The Pac-12 is dead. Long live the Pac-12.
The Pac-12 Network is very dead. Pour one out for the dozens of us who got to see it.
The Conference of Champions? It’s on life support.
The departure of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten was sudden, shocking, and somewhat inevitable.
But this day was always going to come. Everything was cascading to this moment.
There was the increasing obsession with figuring out the best team in college football.
There was the acceleration of live sports as the only thing that drove net TV revenue.
There was the non-stop arms race to compete for the best recruits.
There was the short-term greed of university admin and athletic directors to chase the dollar.
There was the labor malpractice to stop paying revenue-generating athletes suddenly being declared illegal and the ramifications of college programs needing to find the money to pay them all.
And there was the Pac-12making bad decision after bad decision in constantly misreading the market, and prioritizing a TV network strategy that made its teams relatively little money compared to the expectations they set.
Whether we like it or not, USC and UCLA made the right decision to ensure the long-term sustainability of their athletic programs. Add up the numbers, and the Pac-12 was on a path to being on the lowest tier of the Power 5 in perpetuity. No path existed for them to be even close to the level of a bottom-tier Big Ten/SEC squad like Northwestern or Vanderbilt.
(Of course, they made the selfish decision to pull the trigger just before the fee deadline for departing without informing anyone else. Meaning if the rest of the Pac-12 decided to follow suit and explore their options they’d have to deal with finance penalties that USC and UCLA skirted. Classic LA!)
Tradition and passion mean very little in the face of rising athletic costs, debts, and the reality the arms race is only accelerating toward the next phase of college football, one that consolidates power between the two conferences holding all the chips.
Which brings us to our beloved California Golden Bears.
They—and likely a host of other schools—have to push for the Big Ten. It’s at this point a matter of survival.
Cal is now in a situation where the future of their entire athletic department is in peril. It’s not the dominant scenario, but it’s a possible one, and it needs to be mitigated as quickly as possible.
Cal still has hundreds of millions in Memorial Stadium debt reservice they need to repay. Those are genuinely repaid through two sources.
Cal ticket sales from football games
Pac-12 TV deal revenue, primarily from football games
Cal losing USC and UCLA impacts both those bottom-line numbers. Los Angeles is the biggest market in the Pac-12 footprint by miles. Losing that market share impacts the negotiating power of George Kliavkoff—and by impact, it completely cuts off his legs. The new TV deal in 2024 with a diminished Pac-10 won’t be much better than the one they currently spit on.
That is a quick path to mid-major status. Cal does not want to end up in that place, particularly with that debt service. The university has the capacity to absorb some of it, but it’s not a sustainable strategy.
It is unfeasible for Cal to just end major conference affiliation and go the Ivy League route, as Stanford has long rumored to be considering. Unlike Stanford, that debt hangs over us like an albatross. We need to make that go away first.
There’s also other conferences like the ACC and Big 12 worth exploring, but as you see from the chart at the top, it likely does not help Cal either.
The Big Ten is the big fish that would appeal to all parties. It not only solves Cal’s debt issues, it could put them on the path to profitability as an athletic program very quickly. It provides the university with competent conference leadership that it has long lacked—their strategy to expand into national media markets has allowed them to keep pace with the regional tribalism of the SEC.
So why the Big Ten want Cal? See the media markets breakdown below.
Obtaining the San Francisco and Sacramento markets with the entire California school portfolio provides the Big Ten with NINE of the top 20 TV markets. That is exactly what FOX (who has rumored to be heavily involved in this entire process, is the major television investor in the Big Ten Network, and the primary owner of Big Ten TV rights) wants in order to maximize the value of its TV rights deal. It is in the best interest of the Big Ten to capture those markets as quickly as possible.
Bringing Cal (and Stanford) into the fold maximizes their chances of capturing those markets. The Pac-12 Network carriage sunk a lot of team’s ratings numbers, but when teams were on national TV regularly, Cal has always ranked in the top half of the conference, even with generally middling teams. The alumni base is still large enough that Cal-USC, Cal-UCLA and Cal-Stanford rank among the highest-rated games every season, presuming they don’t end up in the Pac-12 Network doldrums.
Keep in mind the Big Ten added Rutgers and Maryland, programs that have been irrelevant in the college football landscape for a long time, to bring into the New York City and Washington DC market. Cal and Stanford aren’t at that level—they’ve competed for conference championships this century at least!
Then there’s the research and academic element. The Big Ten has prided itself on adding top level research institutions, a stark contrast to the SEC’s “football is king” mantra. It requires AAU membership to join, a general certification that your university is on solid ground from an education and research perspective.
UC Berkeley attracts just under a billion in funding a year, but add in the $1.6 billion in funding UC San Francisco receives (who UC Berkeley often jointly partners with in terms of medical and bioscience endeavors) and that number puts Cal firmly in the top of research spending among Power 5 programs over Michigan and trailing only Johns Hopkins.
If I were a Big Ten research institution like Michigan or Wisconsin, I’d be clamoring for the inclusion of UC Berkeley into this larger group and the potential opportunities for research grants and partnerships that could come from that invite.
And then there is the football side. From a recruiting perspective, it makes sense for Big Ten programs to find their way to the Bay Area and Northern California on a recruiting basis. Notre Dame scheduled regular trips against Stanford so they could hit up the large set of Jesuit/Catholic programs that churn out Power 5 talent. Alabama, Oklahoma make constant inroads. Top local quarterback Jaden Rashada just picked Miami. This is a large market that still retains a significant quality of skill recruit, even as the popularity of football steadily declines in this part of the world.
For USC and UCLA, there is going to be logistical hell to pay for them to be the only ones out west in the B1G. Look at this absurdity.
UCLA and USC NEED Pac-12 schools to join them or they are signing themselves up for long-term mediocrity. There’s no way a blueblood like the Trojans can expect to contend for a national title logging business traveler miles to Piscataway and East Lansing in November. The eternally struggling Bruins would quickly find themselves at the doormat if this configuration remains—they already travel three hours a Saturday to their own stadium!
There will also be major blowback in the donor and alumni community. Cal and Stanford have played USC and UCLA for nearly a century. It was a condition of the two LA schools joining the Pac-12 that they’d always get to play the Bay Area programs. USC and UCLA fans, admin, and donors are just not going to throw that all away for trips to Champaign, Illinois and Purdue, Indiana without some serious discussion.
Finally, politically, it is just not feasible for UCLA to just abandon Cal to the unknown. UCLA is the second largest institution in the University of California system. The UC Regents has to likely sign off on any move that involves the Bruins making a hefty financial decision, and there are a lot of confused and angry Berkeley alumni who will make their voices heard before all is said and done.
Oregon and Washington—two programs with strong athletic traditions and aggressive fanbases—are likely the next two dominoes to fall in realignment, and then it’s up to everyone else to find a way to survive.
Already the Big 12 is likely to reach out to many schools that remain.
Cal and Stanford are somewhere in the middle. Their path isn’t certain, but they do likely have options and suitors for reason that don’t just boil down to football.
Even though it might not seem like it, Cal is still in a fairly strong position. It’s up to the alumni and donor base to fervently push the athletic department, the chancellor and UC leadership to act decisively and not just stand pat. There are too many branding, financial, academic and athletic incentives to toss aside. We need to make our case and make it strongly.
Prioritizing “Cal to the B1G” is a relative no-brainer. We’re at the endgame of the college athletics arms race. The Bears need to act quickly, or risk some very dark timelines in their future.