The reverberations from USC and UCLA exiting the Pac-12 for the Big Ten continue. The Big 12 intends to position itself to scoop up the most desirable remaining Pac-12 members, turning the tables on how things stood a year ago. The Pac-12 will enact its own plan, but, perhaps most importantly, can it hold on to Oregon and Washington? Meanwhile, questions loom at the national level. While all eyes are on what Notre Dame will do, what’s there to make of North Carolina? The Athletic staff dives into the latest realignment developments.
The Big 12 on the offensive?
The Big 12 has been given an unexpected opportunity to strengthen its position among the Power 5 conferences. Its new commissioner doesn’t want to waste it.
The league is having “serious” talks with six Pac-12 schools — Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington — and is determined to move quickly, sources told The Athletic. Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, hired just last week, has been described as “super aggressive” by one source and has the backing of the Big 12 presidents and chancellors to pursue the addition of Pac-12 members.
It’s unclear just how quickly the Big 12 could get a deal done on its expansion efforts, but those sources expressed optimism that Yormark can pull it off. CBS Sports first reported the Big 12 was in discussions about adding multiple Pac-12 schools.
Arizona and Arizona State have long been considered logical fits for the Big 12 if those schools ever had interest in exiting the Pac-12. But USC and UCLA bolting to the Big Ten has the Big 12 dreaming bigger. It’s also eyeing Utah, the Pac-12’s football champion in 2021, and Colorado, a Big Eight and Big 12 member until 2011.
The aspirations of Oregon and Washington are more difficult to predict right now. For both, it likely makes sense to keep their options open and hold out for the possibility of joining the Big Ten or SEC. The Big 12 would take those first four, but an effort to bring in all six is certainly worth attempting.
“(Yormark has) talked about making sure we’re going to be aggressive, we’re not going to sit on our hands,” one Big 12 athletic director told The Athletic. “I’ve talked to some ADs, and we think we’re in a position of strength.”
Yormark first met his ADs last Friday in a Zoom meeting, and several said he was impressive in his debut. He was strong in his conviction that the Big 12 can thrive in this changing climate and appears to have the right connections to help it happen. He wasn’t supposed to officially get to work until Aug. 1, but Yormark is embracing this opportunity to disrupt and knows the Big 12 can’t afford to sit back and watch this latest realignment saga unfold. — Max Olson and Chris Vannini
What the Big 12 could gain from adding these particular Pac-12 programs
When any league has a chance to be an aggressor in a round of conference realignment, it usually takes it. Beyond the obvious draw of Oregon and Washington, the Arizona schools would bring the Phoenix media market, the 11th-largest in the country. Colorado would bring Denver (No. 16), and Utah would solidify Salt Lake City (No. 30) alongside incoming Big 12 member BYU.
It also makes sense from a scheduling and travel perspective, especially with BYU already in the fold starting in 2023. It would preserve the Holy War, and while keeping or reigniting rivalries isn’t typically a major driving factor in any move like this, it would be a great byproduct.
A source at one of the target schools noted that many Pac-12 fans don’t travel well, and the strong fan bases in the Big 12 are another factor that make the conference intriguing. The idea of having Iowa State, BYU or Kansas State fans visit more regularly than several current Pac-12 schools could be appealing.
One Big 12 source noted that Colorado was “very skittish” back in 2010 when it fled the Big 12 for the Pac-12, seeking stability as well as the potential exposure/enrollment of the West Coast. Perhaps that calculation looks a little different in the current college athletic landscape — and a Pac-12 that doesn’t include the L.A. schools.
“I think a lot of things are possible,” the Big 12 source said. — Nicole Auerbach and Vannini
How is the Pac-12 responding?
Less than a week after the league lost its flagship schools, a Pac-12 source said that the conference is operating with a sense of urgency but is “not panicked.” If one of the remaining Pac-12 schools suddenly got a call from the Big Ten or the SEC, the source said it would be reason enough for the rest to press a panic button. But the Big 12? The source said that the current iteration of the Big 12 isn’t an obvious yes. It might make more sense for the Arizonas/Colorado/Utah contingent to wait a bit and consider all options, including whatever the Pac-12 is able to cobble together as a counteroffer.
One option that is worth exploring, the source said, is some sort of partnership between the Pac-12 and the ACC. (Just don’t call it an “alliance,” please.) Both leagues need a boost, because they’re both about to fall way behind the SEC and Big Ten in terms of annual revenue. The ACC is stuck in a media rights deal that essentially depreciates in value and doesn’t expire until 2036 — would a deal with the Pac-12 allow the ACC to renegotiate such a (bad) deal? It’s a question that administrators across the country are asking. — Auerbach
Could the Pac-12 end up regretting its 2021 inaction?
Less than a year ago, the Pac-12 could’ve made a move. New commissioner George Kliavkoff received plenty of interest from leaders at Big 12 schools who were looking to jump ship. It would’ve been way too easy to poach its most attractive members, plant a flag in the state of Texas and potentially bring an end to the Big 12.
But to the Pac-12, those schools just weren’t attractive enough.
Kliavkoff instead pursued the option that his conference believed added more value at the time, partnering with the ACC and Big Ten for their ill-fated Alliance. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said at the time that they hoped the pact would “allow a conference like the Big 12 to figure out their path forward.” Calling that merciful seems a bit generous, but inaction on expansion by the Pac-12 did aid the Big 12 in coming together and agreeing to bring in four new members.
The Big 12 survived because no Power 5 league wanted its eight remaining schools. The Pac-12 might not be so fortunate.
“Shame on the Big 12 if they don’t do what the Pac-12 was unwilling to do last year,” one Group of 5 AD told The Athletic.
That’s not to say the Pac-12 would’ve avoided its present-day problems by raiding the Big 12. Even if USC and UCLA had been supportive of expansion (and sources believe they were not), such a move wouldn’t have prevented them from bolting for a better deal in the Big Ten.
But it was a moment in time in which the Pac-12 could’ve knocked a competitor out of the market and established a Power 4.
The Big 12 can do the same right now, though it won’t be quite as easy to pull off. Nobody is questioning whether Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah add enough value to the Big 12 to be worthwhile. Its leaders want to be aggressive. They’ve lived through this exact cycle of panic, fear and uncertainty, so they know how vulnerable the Pac-12 presidents are right now and how amenable they should be to the offer of a good solution.
The wild card, of course, is Yormark. He has plenty to learn about this landscape, and he’s having to do so as fast as possible. Yormark brings 30-plus years of experience in pro sports, not college. He doesn’t have longtime relationships with these commissioners. Maybe that helps. He doesn’t owe it to them to be collegial. The Big 12 has been through enough to know doing nothing can prove costly. — Olson
Why is the Pac-12 opening its media rights negotiations now?
The Pac-12 announced on Tuesday that its Board of Directors had “authorized the conference to immediately begin negotiations for its next media rights agreements.” The timing grabbed attention, but sources inside and out of the Pac-12 seemed to think it made sense. The Pac-12, with its current agreement up in 2024, needs to do anything and everything it can to preserve its existence, and it believes that going to media partners and getting their valuation will help.
Or maybe you can game out a merger or partnership.
If you’re Arizona or Colorado, wouldn’t you want all the facts and figures before deciding to jump to some other league? It’s useful info that perhaps will lead to the current Pac-12 members recommitting to one another. At least, that’s the optimistic view of the situation.
A more pessimistic view: Getting the numbers does not change the numbers. The Pac-12’s value to potential media partners has taken a significant hit, whether it can put a specific dollar figure on that or not. — Auerbach
So, what about the best of the rest?
A former Pac-12 administrator put it in simple terms Tuesday: Oregon and Washington trump anything that the Big 12 can offer.
That’s worth remembering in all of this, as the Big 12 and its new, uninhibited commissioner look to punch first and annex a portion of what’s left of the Pac-12. While it’s unclear what the Ducks and Huskies may do — and what real options they have at the moment — it is safe to say that those two programs, more than anyone else, have control over the fate of the Pac-12 right now.
The Pac-12 is no doubt trying to get ahead of matters itself — why else would it put out a statement saying it will immediately begin its media rights negotiations? — but that statement likely does little to actually affect the current situation.
It also distracts from the bigger questions at play on a national level.
What will Notre Dame do?
And, perhaps as importantly, what will North Carolina do?
Don’t underestimate the power of the Tar Heels in all of this. While things have been relatively quiet in ACC country since the UCLA and USC news last week, UNC remains the biggest prize not named Notre Dame. It is a national brand — what other school has a shade of blue named after it? — with a sterling academic reputation. And it is the flagship school of the nation’s 10th-biggest state in terms of population — one that happens to be the biggest remaining state that is not currently in the Big Ten or SEC footprint.
Either of the “Power Two” conferences can make legitimate cases for why it should add UNC. Its former chancellor (Carol Folt) is now the president of USC, the newest member of the Big Ten, which used to be run by a former Tar Heels point guard named Jim Delany. The SEC, meanwhile, could view the potential addition of the school as the perfect response to the Big Ten’s move last week, while also doing little to upset the current league membership.
The assumption has long been that if schools were able to leave the ACC — that conference’s grant of rights remains a thorny issue — and the SEC was interested in further expansion, the obvious candidates would be Clemson and Florida State, which have combined to win six football national titles since 1981 and three since 2013. But North Carolina is held in high regard in certain quarters of the SEC. So is Virginia, which on its face would seem a better fit for the Big Ten. UVA is the flagship university in the next-largest state that contains neither a Big Ten nor SEC school. And that could make it valuable to both leagues.
If a package deal were required to convince North Carolina to spurn the Big Ten (where it would fit quite well), then perhaps the SEC could try to add a mix of brand power, football success and academic prestige while also filling in its region’s map. Adding all four would bring the SEC’s future membership to 20, which would have sounded absurd a year ago. But nothing seems absurd now. — Matt Fortuna and Andy Staples
(Photo: Matthew Pearce / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
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