Remember during the last round of college sports conference realignment, when I told you not to worry if you didn't like where your favorite school ended up "because we'll probably be doing this again in a few years?" Well, it hasn't even been two years, and here we are again.
Two weeks ago, the most radical - and sudden - realignment in college football history occurred, wherein a “Power 5” conference with over 100 years of history was essentially dismantled over the course of a couple of days. The Pac-12, which was already facing the losses of USC and UCLA following the 2023 season, saw five of its schools depart for other conferences after a meeting to sign a conference media rights deal fell apart at the last moment. The 2023-24 sports year will be the venerable Pac-12's last in its current configuration, and likely for good.
|The Pac-12: disappearing in 2024
The waters churned in the Pac-12 breakup's wake. Last week, it appeared that Cal, Stanford and even SMU were headed to the ACC, even as schools already in that conference like Florida State were looking for a way out. The ACC seems to be standing pat for now, but that could change at any moment (especially since their television contract isn't as advantageous as those of the SEC and Big Ten). Meanwhile, the fate of Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Wazzou remains unresolved and will likely involve adding or joining schools in the Mountain West or American Athletic Conferences. That in turn, will cause more dominoes to fall. Things are still in flux, and even as the 2023 football season gets underway we have no idea what the conference lineup for 2024 is going to look like.
There's plenty of blame for the demise of the Pac-12, starting with the folks who run the Pac-12 itself, as the San Francisco Chronicle's Connor Letournau explains:
A complete failure of leadership pushed the Pac-12 to this point. By overvaluing their product, showing a stunning lack of urgency and refusing to adapt with the times, league decision-makers reduced the West Coast’s premier conference to four castoffs. The eight teams that departed over the past 13 months weren’t merely opportunists; they identified the problem.
Though Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff has made his share of costly blunders since taking the job three years ago, his predecessor, Larry Scott, deserves much of the blame for the league’s predicament. Before he signed a historic 12-year, $3 billion TV deal with Fox and ESPN in spring 2011, he failed to add an escape clause.
That locked in the Pac-12 until 2024, which left it vulnerable to having its teams poached by Power 5 conferences with bigger subsequent annual media-rights payouts. By inking a TV deal in spring 2016 that lasted just six years, the Big Ten positioned itself to beat the Pac-12 back to negotiations and, ultimately, convince UCLA and USC to come aboard. Those two defections last summer set the Pac-12 on its current trajectory.
Scott’s biggest misstep was the Pac-12 Networks, which didn’t come close to realizing their billing as a cutting-edge enterprise that would serve as an industry standard-bearer. Instead of partnering with a proven media company like ESPN, Scott launched a network fully owned by the schools in summer 2012, complete with an odd seven-channel model that confused consumers.
The Pac-12 Networks struggled to find distribution. Without ever approaching the revenue Scott had projected, it is now considered an albatross that weighs down the remaining league members’ bottom lines.
More recently, the conference apparently turned down a television rights deal worth $30 million per school, because they thought they deserved more. The media disagreed, leaving the Pac-12 to scramble, ultimately unsuccessfully, for another media rights deal.
In that regard, blame also needs to be laid at the feet of the television networks, who are willing to destroy college football's regional tradition as long as it means new conferences with more marquee matchups that attract more viewers. The conference commissioners and university presidents chasing after those television dollars are also culpable. Everybody will try to avoid blame for the Pac-12's demise, but everybody is responsible. (A great
As a college football fan, I find this latest round of realignment to be rather bizarre. In what world does it make sense for a school in Eugene, Oregon to be in the same conference as one from Piscataway, New Jersey? How are student-athletes, especially those playing non-revenue sports such as volleyball or soccer, supposed to balance their studies with the cross-country travel (and attendant jetlag) that these mega-conferences will entail?
Furthermore, having been a student at the University of Houston when the Southwest Conference disintegrated and Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor went to join the Big XII while the Cougars, along with Rice, TCU and SMU, got shunted off to “mid-major” leagues like C-USA and the WAC, I can't help but feel bad for the folks at Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State who are almost certainly looking at a future in the "Group of 5" world. I know what this feels like: a gut-punch; a betrayal. (It should also strike fear in the hearts of administrators at "second-tier" Power 5 schools like Vanderbilt, Northwestern, Indiana and Wake Forest. Next time, it could be them.)
With that said, I'm selfishly grateful that Houston was able to make the jump from the Group of 5 "have-nots" to the (now) Power 4 "haves." In being admitted to the Big 12 right before this latest round of realignment occurred, Houston may have gotten on the "last chopper out," so to speak.
|The new Big 12: appearing in 2024
There are now too many irreconcilable differences between the not-for-profit college mission and for-profit football. It's time to get on with the divorce.
I don't believe college football has attained the NFL's level just yet. But that may, sadly, be where the sport is headed.
I'll have my preview of the 2023 UH football season up in another week or so.