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Where does Conference Realignment go from here?

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel-USA TODAY Sports

Now that the news of USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten has had a chance to settle, I thought I'd spell out in one place where I think things go from here. I have to admit, my #hottake was that everything was going to change wholesale very quickly.

Now that things have settled a bit, my hot takes are having a chance to cool. But, here's how I see this playing out -- or at least one of the many possibilities.

As it stands now, the Big Ten media rights negotiations ($) have ground everything else to a halt. You can bet that all the major networks -- ESPN, Fox, NBC, and CBS -- have very sizable offers on the table. Potential streaming partners likely have offers on the table too. Until the Big Ten media deal has been finalized, all these parties are operating under the assumption they'll get the biggest piece that they've bid on. That drastically reduces the money available to other conferences, so offers to them will be of the low-ball variety for the time being and everyone knows it. And any school looking to move from one conference to another is doing so looking at potential TV deals. So, all of that is on hold too.

Big Ten TV Rights

Here's where I hope the Big Ten TV deal goes:

  • Fox and ABC/ESPN currently split the best games in the conference. In the new deal, I'm expecting CBS to take much of the package that ESPN currently gets with NBC getting 1 game per week as well. That should add up to about 5 games per week to split between them, with there being more games during the non-conference portion of the season. I'm expecting some amount of regional coverage with the games still being available in other regions on cable. ESPN does this now with reverse mirrors where every game selected for ABC regional coverage is available on ESPN2 everywhere else.
  • Of note here, ESPN is totally locked out of Big Ten football. Will that happen? Probably not. I would guess everyone wants Big Ten basketball on ESPN still, so I'm expecting the smallest selection of games possible without looking totally silly -- just enough to keep the football relationship alive.
  • There are a number of ways to handle streaming. The primary method that rights holders have tried is to take the smallest and least valuable component of rights possible and sell them exclusively to a streaming service. The end result of this is a lot of folks who don't use streaming services get frustrated and then don't watch that one low-interest event. That isn't working for anyone. Instead, I'd like to take every game that is available on cable and also sell those feeds to a streaming partner like Amazon, AppleTV, or Peacock (if NBC moves towards a regional model as well). In that model, cable/satellite subscribers find that channel on their channel plan like they have for years and tell their provider they want that channel if it isn't already in their plan. Folks who have cut the cord take a hard look to that streaming service if they aren't already subscribed.
  • All of this leaves 2 games per week to appear on BTN and a proportionately larger set of basketball. That's great. Again, realize there are more games in general during the early non-conference part of the schedule likely requiring overflow BTN channels on cable and satellite providers. I'd also look for BTN to offer a streaming service including all of these games without needing a cable subscription. A gold star to the conference if they can find a way to provide access to those games streamed on Amazon or AppleTV on that platform as well.

Getting back to conference realignment, moves across the board are on hold until the Big Ten TV package is complete and public. Once that deal in place, other conferences can dig deeper into their future TV revenue numbers and everyone has real numbers to consider when making conference moves again.

Notre Dame

While that is happening, I'm guessing Notre Dame will have something of an inside scoop on what this package will look like. Dennis Dodd with CBS has reported that Notre Dame is seeking a deal at $75 million per year, presumably planning on taking the offer to move to the Big Ten if they don't get something in that neighborhood. Dodd suggests that NBC could try to hit that number by lining up Notre Dame games with a package of rights from a Power 5 conference. Color me skeptical. NBC has wanted to line up more high-profile college football to go with Notre Dame for some time (with the Big Ten and Big 12 often listed as possible sources), but I don't see Notre Dame home football games alone hitting that mark even with that "shoulder" programming.

The more likely outcome is NBC isn't able to get in that ballpark and Notre Dame finally joins the Big Ten. It is widely expected(/speculated) that Stanford would join with them. There's a case to be made for Oregon and Washington to join as well, but my guess is that doesn't happen. You can also expect to hear Cal's name mentioned in any rumor, though I suspect that's just to appease the powers-that-be in California that the conference did its due diligence on the school.

So, the Big Ten would now be at 18 members. You can go back up to my list of Tier 1 holders and update the NBC share to two games per Saturday and leave everything else as-is.

Pac-X Instability

Losing Stanford further destabilizes the Pac-12 (or 10, or 9). In the days that follow, the estimates that have been coming in from other networks get updated now that everyone knows how much Big Ten content they will be paying for. I'm expecting estimates for the Pac football to improve from the current rumors but not by enough to prevent members from leaving for greener pastures.

The biggest assumption is that further instability would push many of the conference members to the Big 12. I'm not so sure -- not as many as people think, at least. But, I'll get to that in a minute.

It's clear that members of the Pac-12 really like to be seen as peers of each other. Many of them don't feel that same way about a lot of members of other conferences, particularly the Big 12. At some point, finances certainly take precedence but those links to one-another are powerful. With that in mind, the Pac will continue to look at any option they can think of. Collaborations with other conferences, imbalanced payouts of TV money, expansion to include current Group of Five members, expansion to include Big 12 members (who can move one year later than Pac members can), and all sorts of other ideas.

The conference's existence in its current form will be on the line.

And with this group, "in its current form" is really critical. Adding members that don't live up to the academic measure that they see themselves living up to would mean taking on a very different form, even if the on-field product wasn't substantially different. So, replacing UCLA with San Diego State is a big deal. With that in mind, everything will be on the table.

One option is to essentially give up on conference football altogether. That's not to say all the members will shutter their football programs. Instead, they'll be able to chase football money while still retaining those strong bonds with their Pac cohorts by staying in the conference for all the other sports. This could take the form of actually cutting football from the conference, or it could be splitting the league into football-only and everything-but-football iterations in the hopes that the football league is able to forge a worthwhile path somehow. (Again, conference existence is on the line so everything is on the table.) I suppose the conference could do all that under one roof, but that strikes me as prohibitively complicated.

Would other conferences want this? Maybe not at first. But if that's what schools like Oregon and Washington really want, the added football money and savings on travel for all of those other sports might be the deciding factor across the board.

There's no guarantee that the everything-but-football version of the conference wouldn't suffer losses in the middle of so much upheaval. But, they stand a chance at retaining some members and staying alive. If a limited number of members do leave, there's a better chance that other academically elite schools in California would see the value in committing to Pac-level competition if football wasn't included.

Another Alliance... er... Collaboration or something

At this point I wouldn't rule out USC, UCLA, and Stanford having a desire to remain in the everything-but-football Pac-12 to keep those bonds with other Pac schools. This might also soften the annoyance that politicians in California will impose on UCLA, too.

But would the Big Ten agree? At first, probably not. The desire to engage with alumni in Los Angeles and San Francisco is very real. Back in 2018, Frank the Tank's blog laid out why the Big Ten would be so interested in those two markets in addition to the Washington DC and New York (even though he saw an expansion including USC and UCLA as unlikely).

To meet that need, the Pac-12 could re-ignite discussions with the Big Ten about the all-sports collaboration that the two conferences announced in December 2011 but eventually abandoned the following July. The rationale for giving up on it at the time was that Pac-12 members wanted to maintain their existing football schedules including a 9-game conference schedule and important non-conference opponents. (While the Big Ten had an 8-game schedule at the time, I would argue the Big Ten is probably even more married to their 9th game than the Pac-12 is today.) All of those concerns go away if football isn't involved.

The Big Ten would still get the strong football presence in Los Angeles and San Francisco, but then also get a lesser presence in all the major markets on the western half of the country. Seattle, Phoenix, and Denver all have a significant number of Big Ten alumni. Though not on Frank's list, I'd guess Portland and Salt Lake City do too.

In a subscriber only post that was published just the other day, Jon Wilner of The Mercury News (he's the guy who first broke the USC/UCLA news) detailed the production facilities and methodology that has been created by the Pac-12 Network. I'll respect the paywall by not diving into details, but Wilner states that the Pac-12 Net's approach cuts production costs for on-campus events by as much as 50%. Wilner speculates that the technology could be leveraged to provide the Pac-12 some stability by renting or selling the facility to ESPN. In a scenario where the Pac-12 and Big Ten are in cahoots again, I could see it being sold or rented to BTN or Fox at-large as part of a larger media rights agreement.

With that in place, the Big Ten now has 18 members for football and 14 in all other sports. (Yes, this is definitely the conference that is bad at counting.) The everything-but-football Pac-12 conference is far more stable than it was before the split. The 9-member football conference is definitely on its last leg, though. Oregon and Washington are still valuable commodities. I'd also add Washington State to that list. Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah have football programs that can't headline a conference, but they can probably carry their own weight. Cal and Oregon State are probably still in trouble. So, what do they all do?

Don't Sleep on the ACC

While USC and UCLA were clandestinely meeting with the Big Ten about membership, Navigate published TV rights projections for the five power conferences. They took a number of things into account including Texas and Oklahoma moving to the SEC, Big 12 expansion, and expansion of the College Football Playoff. You've probably seen this graphic a few times now:

Navigate projections, March 2022

Because this study was done before anyone knew what was brewing with USC and UCLA, you can plan on the Big Ten's revenue going even higher and the Pac-12's revenue being much less. How much less? I'll leave that to others -- just remember the note about how much money is being set aside until the Big Ten media deal is known when looking at any numbers that have been leaked or rumored recently.

While most people then and now focus on the disparity between the two at the top and the three on the bottom, something interesting happens among those bottom three. The ACC and Pac-12 overtake the Big 12. While the Big 12 line looks stable and strong, what's really happening there is all the conferences receive a boost of revenue from the expanded playoff but a significant piece of the Big 12's boost is eaten up by the fact that they'll lose Texas and Oklahoma in that year.

When the ACC comes up in these conversations, two points important will always be raised.

  1. Grant of Rights. Back in late 2012 and early 2013, the ACC was on very unsteady ground. Maryland had just announced that it would leave the conference to join the Big Ten and it sounded like other members could be on the way out too. Instead of leaving, all of the members committed to the ACC through the end of the 2026-2027 season by signing a Grant of Rights which committed all their TV rights to the conference. In 2016, the grant of rights was extended all the way to the end of the 2035-2036 season as part of a separate new agreement with ESPN to televise all conference games and build the ACC Network. The agreement states that even if a member were to leave the conference, all of their TV rights would stay put.
  2. The ACC's bad TV deal. The TV deal with ESPN that cemented the ACC in its current form for two decades was great at the time. The conference went from being very shaky to as solid as can be. The problem is that revenues from broadcast sports have continued to go through the roof while the ACC's revenues have been tied down. This dynamic will continue for 14 more seasons.

The Grant of Rights and associated TV deal is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's clear none of its members can go anywhere until it's over. Frank the Tank dove into the most commonly referenced method to break deals like this and that was his conclusion. On the other hand, new members would presumably be forced to sign over that same period and also be tied down by the same TV contract. The ACC isn't going to shrink, but they can't grow either.

Even being bogged down by this bad TV deal, the ACC is still projected to make more money than the Big 12 (who will get a fresh TV deal in a few years). That should tell you something. While you could argue the teams on the field don't stack up well, the ACC certainly appears to be of modestly greater value.

This tells me that the ACC has the opportunity to get aggressive here and become the undisputed #3 conference in college football. But, they need some help from ESPN to do it. Without ESPN budging, they're still stuck. They have a good asset at a very good rate, so there's really no reason to break that agreement. But, will they bend it? There have been whispers that it's possible ESPN would be willing to adjust it, but it's not clear how much.

If the ACC falls behind the top two and the Big 12 uses this opening to improve its product, the ACC could fall as schools to get revenue to be able to keep up. That is ESPN's incentive to bend a little. Most people would assume that ESPN would be willing to pay a little more per season and bring the ACC a little closer to their full market value. I'd agree, though I'd add that ESPN could also be open to shortening the period of time that everyone is tied down if they got something of value in return. Simply shortening the commitment from 14 years to 10 would lessen the commitment that new members would be making to something similar to the Big 12.

ACC Gets Aggressive

With a little bending from ESPN, the ACC is starting to look like a better destination than the Big 12. Using that leverage, it seems like a no-brainer for the ACC to offer football-only membership to Oregon and Washington. It's less of a no-brainer, but I'm going to add Washington State too. Their viewership ratings are in the upper third of the Pac-12. The ACC also adds West Virginia at this point. WVU isn't the football powerhouse that Oregon is, but they'll do well to solidify the center of the conference and ignite old rivalries with Pitt, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse. Rivalries like these unfortunately don't drive conference alignment, but they can certainly bump up interest in games that might otherwise be forgotten.

Stopping to reassess the landscape at this point:

  • The SEC remains unchanged at 16 members (once Texas and Oklahoma join)
  • The ACC has 18 football members with 15 of them competing in all other sports.
  • The Big Ten has 18 football members with the original 14 competing in all sports.
  • The Big 12's long-range membership remains at 11 for all sports.
  • The football-less Pac-12 remains at 12 with six of its members trying to figure out football.

Staying with the ACC, there's an argument to be made about expanding further with Cincinnati and Central Florida fitting right in geographically and igniting future rivalries in their region. I wouldn't even rule out a deep strike into Big 12 territory with Oklahoma State and Texas schools on the table. I doubt any of that happens, though. I suppose I should also mention other Pac-12 members like Utah and Colorado in this context, but that feels even more unlikely.

Back to the Big 12 and Pac 12

We now have six Pac members that need to find home for their football program and an 11-member Big 12 (another bad-at-counting thing for sure) that has been talking to a number of those Pac schools for some time.

If the Pac falls apart, it appears that Oregon State and Cal won't have a home in the Power 5 football world, though we probably knew that anyway. Oregon State eventually finds a home for football in the Mountain West. You could probably guess the same for Cal, though I do wonder if they would try a football independent route playing semi-regular games against California schools and other academic powerhouses across the country like Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Duke, UNC, and others.

That leaves us with the "four corners" schools -- Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, and Utah. For all, I'd say football membership in the Big 12 would be a no-brainer if offered. The only alternative would be to retain Cal and Oregon State and expand the Pac-12 football conference by adding a whole host of schools from the Mountain West and elsewhere like San Diego State, SMU, UNLV, and Fresno State. I don't even see Cal going for that on a cultural basis. Everyone else would just assume be in the Big 12. The question would be if all would be welcome.

Adding all four would leave the Big 12 with 15 members. Conferences don't have to be an even number of members, but there is a scheduling concern with an odd number. They would be forced to schedule an even number of games -- otherwise they'd always have one lone team looking for that last game for their schedule with no one to play. So, no more 9-game schedule -- either 8 or 10.

There are two pretty clear alternatives to that issue: (1) One of those four corners schools is left out or (2) find a school from a lower conference like San Diego State to fill the void. Either are totally reasonable.

Now, that's just football. The next question is whether or not the rest of the sports make the move too. From the Pac school perspective, this strikes me as a decision between two good options. They claim to really like presenting themselves as members of this elite academic club (and I believe them when they say that part). The Pac provides direct access to all of California and there would be a collaboration with the Big Ten that could be of value too.

On the other hand, the Big 12 is a pretty good conference too, and it still dominates the state of Texas and has a presence in Florida. Utah specifically would get an all-sports rivalry with BYU that would drive fan involvement in sports that don't usually get much attention.

From the Big 12 perspective, you have to ask if they feel a need to play hardball should a school want to leave other sports in the Pac. There's the aforementioned Utah/BYU rivalry that would drive some value and could be worth fighting for. In the case of Colorado, does a conference really care about their other sports programs that much once they've captured the Denver TV viewers? Maybe, maybe not. If we're talking about Arizona, is their basketball program valuable enough to make that demand? If the Big 12 has only chosen one of those Arizona schools, do they smooth the waters some by agreeing to let that member keep other sports in the Pac so they can stay together? Are the two remaining members that are east of the Mississippi River all too happy to avoid the even longer flights to Denver, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix? With realignment being driven by football the way that it is, the calculus surrounding membership totally changes when football isn't a part of the picture.

I'm not going to make predictions here other than to say that the Pac-12 is essentially in-tact and stable without football and the Big 12 adds plenty of football to the west.

And to make a long story short

And to make a long story short

A quick rundown:

  • Notre Dame finally says yes to the Big Ten. Stanford is the #18 addition.
  • Pac-12 (or 10 or 9) becomes even more unstable and lets its members chase football money while keeping all other sports in place.
  • ACC convinces ESPN of the opportunity to get aggressive and ESPN gives them just enough wiggle room to get it done.
  • ACC expands to the northwest for football only and becomes the clear most valuable conference not the SEC or Big Ten.
  • Big 12 absorbs the four corners schools for either football only or all sports.
  • Pac-12 football castoffs find other homes for football.

At this point, the college athletics world seems pretty stable again. Everyone has found a semi-permanent home and we can settle into our new normal for a number of years. This relative stability holds until members of the ACC are free to explore Big Ten or SEC membership -- and all hell breaks lose again.

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