If USC and UCLA move to the Big Ten Conference, then college athletics as we know it is irreparably broken. The framework of regionally based conferences that have spanned from sea to shining sea for more than a century will be replaced by two mega-conferences, the Big Ten and Southeastern, with an assortment of other leagues in their wake.
That’s not to say that what follows won’t deliver what we crave from October afternoons in Baton Rouge and June evenings in Omaha, from Final Fours and College Cups and all the other NCAA championships. But the move would cement the financial stratification of college athletics.
The news, broken Thursday by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, said that the “highest levels of power” at the two Los Angeles universities have yet to approve the move to the Big Ten. The only thing louder than the thunderclap of Wilner’s scoop was the ensuing silence emanating from those highest levels of power. No one at USC or UCLA rushed to knock down the story.
Commissioner George Kliavkoff scheduled a Thursday afternoon conference call with CEOs and athletic directors at the other 10 Pac-12 schools.
The framework of major conferences has been distorted almost beyond recognition during the 30-plus years of the Realignment Era. Nebraska and Rutgers extended the boundaries of the Big Ten (and don’t forget that the Big Ten wanted Georgia Tech to establish a footprint in the South). Texas and Oklahoma will widen the SEC, moves that led to a Big 12 with West Virginia at one end and BYU at the other.
But even with those moves, we still had five major FBS conferences that had their own places on the American map. The Pac-12 covered the length of the country on the west coast; the ACC did the same on the east. The Big Ten and the SEC lived parallel lives from the middle of the country eastward. The Big 12 covered the middle of the U.S., from north to south.
The departure of the Trojans and the Bruins would leave behind a shell of the former Pac-12. The story left athletic administrators at the other 10 Pac-12 schools in shock, from an Oregon, which has the financial backing to spend at the whatever-it-takes level; to a Stanford, where administrators have been conspicuously quiet about their stance on the direct payments to student-athletes that the Supreme Court approved in the Alston case last year; to the Oregon States and Washington States and Arizonas, which struggle to keep up financially as it is.
The USC and UCLA discussions with the Big Ten also illustrated in stark terms the price that Pac-12 is paying for the media strategy pursued under former commissioner Larry Scott. The Pac-12 Network, beset by high production costs and low subscription levels, never generated near the revenue or the viewership that the Big 12 and SEC did.
All of which means that the proposed move by USC and UCLA would be just as rooted in money as every other move in the Realignment Era (1990-present). But even Texas and Oklahoma, which cut out the financial heart of the Big 12 last summer when they decided to bug out for the SEC, could claim contiguous geography. The closest Big Ten campus to USC and UCLA is Nebraska, which is about 1,500 miles away.
For that matter, the Los Angeles schools are closer to the University of Hawaii than they are Penn State, Maryland and Rutgers.
More than a decade ago, when Texas and Oklahoma negotiated with the then-Pac-10, one of the reasons that the deal didn’t get made was the logistical burden it would place on the student-athletes of those schools being two time zones away from the rest of the league.
If we have learned nothing else from the Realignment Era, we have learned that in the end, money wins out. USC and UCLA going to the Big Ten would make a mockery of student-athlete welfare for Trojans and Bruins, who would have to travel four to six hours, plus two or three time zones, for every conference road game in every sport.