Hollywood Nights: USC and UCLA Joining the Big Ten

Jon Wilner reported today that the Big Ten is adding USC and UCLA as early as 2024 and multiple other reporters have confirmed. There could be an announcement as early as tonight. I’ll be honest: I have been quite skeptical of predictions of any major moves by the Big Ten in the wake of Texas and Oklahoma leaving for the SEC and thought that we were in the end game for power conference realignment. Clearly, that was way off base.

While the SEC adding UT and OU involved the movement of two massive brand names, it was still in some ways a small “c” conservative expansion with schools in states that either overlapped or were contiguous with the SEC geographic footprint. At the same time, it was a rare expansion that actually reinstituted rivalries (particularly Texas-Texas A&M and Texas-Arkansas) more than breaking them up.

There’s nothing small “c” conservative with this Big Ten expansion. This is now a legitimate coast-to-coast conference spanning from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles. If USC and UCLA are the only Pac-12 schools coming to the Big Ten, they’ll be leaving their regional peers and rivals entirely.

Of course, the immediate question for me is whether USC and UCLA are really going to be the only Pac-12 schools going to the Big Ten. I’ve long thought that for USC and UCLA to viably be a part of the Big Ten, it would take an expansion of several more Pac-12 schools to the point where it would almost be a full merger. The Pac-12 has several other AAU members in key markets, namely Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. Arizona State is located directly in the Phoenix market that’s one of the largest hubs for Big Ten alums outside of the conference footprint itself.

Yet, that’s counterbalanced by the fact that USC and UCLA are the clear financial lynchpins to the Pac-12: they are the blue blood brand names in football and basketball, respectively, located in the league’s largest and most important market of Los Angeles. If USC and UCLA have already been convinced to come to the Big Ten alone, it’s an open question about how much value any other additional Pac-12 schools would bring to the table at least financially. The Big Ten would instead be considering non-financial factors at that point such as institutional fit and long-term demographic goals (which could point to the league wanting to be in places like the San Francisco Bay Area regardless of the immediate financial impact).

People throughout all of college sports and media industry were perplexed by why the Big Ten TV rights negotiations, which were initially projected to be completed by Memorial Day, have been delayed. We now know the answer. This goes way beyond TV rights, though. Even with though the Big Ten expansion with Rutgers and Maryland went into new territories for the league, that was still more of an extension of what the league had already started when it added Penn State in the 1990s. There was still a firm profile of what a “Big Ten school” looked like just as we generally have a good sense of the profile of an “Ivy League school” or “SEC school” or… up until now, a “Pac-12 school.” In contrast, a Big Ten that’s now on the West Coast is going to completely alter how we look at the league.

Up until two hours ago, I thought the Armageddon scenarios for power conference realignment were off the table for the next decade or so and the SEC expansion with UT/OU effectively caused complete paralysis among everyone else (which is why the initial response of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC was to form a generally toothless Alliance). I certainly didn’t believe that it would be the Pac-12 that would be vulnerable to a poaching by its Rose Bowl partner of the Big Ten. If anything, the main long-term expansion prospects that I saw for the Big Ten were in the ACC. It just goes to show that all of the turmoil in the college sports business in general are upending the assumptions of even people like me that quirkily follow conference realignment. Some of those wild conference realignment scenarios that I was posting over a decade ago suddenly don’t look so wild anymore.

(Image from UCLA Alumni Association)