Fans love college sports because of tradition. Rivalries are born out of geography. But at the end of the day, cash rules all, and that is why both Oregon and Washington are the latest schools to leave the Pac-12 conference.
They will be joining the Big Ten in 2024, as will USC and UCLA, which was announced last year. Colorado has gone back to a new look Big 12, and reports are that Arizona is hoping to join them. And then maybe Arizona State and Utah, but that’s still TBD. Everything is happening quickly, like a game of musical chairs, and the price for losing a seat is more than $30 million.
That is the driver of all of this. The Pac-12s inability to secure a media rights contract on the same level as what they have in the Big Ten and Big 12 is why suddenly everyone is convinced that the greener pastures lay to the east.
All of the hand-wringing by university presidents on the effects of NIL rights, and how the money being paid to players needs to be regulated, feels more than a little hypocritical.
The Future of the Pac-12
First formed in 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference, the charter members were the University of California, University of Washington, University of Oregon, and what would later become Oregon State. Washington State and Stanford joined by the end of 1918, and by 1922 the conference had 10 member schools with the additions of USC, UCLA, Idaho, and Montana.
There were a few iterations of the conference in the following years, but in 1978 it became the Pacific-10 Conference, and it was a perfect match of five pairs of geographic rivals. There were two teams each in Washington, Oregon, the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Arizona. It made for easy travel, rivalry weekends, and divided households on game day.
If somehow the Pac-12 can hold on to Arizona, that means that Arizona State would likely stay. The two schools and their athletic departments seem to agree that a split of the rivalry would be bad for both. That was the similar sentiment of USC and UCLA, and why they made the move together. However, the regional rivalries were not enough to keep Oregon alongside Oregon State, and Washington with Washington State.
If Arizona goes, and Arizona State and Utah follow, the Pac-12 will be down to California, Stanford, Oregon State, and Washington State. Other than the Bay Area, that leaves them without any desirable television markets, which is one the issues at the heart of the realignment. Corvallis, Oregon and Pullman, Washington are not exciting for television networks.
At that point, it is quite likely that the Pac-12 becomes the first major conference to go away since the Southwest Conference ceased to exist in 1996. That would leave the remaining schools to seek residency in the Mountain West Conference, which would give the MWC a total of 16 football programs.
The Future the Big Ten
The addition of Oregon and Washington will give the Big Ten a total of 18 member schools. Realignment would be in order, as would a name change that doesn’t involve a number. (This would also hold true for the Big 12 conference, which hasn’t had 12 teams since 2011).
We might see the formation of more than two divisions. One of the concerns for Washington and Oregon as they make the move is the increase in travel costs. One estimate has that as high as $10 million for the year when you consider all of the sports, and all of the conference opponents that now sit three time zones away.
The media rights deal for Big Ten schools is $60 million each. However reports are that Oregon and Washington will only see half of that in their first year in the conference. Still, it’s more than enough to cover the extra travel expenses, with plenty left over for the people at the top.