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Realignment: What the Additions of USC and UCLA Mean for the Future of the Big Ten, SEC and College Sports

We’re not in Kansas anymore.

Illinois v Penn State
The future of the Big Ten and college athletics is being determined by TV networks.
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Big Ten’s blockbuster announcement last week that the conference was expanding by admitting USC and UCLA took the college football and basketball worlds by storm. Aside from the discussions around fit, motivating factors and implications for the teams involved, much of the attention has been focused on what comes next.

In the initial aftermath, we learned that both Oregon and Washington had been in discussions with the Big Ten about joining alongside the two LA schools. It makes sense. Adding another pair of PAC-12 teams would give USC and UCLA teams to play on the west coast (albeit more than 800 miles apart) and keep some semblance of tradition with teams that have been on the schedule for generations.

That, however, has since been placed on hold while the Big Ten goes back to the Notre Dame well. The Fighting Irish are, after all, the most valuable brand on the market for conferences looking to make a big splash. They bring one of the largest fanbases in the country, a strong academic tradition (though they are not members of the AAU) and perhaps most importantly, their fanbase is nationwide rather than focused on a specific metro market.

And so now Notre Dame holds the fate of the college athletics landscape in the palm of their hands at the moment. The Irish have always valued their ability to manage their own schedule, gulp up the most TV revenue possible and operate without a conference overlord breathing down their neck.

But much of that has been predicated on an ability to do just that. That ability is slowly falling away. With the expansion of the Big Ten, we are inching closer to a new reality in college sports: two, possibly three, major conferences and everyone else.

The primary driver of the additions is, of course, money. The Big Ten conference is in the midst of renegotiating its media rights deal and rumors had been swirling of the new deal, which is expected to cut out Disney/ESPN (and ABC) and pull in not only CBS and NBC but likely a streaming partner such as Amazon, being valued in the neighborhood of $1B per year. For those not here to do math, that’s nearly $71.5M per Big Ten school per year, a jump of more than $16M from the current $55M paid out annually to each of the conference’s 14 members.

The addition of the two schools in the LA TV market will drive that number higher. Ex-FOX Sports Executive Bob Thompson estimates USC and UCLA represent a ~$200M per year value in terms of media rights. That’s a big number that does two things. First, it virtually kills off the PAC-12 single-handidly given the conference’s prior media rights deal was for ~$500M annually. So the loss of those two programs nearly cuts the value of the conference’s TV rights in half and chops off ~$12M in annual funding off the top for the schools remaining in the league.

But from the Big Ten perspective, it does the inverse. Assuming the whole is only the sum of the parts (which is a bit simplistic and not terribly realistic), we could assume adding USC and UCLA adds $200M annually to the value of the Big Ten package, taking the total to $1.2B. That equates to $75M per school per year even with the number of schools jumping to 16. And again, that assumes the new Big Ten is worth only the sum of its parts and that there is no added value to TV networks in having USC face off with Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, etc. (which is to say, $1.2B is on the low end and that $75M per school per year figure is the lowest amount Big Ten fans should expect).

So what does that have to do with Notre Dame? Well, the Irish are currently receiving in the ballpark of $15M per year from NBC for the rights to its games. That is.... not $75M. Not close. So the Golden Domers have at least 60 millions reasons per year to look at joining the Big Ten.

And again, that’s on the low end. Adding Notre Dame to the Big Ten’s media rights deal would likely drive the value through the roof. The Irish have the second biggest following in all of college sports behind only the Big Ten’s Ohio State.

The Big Ten already has three of the top five fanbases in college sports. Adding Notre Dame would make it four.
Image via AltimoreCollins study published via @TJAltimore

But beyond the dollars and cents of joining the conference, Notre Dame has to assess where they see the future of college athletics going to determine if they want to join the Big Ten now at a time when they have leverage or be faced with making a jump down the road when the wheels of change are in full motion.

As it stands right now, the ACC is intact thanks in part to a media rights deal that runs through 2036 and in part because Notre Dame is holding it together. But that doesn’t figure to last long.

After the Big Ten announced their moves on USC and UCLA, it took little time for the remainder of the Pac-12 to come forward with meetings and speculation. Both Oregon and Washington have reportedly been in discussions with the Big Ten while the Big 12 appears to be working toward trying to save their conference by having discussions with Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah in addition to the aforementioned Oregon and Washington.

Assuming the Big Ten and SEC will simply stand still now and not pursue any additional changes is a bit naïve. The genie is out of the bottle and the ACC is the next conference primed for a raid. If the Big 12 does indeed gobble up several Pac-12 schools, the Big Ten is likely to make a run at a couple ACC schools, namely North Carolina but potentially the likes of Boston College, Georgia Tech, Syracuse or Virginia. Likewise, the SEC is highly likely to pursue, either in the short term or the long term, Clemson, Florida State and Miami, if not North Carolina, Virginia Tech or NC State.

If any of those discussions advance beyond the preliminary phase, the ACC will be irreversibly on the same course the Pac-12 currently finds itself on. And at that point Notre Dame loses its leverage. Not because they need the ACC, but because once the ACC stops being the current version of itself, college football becomes entirely a two-conference game.

That’s not hyperbole and it’s not a stretch. We’re close today. Beyond the news on USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten as early as 2024, we already have Texas and Oklahoma leaving the Big 12 for the SEC in 2025. Stopping there, those two conferences are already head and shoulders ahead of all other conferences in terms of revenues, fanbase size, program prestige, championships and virtually any other metric imaginable.

But perhaps more importantly, the world is going to continue changing at a lightning pace as we approach 2026. As you’ll note, that’s a year after Texas and Oklahoma join the SEC and two years after the Big Ten expands westward. It’s also when ESPN’s current stranglehold on the College Football Playoff broadcast rights expires. There is no framework in place for not only the TV rights, but also the structure of the playoff itself beyond that 2025-2026 season.

At a minimum, ESPN and FOX are going to want to ensure their collegiate brands are over-represented in the future state of the playoff come 2026. More likely, they’re going to want to ensure the playoff features ONLY their aligned brands.

We’re entering a world where college football looks increasingly like the NFL. Or at least the NFL and AFL pre-merger. It’s pretty easy to envision a world in 2026 where both the Big Ten and SEC host their own seeded playoff to crown a champion at the end of a 12-game regular season, then send their respective champions into a National Championship game between the two conferences.

That works because all the money is behind those two conferences. Money that dwarfs even the money that the mighty Irish command in their current arrangement. And if we’ve learned nothing else from conference expansion it should be that money rules the world.

To fit into that new world, Notre Dame is going to have their hand forced. They can surely hold on for several years and do their part to prop up the ACC and attempt to push forward with the hopes of an expanded playoff that features the winners of the Big Ten, SEC, ACC and whatever becomes of the combined Big 12-Pac-12. But From a purely financial perspective, it’s much more lucrative for FOX to let the Pac-12 die off and reinvest that money into the burgeoning Big Ten. And Disney/ESPN has already tied themselves entirely to the SEC with a new contract that will make them the exclusive broadcaster of SEC content through 2033.

Both companies and conferences would love to have Notre Dame on board, but nobody involved needs the Irish to be successful. If college football continues down the current path, the Irish will need a conference. And the ACC doesn’t look like it will be around long enough to answer the call.

The question is really when, not if, the Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC are stripped for parts with their premier brands and TV markets jumping ship to the Big Ten and SEC while the rest try to cobble together one or two conferences of schools that simply don’t command the eyeballs or dollars needed to compete.

When realignment is done, the Big Ten and SEC will have a stranglehold on the top brands in college athletics.
Image via @TJaltimore

There are details to iron out in terms of scheduling, a future playoff format, potential divisions and so much more. But the writing is clearly being added to the wall. The world of college sports is changing rapidly and we’re headed toward a two-conference behemoth that is driven by dollars, not tradition.