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POWER PLAYS

The NCAA is realigning around two super-conferences

Fans in Michigan Stadium in the cold
Mike Mulholland/Getty Images
When UCLA and USC join the Big 10, they’ll need to play in the Michigan cold.
Published

As the blustery autumn drags on in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the short walk from my apartment to Michigan Stadium—“The Big House”—becomes more difficult. No longer will shorts and a maize and blue t-shirt suffice. Instead, the weather calls for a toque and wool socks, a sweatshirt, and a down jacket.

I mention the weather because, starting in 2024, Los Angeles’ finest college football players will have to brave the Michigan cold when they suit up in the Big House.

On June 30, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), shook the college sports world when they announced they are leaving the Pac-12 conference for the Big Ten, the home of Midwestern football giants like Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Penn State.

The decision—announced nearly one year after the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Oklahoma deserted the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference (SEC)—points to increased consolidation around two conferences—which are being dubbed “super-conferences”—and a possible shift away from the regionalism that’s defined college sports for more than a century.

Quartz spoke with Matt Brown, the publisher of Extra Points, a newsletter that covers the business of college sports, about how the pursuit of money and collective power led USC and UCLA to defect.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What happened to the college sports conferences and why does it matter?

Just in the last two weeks, the single biggest story is that USC and UCLA announced that they are leaving the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten effective summer 2024. That’s shocking for a number of reasons. Part of that is because Los Angeles is not anywhere near the Midwest, which is where most Big Ten institutions are. Part is that the two Los Angeles schools have shared leagues with—at least the other major California programs and most other big West Coast brands—for over 100 years.

So to leave for a conference where your nearest opponent [other than one another] is 1,600 miles away is very surprising. That completely obliterates a lot of the Pac-12’s television package. Will the Pac-12 remain with 10 schools? Will they try to backfill with other institutions? Will they merge with another conference? And will other leagues—recognizing that the Big Ten or the SEC are about to make way more money than they will over the next decade—try something drastic to try to achieve financial parity.

Why are they doing this? The answer to this question is money, but explain how money is the answer.

Part of the issue here is television rights revenue over the next decade. Most big college programs make a big part of their revenue from their TV rights broadcasters pay to televise their games. Most conferences have a chance to renegotiate their deals either now or in the very near future and there’s some college sports industry projections about what schools will be making by, say, 2028-2029.

The industry consensus is that schools in the Big Ten and the SEC will not just make more money than everybody else, but I want to use the exact specific industry term here: they’re going to make a shit ton more money. Over $30 million a year per team more than anybody else. So for schools like USC or Washington or Clemson—a bigger program outside of one of these two leagues—that means a Mississippi State or Rutgers or Purdue will be pulling in $35 million a year or more on television than them. That’s money that can be used for coaches, for facilities, or in preparation for some future time in the maybe near future where athletes are labeled employees and schools have to directly pay them in some capacity.

I think a thoughtful fan or analyst would say, programs would rather have more money, but you can’t buy a championship. The Big 10 has made more money than anybody else in the last decade—and outside of Ohio State, they really haven’t won shit. Not just in football, but in baseball and basketball—the ACC and the Big 12 win more championships in these big sports. But part of the reason that the LA schools in particular are motivated by money is because living in Los Angeles is very expensive.

It doesn’t really matter that USC and UCLA  haven’t been winning Pac-12 football championships. Moving to the Big 10 will just pay them so much money and maybe down the line they can be more competitive.

In some sports, these two will be immediately competitive. UCLA should win baseball and softball every year. They’re going to be very competitive in what was already a really good volleyball league. And they should be competitive in women’s basketball, I think. But in football, we’ll see how [incoming USC football coach] Lincoln Riley does, but there’s going to be an acclimation period. It’s not a move a school makes because it wants to win a conference championship next year. It’s a move it makes because it sets them up for more money, and more power over the next decade.

How much is this a football thing and how much is this a college sports thing in general?

Financially, football is overwhelmingly the most important sport and that’s even true for Big Ten schools that sponsor more sports than anybody else. That’s true for the LA schools who really care about Olympic sports and sponsor a lot of them. The overwhelming majority of revenue, not just from ticketing and TV, but from marketing and from donations comes through football.

There’s an element of political power and academic prestige that’s tied to this. One thing that’s unique to the Big Ten and the Pac-12 is that they share a lot of institutional similarities. Everyone in the Big Ten’s a big research university. Most are academically selective for undergrads, they do a ton of research, and that’s generally the case in the Pac-12. When Big Ten schools are recruiting faculty and when they talk about their entire institution, they’re talking about being a Big Ten school. And that means something besides just football. They’re very selective research powerhouses.

Does it matter that the Big Ten is expanding beyond the Midwest?

It’s not hard to find people who really care about the Big Ten who think this shit sucks. For a consumer or even a coach or an athlete, there’s an opportunity cost whenever the conference expands. Every game that Michigan plays against USC, while that might be cool, is a game they’re not playing against Minnesota, Iowa or Penn State, places where somebody who lives in the Midwest knows people that went to those schools and can dunk on them at church or dunk on them in the office. They probably don’t live next to UCLA grad, especially if they’re in Ann Arbor or Chicago. It’s not hard to find Big Ten fans who are already mad about Maryland and Rutgers.

It also makes the television watching experience worse. If a fan wants to watch a bunch of Michigan games, now, some are going to play in California and some of those have to start off at 7pm Pacific, which is 10pm Eastern.

Is college sports moving toward two super-conferences in the Big Ten and the SEC? And if so what does that mean for everybody else?

That is my belief now, and it wasn’t really my belief at the beginning of June. I would expect that the Big Ten and the SEC,in the next two or three years, get bigger. This isn’t just about money. These changes are happening while the NCAA Constitution, the Division I Constitution, and all of the NCAA bylaws are being rewritten. There’s something called the Division I Transformation Committee that’s meeting now and talking about completely changing what it means to be a Division I institution, how the NCAA Tournament works, how revenue distribution works in a way to, in all likelihood, give more power and more championship access to the bigger schools.

So there’s going to be a point where the Big Ten has, say, Notre Dame, Stanford, Washington, and Oregon. And let’s say the SEC adds four teams from the ACC. The NCAA can come out with their transformation report and say here’s what people in the [handful of other conferences] say, but those two leagues can say, listen, “We both expanded. Our television contacts combined are worth more than the NCAA March Madness contract. And we have 13 of the top 15 college football brands and we have most of the major college basketball brands. We don’t need you anymore.” And that isn’t to say they might necessarily break off from the NCAA, but, there’s no guarantee that the College Football Playoff, as we know it, exists in the same way later this decade, or the NCAA basketball tournament, or postseasons for other things.

I wouldn’t be shocked if these leagues expand in a way that actually diminishes personal financial distribution but expands their political power to the point where now they have more autonomy and flexibility to shape what college sports looks like for them, because they’ll need everybody else even less.

Are we headed towards a place where the SEC and the Big Ten are presumably more powerful than the NCAA? 

I think I think that’s absolutely possible. I wouldn’t say it’s a certainty. It is something that fans and administrators need to grapple with.

You have admitted you were blindsided by the news of USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten. Why do you think you missed this in your reporting?

Throughout almost all college football history, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten have worked really closely together. These were the two conferences that never joined the College Football Association. They were the closest to the NCAA. They were tied at the hip to the Rose Bowl. And they generally saw eye-to-eye on issues about amateurism, finance, and what kind of athletic departments they wanted to run. There’s been a lot of differences between what a president or administrator at a school like Michigan thinks about college sports and what their counterpart at a school like Alabama thinks. That’s not a modern thing. That goes back to pre-integration.

LA and west coast schools and Big Ten schools have mostly been together on this. So I assumed that the Big Ten wouldn’t nuke all of that. These schools are supposed to be allies. There’s also the logistical fact that Los Angeles is really frickin’ far from everything else.

What does this mean for college athletes whose sports are now more national than regional?

On one hand, it depends on the sport. Some competitions—even the Olympic sports—are going to be seen by many more people. And this was one of the big challenges: the Pac-12 TV network has a tiny number of subscribers. Most of the country has the Big 10 Network. Everybody has Fox, everybody has ESPN.

It means USC women’s basketball is going to be much easier to watch and they’re gonna play in bigger stadiums and to bigger crowds and that might be cool. The biggest question is about travel logistics. College sports fans might not know this, but even in the wealthiest leagues , female athletes and athletes in the Olympic sports are flying commercial. If you go to O’Hare Airport in Chicago in the afternoon, you’re going to see a Division I athletics team somewhere in the baggage carousel. A school could start chartering some of these things, but if they don’t Penn State’s campus is still a three-hour bus ride from a major airport.

I don’t know how the LA schools drive the football equipment truck in a way that’s efficient unless they buy a second truck and second copies of every single bit of equipment they have and just leave it parked in Chicago so they don’t have to drive the whole thing back and forth across the country six times a year.

But what it will mean is athletes will miss more class time and be more jetlagged and have a harder competitive environment with all the travel going. I am unaware of any way to really mitigate that.

Along with the idea we’re headed toward two super-conferences is that we’re headed toward game broadcasts dominated by two networks—ESPN and FOX. What kind of power is there in that for the networks?

I think that’s probable. But they won’t be the only two networks that broadcast college sports. CBS Sports desperately wants to get back into big time college sports, and they’re trying to get a piece of the Big Ten television package. Depending on what the Pac-12 and Big-12 membership looks like, I would imagine CBS, Turner and NBC will go after some of those.

I think ESPN is probably the closest thing to a commissioner that college football has right now. They own total rights to the College Football Playoff. They are the most powerful sports broadcaster. They own the rights to almost every single Division I mid-major conference outside of like the Colonial Athletic and some tiny other Tier 3 things.

Fox is trying to become more powerful and wants to ultimately own part of the College Football Playoff moving forward. The big question is to what extent Apple and Amazon want to get involved here. They want to be at least part of the Big Ten package that’s still controlled by Fox. But we are entering an era where they will probably play a bigger role in these conversations.

How do you think this will ripple through the entire college sports conference system?

Nobody knows yet. The last time this system had a huge shock was last summer when Texas and Oklahoma joined the SEC. That led to membership dominos that changed Conference USA, that changed the WAC, that changed the Southland, and all over FCS. I definitely expect that to happen. Any other Power 5 school changes over the next nine months could shift realignment for a bunch of other institutions.

What it means for power, what it means for money, that’s what everyone’s frantically trying to figure out, because, again, this is also happening with the transformation committee, which could, depending on how that goes, could shift conferences in a bunch of different ways, but my unsatisfying answer is they don’t know.

That’s one of the frustrating things. Schools like Eastern Michigan, Illinois State, or San Jose State, are not in control of what happens to their athletic departments or their strategy because they could come up with a great plan, but they have to be reactive when these bigger market players end up making decisions.

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