In June of last year, USC and UCLA decided to leave the Pac-12 and commit to playing games across the country as a part of the Big Ten starting in 2024. At the time, the move was seen as a shock to the Pac-12.
Two of the conference’s most recognizable and profitable teams were suddenly out of the picture — a fact made that much worse when, last week, Colorado announced its decision to rejoin the Big XII after this season.
The reality of the Pac-12 becoming the Pac-9 puts the conference as a whole in jeopardy, as departing schools hamper valuations for a yet-unsigned media deal, pressuring remaining programs to leave in turn.
However, warning signs came well before the summer of 2022. For schools in any conference, negotiating a piece of the media rights pie is a crucial part of athletics revenue. The Pac-12’s current media deals with FOX and ESPN total about $250 million. That sounds like big money — at most about $21 million for each school — not accounting for funds taken by the conference or additional parties.
But what was big money in 2012 has been dwarfed a decade later.
Following UCLA and USC’s announcement to move, the Big Ten signed its own new-age media rights agreement, totaling $7 billion over seven years. This deal will net its now 16 members about $80 to $100 million annually. Even before this massive move, the Big Ten was able to provide its members with sums north of $50 million, a far cry from what the Pac-12 offered.
With such a difference in compensation, it is perhaps no wonder that USC and UCLA decided to jump ship. In Colorado’s case, its homecoming to the Big XII will net it an equal part of a new deal that will pay out an average of $380 million per year.
For now, the Pac-12’s focus is on securing a new media deal in an effort to retain its remaining members. As long as the conference is unable to match or beat offerings from other conferences, no team is sure to stay.
Rumors have circulated that the Big Ten is considering bringing Oregon and Washington in as its 17th and 18th members, with Cal and Stanford also on the table for spots 19 and 20.
Arizona is another team with one foot out the door. The University of Arizona’s board of regents called a previously unscheduled meeting this week to discuss their options. The Big XII is a likely landing spot for the Wildcats if they decide to leave.
Without a major response, the Pac-12 could be on the verge of a death spiral. Currently, the conference is in talks with Apple to bring a subscription-based, tiered system to conference payouts. Early projections indicate that such a deal would fall short of what league members may expect.
That doesn’t sound all bad, given that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff could get away with maintaining the status quo by adding no new teams. Once the current media rights deal expires, the nine remaining members would get a bigger cut of the pie in 2024 upon the departure of USC, UCLA and Colorado.
However, this is all contingent on the Pac-12 being able to strike a new deal. And the longer Kliavkoff takes to add more schools —and therefore value— to the conference in efforts to ink a media deal, the pressure for member schools to find greener pastures will continue to mount.
Even before USC and UCLA’s decision to move, it was clear that the Pac-12’s lack of media leverage against conferences like the Big Ten and the SEC would result in a major shakeup. Now, Kliavkoff and the Pac-12’s other ranking officials are in a tough position, with the future more uncertain than ever before.