writer for ESPN: “This has the potential to serve as essentially a death blow for the Pac-12. It can still exist but the idea that it can compete in the national landscape without the Los Angeles schools is absurd.”

One of the big fears for the Pac-12 going forward is that Oregon and Washington could follow suit and reach out to the Big Ten, as a matter of self-preservation. That might be attractive to the Big Ten, which would then have four schools on the West Coast. And does anybody believe that Oregon officials didn’t spend time on the phone Thursday with the Big Ten? (The Los Angeles Times was reporting Thursday night that no other Pac-12 schools are expected to join the Big Ten “at this time,” but take that with a grain of salt.)

Meanwhile, as Wilner explained, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado could look for other conference options as well. That potentially leaves OSU, Stanford, California and Washington State as the remnants of the Pac-12. The conference would have to seek out other schools to join as new members, but the pickings there seem slim — and, most important, a reworked Pac-12 could not command anywhere near the sort of TV revenue that will be flowing to more powerful conferences.

John Canzano, the former Oregonian sports columnist who now runs his own website, argued that OSU and Washington State have been left in the lurch on all of this, without any clear steps forward. “The best-case scenario for the Beavers and Cougars is that Oregon and Washington stay put in the Pac-12,” he wrote, and said it’s essential for Commissioner George Kliavkoff to find a way to keep those two schools in the conference fold.

Canzano’s worst case for OSU and WSU: “They wake up soon and find that they’ve been abandoned by their rival universities.” (His full column on this, by the way, is well worth reading, and if you like it, consider signing up as one of his paying customers. )

Canzano is blunt about laying the blame for this at the feet of Larry Scott, the former Pac-12 commissioner who negotiated the TV-rights deal that shortchanged Pac-12 schools while rivals in other conferences collected millions more. Scott kept saying that the Pac-12 would cash in big when the conference’s media rights were renegotiated in 2024. Somehow, that doesn’t seem like such a good bet now.

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