Two California universities announced Thursday they are leaving the Pac-12 athletic conference to join the Big Ten. The move is poised to send shockwaves through higher education — with revenue gains, athletes’ well-being, and the organization of college athletics as a whole at stake.
The University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California will become the 15th and 16th members of the Big Ten, effective 2024, the conference announced Thursday. The move comes less than a year after the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas at Austin announced their plans to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.
According to Karen Weaver, who teaches at University of Pennsylvania about the business of college sports, the two recent moves were made with seemingly the same motivation in mind: money. She estimated that UCLA and USC each stood to make as much as $30 million more per year as members of the Big Ten, thanks to far more lucrative payouts from the conference’s TV deal, which is expected to be finalized in the coming months.
“Simply, they bet on something that just didn’t pan out,” Weaver said of the two universities’ membership in the Pac-12. “Their revenues are so far behind what the Big Ten is projected to get in their next round, and what the SEC is already getting and will continue to get with Texas and Oklahoma. They had no hope that the Pac-12 would ever be able to close that gap.”
Experts say other colleges might feel similar financial pressure to join the Big Ten and SEC, shifting the college-athletics landscape from the “Power Five” conferences to two super conferences — and leaving institutions that can’t make the switch struggling to keep up.
“A few years ago, it looked like the biggest five conferences may pull away from the rest of Division I and take about 65 colleges with them. Now it looks like it might be 32 to 40 colleges in these two super conferences, and then the others fall behind financially,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “And then other institutions have a really difficult choice. Do they try to keep up in hope that the conference realignment comes again? Or do they have to scale back their ambitions?”
Weaver said institutions in some conferences are hamstrung in their ability to switch conferences. Colleges in the Atlantic Coast Conference, for instance, have granted their media rights to the conference well into the 2030s. If they jumped ship, the contract stipulates they would forfeit media revenue to the conference until the end of the contract.
And Weaver said the conferences looking to grow may not immediately jump to expand. The conferences “would have to be convinced that the media dollars are going to continue to grow exponentially, that it would be worth it to take the risk on bringing other schools in,” she said.
If the latest move portends an end to regional conferences, the effects wouldn’t only be financial. Victoria Jackson, a sports historian at Arizona State University, said she is concerned about the toll on the mental and physical health of athletes — who would face much longer travel times to competitions and the effects of time-zone differences. It’s a long flight from California to Maryland.
“If we really care about athlete well-being, one of the most important things that athletes need more of is sleep. And I don’t know how this is conducive to sleep,” Jackson said. “You’re going to have athletes who are more vulnerable to injury because of that lack of sleep and the stress that their bodies are under.”
Long-distance travel and time differences will impact students’ academics, too.
“You’re now tacking on an extra travel day when you’re flying back from the East Coast because, if your competition ends late, because of that time-zone difference, there might not be a flight or you might be on a redeye,” Jackson said. “Are you really expected to land and then go to class?”
Jackson also worries students will not be able to choose certain majors, because of strict attendance policies or inability to transfer to online classes. And, long travel will cause students to miss out on more of the campus-community experience. Adding these compounding variables up will take a toll on athletes’ mental health, Jackson said. “And we were already in an athlete mental-health crisis that was kind of exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Weaver said these effects will be felt deeply by athletes participating in nonrevenue sports — but that conversation is “flying under the radar.”
And that’s all too common a phenomenon in college athletics, Jackson said: “This decision was likely made with football in mind. I mean, that’s how most decisions are made in college sports, especially in the Power Five and especially in the Big Ten. And this decision made with football in mind is going to potentially have a more detrimental effect on athletes in other sports, who are always like an afterthought.”
Experts said the move leaves a slew of unanswered questions. “One thing that’s really fascinating to me is how this all came together without anyone else knowing about it until that day, because apparently this had been under discussion for months,” Kelchen said. “To what extent do changes of this magnitude need to go through some kind of public process?”
In the near term, fans, experts, and administrators alike are left to speculate about where the chips will fall. “Do the Big 12 and Pac-12 combine into one conference? Do [the SEC and Big Ten] have choice of anyone else in the country?” Kelchen asked. “There’s so many questions as a result of this unexpected move.”