What happens to college sports next after the Pac-12's seismic implosion?

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell08/07/23


A historic Friday ushered in the superconference era, left a century-old league in tatters and amplified concerns over whether the blizzard of dollar-driven moves are in the best interest of the broader enterprise.

As the college sports world catches its breath, the question now: What happens next?

The mass exodus of five schools from the Pac-12Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten; Arizona, Arizona State and Utah to the Big 12 – hammered home that two superpowers, the Big Ten and SEC, are lapping the field. A full revenue share in the Big Ten will deliver members some $60 million-plus annually, with the league’s footprint stretching from New Jersey to Seattle. 

As Mike Aresco, American Athletic Conference commissioner, said: The gap between the second-best and the third-best conferences is far greater than the gap between the third-best league and the AAC. 

“The gap between two and three is massive,” Aresco told On3 recently. “The Big Ten and SEC have completely separated themselves. They have basically vacuumed up almost all the marquee value in college football. They are going to dominate – they have all the money.”

Big 12 positions itself in a good spot

The Big 12, fast positioning itself in the race for No. 3, will hand $31.7 million annually to league members, well shy of Big Ten and SEC figures. But after its near-death summer of 2021, in the wake of losing heavyweights Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, the Big 12 is alive and well. It now has 16 teams in four time zones, a viable rights deal in dollars and brand visibility, and a parade of innovative initiatives spearheaded by forward-thinking commissioner Brett Yormark.

Meantime in the ACC, one of the most recognizable brands, Florida State, is rankled, not-so-subtly signaling that it’s not a question of if but when it will exit the league.

The reason: money. Shocking, right?

The hurdles: The perceived ironclad Grant of Rights deal that locks schools in until 2036, and the absence of an invite from the richer kids’ table in the Big Ten or SEC.

The Pac-12 as we know it is no more

The Pac-12 as we know it – which once spotlighted the likes of Jackie Robinson, Bill Walton and Reggie Bush – is dead.

What needs a quick answer is where embattled commissioner George Kliavkoff turns. Does he try to add SMU and then raid the Mountain West Conference? SMU can negotiate down its $10 million, 27-month notice to bolt the AAC for 2024. Complications abound in the MWC, where San Diego State, UNLV and Colorado State each face a $34 million exit fee to join in 2024. That bill drops to $17 million for inclusion in 2025. To complicate things even more, there was some reporting over the weekend that the Big 12 had some preliminary discussions with San Diego State and Oregon State.

Will the now Pac-4 retain its Autonomous Five designation, which provides notable College Football Playoff revenue distribution advantages? Other P5 leagues moving to strip it of that status would be bad optics on top of the implosion they just detonated. And is a Pac-4/MWC merger in play?

The remarkable aspect of Friday was not that the tectonic plates shifted. A march toward a more professionalized paradigm has been telegraphed for years. Striking was how swiftly it occurred, leaving carnage in its wake. 

Many industry leaders say these moves come at a cost: Regional rivalries, tradition and practical travel logistics go by the wayside. 

On the loss of tradition, Alabama’s Nick Saban: “It’s sad.”

Washington State football coach Jake Dickert: “The old question, ‘How long would it take TV money to destroy college football?’ Maybe we are here … We’ll look back in college football in 20 years and be like, ‘What are we doing?'”