The college sports conferences consist of the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, AAC, Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt. In the past, these were easier to differentiate due to conferences mostly being made up of colleges that were regionally close to each other. However, in the past two decades, conferences have moved away from being only regionally based.
In light of a new college fall sports season fast approaching, there are many conference changes that will go into effect at the start of the 2024 season. The biggest and most pressing of these is the fall of the Pac-12 Conference.
It is important to note that some of these conference changes will affect either or both the 2023 and 2024 seasons. Schools that are changing conferences for the 2024 season will stay and do a “final lap” in their current conference until the end of the year if they have decided to move to another.
On August 4th, the Pac-12 experienced the retreat of five of their cherished teams.
That day, the Universities of Washington and Oregon announced they were joining the Big Ten beginning in 2024, while the Universities of Arizona and Utah, along with Arizona State University, announced that they would be departing for the Big 12, following the decision made by the University of Colorado a week earlier.
Washington and Oregon will eventually reunite with two other Pac-12 schools, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), as these both confirmed last year they'd be in the Big Ten starting in 2024.
So now, the once esteemed and revered Pac-12, a conference with a 108-year history full of All-American athletes and national championship teams, has been reduced to four schools: Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley, Oregon State University, and Washington State University. The “Final Four”, however in this case, that is an unpropitious label.
A statement released by the Pac-12 on X (formerly Twitter) on August 4th states, “Today’s news is incredibly disappointing for student-atheltes, fans, alumni and staff of the Pac-12 who cherish the over 100-year history, tradition and rivalries of the Conference of Champions. We remain focused on securing the best possible future for each of our member universities.”
How did this happen? What does this mean for the long and cherished history and tradition of the Pac-12? And what does this mean for college athletics, especially football?
The Pac-12’s History and Impact on College Sports
Formed in 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC), the league included only four members (ironic, right?): the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, Cal-Berkeley, and what would become Oregon State University. Over many years, members of the PCC would come and go — including the Universities of Idaho and Montana.
In 1959, the PCC became the Pac-8, and then would eventually become the Pac-10 with the addition of Arizona and Arizona State in 1978. The current epitome of the Pac-12, which includes Colorado and Utah, debuted in 2011.
Over its history, the Pac-12 has distinguished itself as an elite athletic conference, even adopting the nickname "Conference of Champions." USC has produced eight Heisman Trophy winners, tied for the most with Notre Dame, the University of Oklahoma, and Ohio State University. Among the colleges with the most Olympic medal winners, the top four (USC, Stanford, UCLA, and Cal-Berkeley) all compete within the
Courtesy of ESPN
Pac-12 (as of now). And, the schools with the most titles across intercollegiate sports include Stanford, USC, and UCLA as the top three. UCLA dominated college basketball in the 1960s and early 1970s, and it still holds the most national championships with 11.
Within the conference, traditional football rivalries have flourished. Some popular examples include: Washington and Washington State battling for the Apple Cup, USC vs. UCLA squaring off in the Rose Bowl and Memorial Coliseum, and the "Civil War" waged between Oregon and Oregon State. And, we cannot forget Stanford and Cal competing in "The Big Game," named in 1892 and forever memorialized by "The Play."
Some of these traditions might continue, but conference realignments are oftentimes breeding grounds for new rivalries, while the historic others may die. Take what happened when longstanding rivals Oklahoma and Nebraska departed for different conferences, for example, essentially ending one of college football's most heated rivalries.
The Pac-12's dissolution has affected the entirety of college sports, demoting the West to second-class status as the dominant conference in that region can no longer stake its claim among the Power 5.
So, all this beloved history and traditions down the drain, and for what? Well, money, of course.
It’s All About the Green
For the Pac-12 schools leaving for the Big Ten, the move offers major opportunities to align with perennial powerhouses, like the Universtiy of Michigan and the Ohio State University, to gain more national exposure, open and broaden their recruiting base, and attract better talent…and to realistically battle for a national championship.
It also means a lot more cash.
Last year, the Big Ten signed a seven-year media rights agreement with Fox, CBS and NBC worth $7 billion. Each school could obtain up to $100 million annually. Meanwhile, the Pac-12's current television contract with Fox and ESPN is worth a mere $3 billion. With the deal set to expire next year, the conference has yet to secure a long-term agreement with one or more networks. Overall, given the Pac-12's state of affairs, a lucrative contract, like that equal to the Big Ten's, does not seem attainable.
The lure of the lucre was evidently too powerful to ignore.
"The old question — how long would it take TV money to destroy college football? Maybe we're here," Washington State football coach Jake Dickert told reporters. "To think, even remotely, five years ago the Pac-12 would be in this position, it's Courtesy of Axios Phoenix
unthinkable to think that we're here today." Now, that is quite a lot of thinking, but it's hardly absurd to assume these schools wouldn't think twice about doubling their revenue streams.
Among the Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12 ranks last in terms of per-school revenue. Supposedly, the conference has pursued a streaming deal with Apple TV+ that could, based on subscriptions, net schools in the range of $20 million annually. The conference does maintain its own Pac-12 Network, which last year grossed each school $37 million. However, all the schools do contribute to the network's operation, so that $37 million figure does not represent net profit. With that being said, the network netted $18.5 million last year.
The Big 12, a soon-to-be home to four Pac-12 schools, earns upwards of $45 million annually for its member schools due to a TV deal with Fox and ESPN worth $2.28 billion. Presumably, the addition of four new members will reduce the per-school take, unless the contract is renegotiated.
So, now what happens to the Pac-12 and the rest of college sports?
The Future of College Sports
The seismic shifts made across and between conferences have served only to push for the emergence of the "Power Two" conferences: the Big Ten (which is soon to consist of 18 members) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC).
The Big Ten has coast-to-coast representation now, and has gained a solid foothold in what Axios says is the nation’s second-largest media market: Los Angeles, California. Yet, it's still playing a game of catch-up with the SEC, which has claimed 11 of the last 15 national football championships. For now, the Big 12 remains viable, but will lose A-list members Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC following this season.
The remaining Power 5 member, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), is rumored to be the desired home for Cal-Berkeley and Stanford, though some ACC teams have reportedly blocked their addition. Meanwhile, its two most successful teams, Florida State and Clemson, want out of the ACC.
Another potential scenario for the future
Courtesy of ESPN
involves the four remaining Pac-12 schools joining the Mountain West Conference, which is home to the California schools Fresno State, San Jose State, and San Diego State. The resulting merger could preserve the Pac-12 name, but that is only if the newly formed conglomerate chooses to keep that title.
For what it’s worth, this alignment does make some geographical sense. There's certainly nothing about Stanford and Cal-Berkely that screams "Atlantic Coast." However, given the physical and mental toll that extensive, nation-wide travel takes on student-athletes, situating opponents on opposite coasts is a sure recipe for burnout which, unfortunately, some Big Ten teams might very soon discover.
Unfortunately for those Pac-12 die-hard and faithful fans, the most likely result is the complete collapse of the conference. It has fallen prey to the pursuit of financial gains, which continues to govern college sports, even among student-athletes who criss-cross the transfer portal in search of more lucrative name, image and likeness (NIL) deals. These fans have one more season of Pac-12 competition to enjoy before the "Conference of Champions" becomes relegated to the history books.