Is anyone else having a serious case of realignment deja vu?
For 11 days in June 2010, all other college sports matters ground to a halt as we waited to see whether the Pac-10 would successfully put the Big 12 out of business. Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were believed to be imminently heading west. In the meantime, Nebraska bolted to the Big Ten, Boise State joined the Mountain West, and every rumor you can imagine percolated at some point.
Fast forward to August 2023, and we are currently waiting to see whether the Big 12 will successfully put the Pac-12 out of business. Colorado already left, and Arizona, Arizona State and Utah reportedly are contemplating a move. In the meantime, during the span of a few hours Wednesday, reports emerged that the Big Ten is exploring adding more West Coast schools, and Florida State’s president openly threatened that his school might leave the ACC.
What. Is. Happening???
The earthquake that began when Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2021 and intensified when USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2022 has brought us to the cusp of potentially the most radical restructuring of major college football in the past 30 years.
But this period also eventually could come and go with the only moves of consequence involving Colorado and one other school. If it happens to be Utah again, that would be one ironic callback to 2010.
It’s the latest spin on college sports’ never-ending realignment hamster wheel. Sure, it might die down every few years, as it did from roughly 2014-2020.
But then, the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC Game of the Week deals all came up within two years of each other, and boom, off we go for another round — this one even more cutthroat than most of its precursors.
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The now 13-month saga of the Pac-12’s media rights deal reached full-on panic mode Tuesday when commissioner George Kliavkoff finally presented a deal to his members. Initial reports were not encouraging. Apple would become the league’s primary distributor, with an unconventional revenue structure in which the schools might make more than the Big 12’s $31.7 million average but only if they help drive an unspecified number of streaming subscriptions.
Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormak already has poached one Pac-12 school, Colorado, and would love to have another, with Arizona the presumed frontrunner. Could the Pac-12 survive one more defection if it turns around and brings in San Diego State and others? Probably. Could it survive two or three more? Absolutely not.
This brings us to Wednesday’s first mini-bombshell. As The Athletic confirmed, a subgroup of four Big Ten presidents began “exploratory discussions” about potentially adding two (Oregon and Washington) or four (add Stanford and Cal) of the remaining Pac-12 members. Privately, Big Ten administrators had shown little interest recently in further expansion, but, like us, they’re watching the fragile state of the Pac-12 from afar.
And then came Florida State’s wild board of trustees meeting/pep rally. Athletic director Michael Alford has aired his frustrations publicly with the ACC’s revenue situation for some time, but few have taken it seriously because, like the other 14 ACC members, FSU supposedly is bound by a grant of rights through 2036. That did not appear to concern university president Richard McCullough, who, in addressing the school’s “existential crisis,” came out Wednesday and said the quiet part out loud.
“I believe that FSU will have to, at some point, consider very seriously leaving the ACC — unless there were a radical change to the revenue distribution,” he said.
He then was followed by a string of trustees, including former Noles quarterback Drew Weatherford, who all effectively said some version of, “Yeah, let’s do it!”
As crazy as it sounds, I could see all of the above happening.
I also could see none of it happening.
Because while all this is going on, the TV companies that have funded every previous round of realignment are undergoing their own existential crisis.
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When the Big Ten announced its record-setting $1 billion-per-year deals with Fox, NBC and CBS last summer, it seemed like yet another milestone in the never-ending bubble that is sports TV rights. That number marked a nearly 250 percent increase for the Big Ten in just six years, and only partially because of USC and UCLA.
Kliavkoff, perhaps naively, figured his league could expect much the same bump when the Pac-12 opened negotiations shortly thereafter. During the past year, however, he has learned those rules no longer apply. ESPN’s parent company, Disney, is going through massive cost-cutting. CEO Bob Iger sent a shudder through the industry when he declared in February that the company would be “more selective” with sports properties. The NFL? No-brainer. NBA? No-brainer.
Pac-12 football? Not so much.
But it’s not just Kliavkoff’s conference feeling the squeeze. Even the mighty SEC got a humbling taste of the new recipe when ESPN declined its request for more money in exchange for moving from eight to nine conference games. The network is under no obligation to pay a dollar more than it already does for the league’s entire inventory, but the conference’s leaders mistakenly believed it would do so anyway for the opportunity to show more LSU-Auburn, less LSU-McNeese State. Thus the SEC is staying at eight for now.
Meanwhile, the long-held hope among sports leagues that streamers like Amazon and Apple would soon start throwing money at them mostly has not come to pass. Amazon went all in on Thursday Night Football because the NFL is the NFL. Beyond that, however, the streamers mostly have focused on smaller, cheaper properties like MLS and, apparently, the Pac-12.
The Big Ten may well want to throw Oregon and Washington a lifeline and create its own little After Dark package, but it would still need someone to pay for it. Don’t assume Fox/CBS/NBC will just keep throwing money at the league every time it gets a yearning. It certainly becomes more realistic if those schools come in at a reduced share, but the increased travel expenses that go with it also would have to be taken into account
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That brings us to Florida State. Were one to listen to that meeting Wednesday, one would think the school can just snap its finger at any moment and truckloads of cash suddenly will descend upon Tallahassee. Who wouldn’t want a piece of (according to FSU’s president) the 12th-most watched program in the country during the past decade?
The most logical suitor would be the SEC, but as mentioned previously, ESPN holds the rights to the SEC through 2034. ESPN currently pays $30 million-ish per year for the rights to Florida State’s home games via its ACC deal. How’s it going to feel about paying roughly double that for the same school, just in a different league?
But, maybe the Big Ten will go to 18 or 20 teams first, and the SEC will feel the need to counter.
For now, all eyes remain on the Pac-12. The Big Ten, by all accounts, does not want to be the aggressor that finishes off its longtime Rose Bowl partner (even though it started the process). It likely only will pursue Oregon/Washington if Arizona/ASU/Utah leave for the Big 12 first, leaving the Ducks and Huskies without a viable home.
If Kliavoff can pull off what may seem like a mini-miracle at this point and get everyone to stay put, he conceivably could end the whole chain of disruption immediately. Unless of course, FSU has the stones to go through with what it’s threatening and bolt the ACC in the next two weeks.
If not, the Pac-12, with an alliance that dates all the way back to 1915, will follow in the dreaded footsteps of the Southwest Conference and the Big East before it, the latest victim of a three-decade transformation of athletic leagues into television properties.
And then, we may finally find out what might have happened to the rest of college sports if they reached the nuclear stage 13 years earlier.
(Top photo: Brian Murphy / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)