The SEC’s reign as the lone ‘Super Conference,’ in college athletics may be over before it even began.
Pac-12 powerhouses USC and UCLA, longtime conference stalwarts and two of the largest athletic departments on the west coast, confirmed Thursday evening in synchronized press releases their plans to join the Big Ten Conference at the start of the 2024-25 season.
“Our storied athletics program, based in one of the biggest media markets in the nation, has always had unique opportunities and faced unique challenges,” UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and Athletic Director Martin Jarmond wrote in a letter to the “Bruin Community.” “In recent years, however, seismic changes in collegiate athletics have made us evaluate how best to support our student-athletes as we move forward.”
Echoing the sentiment, USC President Carol Folt said her school’s move “positions USC for long-term success and stability amidst the rapidly changing sports media and collegiate athletic landscapes. Equally important, we are joining a conference that shares our values of academic excellence, athletic competitiveness and diversity and inclusion across all sports.”
Also on Thursday, USC announced that it would be giving out new academic achievement awards that are now provided for in the Supreme Court’s ruling in NCAA v. Alston.
USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn noted that the timing of the Trojan’s shift to the Big Ten allows for the school to finish out the Pac-12’s existing media rights agreement, which goes through 2024.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 are poised for dramatically different financial futures, with the former expected to announce a massive multi-media rights deal by the end of July, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. The Big Ten’s existing deals with ESPN and FOX run through the 2022-2023 academic year.
The conference’s new deal was already widely expected to far outpace its predecessors—with reports pegging its value at upwards of $1 billion annually—and help it keep pace with the eventual 16-team SEC that will include both Texas and Oklahoma.
The additions of USC and UCLA will likely only make the Big Ten’s payday even bigger. With an expanded reach from the east to west coasts, the move will prepare the Big Ten for additional realignment. It will also widen the already increasing financial gap between the conference and Pac-12 and pit a pair of college athletics newcomers, Big Ten boss Kevin Warren and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, on opposite sides in the fight for cash.
“While we are extremely surprised and disappointed by the news coming out of UCLA and USC today, we have a long and storied history in athletics, academics, and leadership in supporting student-athletes that we’re confident will continue to thrive and grow into the future,” the Pac-12 wrote in a statement.
The Pac-12 wouldn’t be the only conference left behind, as the expansion maneuver increases the gap between the SEC and Big Ten and all three remaining Power Five conferences.
The Pac-12 has been scrutinized as of late as the conference has fallen behind its peers financially. As members wait for the current media rights deals to expire in the summer of 2024, they’ve watched from the sidelines as conferences like the SEC and Big Ten have leapfrogged the Pac-12 with major revenue increases.
The Pac-12’s tax records for the 2021 fiscal year, which included the disrupted fall 2020 football season, put payouts for member schools, including USC and UCLA, at around $19.8 million, a decline of 41% from the $33.6 million earned in the fiscal year prior. Most Big Ten conference members, on the other hand, received around $49 million, a dip from the $54.3 million each of its 12 longest-standing members were paid in 2020.
For comparison, SEC member schools received an average of $54.6 million in fiscal 2021.
Adding USC and UCLA would likely guarantee the Big Ten usurps the SEC on the media money front. SEC schools are slated to each receive more than $66 million per year as of 2024, when ESPN’s new $3 billion deal with the conference kicks in. Conference expansion could be the answer Fox, a partner in the Big Ten Network, was looking for in response to ESPN’s growing presence in the politics of college athletics, and big-time college football in particular.
USC and UCLA’s football spending, according to EADA data, sits squarely in line with the middle ranks of Big Ten spenders, but there is a notable drop-off between the mid and low-tier Pac-12 spenders that is not as stark within the Big Ten.
The logistics of regularly traveling from Los Angeles to New Brunswick, NJ, and other east coast sites will be daunting, and it is unclear how this would play out among all sport programs involved. But it is clear that the alliance struck between the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC last August in light of the SEC’s Texas-Oklahoma power moves doesn’t supersede the tectonic shifts happening in college athletics.
(The headline and second through sixth paragraphs of this story were updated to reflect USC and UCLA's confirmation of the move.)