Bolting for the Bigs: USC, UCLA Abandon PAC-12 for Big Ten (UW Next?)

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2021 game / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

The surging dysfunction tearing apart the business of big-time college football calls to mind a scene between Capt. Jack Sparrow and Hector Barbossa in a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel.

As the rivals lock swords in Curse Of The Black Pearl, the villainous Barbossa, splendidly rendered by Geoffrey Rush, sneers at Johnny Depp’s loopy hero:

“You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be monsters!”

With the stunning news Thursday that USC and UCLA have agreed to abandon the Pac-12 Conference and join by the 2024 season the Big 10 Conference of the Midwest (and East), it’s official now that the industry has fallen off the edge of the flat Earth propped so long by the mythology of amateurism.

As with many other industries, customs and institutions, such as, say, the Supreme Court, the decay was long and slow. Then sudden.

Regarding the consequences for football’s deepening whirlpool, I have a two-word response.

Hoo. Ray.

Any developments that hasten the time when the sport becomes fully professionalized creates a good sports day. Five years from now, long after the monsters have chewed up and pooped out the old Pac-12 Conference, sports fans will look upon 2021-22 in the way that aerospace engineers imagine the day before the Wright Brothers’ first flight. 

In five years, the 48-team (or 64-team) College Super League will be a professional entertainment extravaganza. It will be administered not by the NCAA, but by ESPN, the current commissioner-without-portfolio, and its deputy, Fox Sports. Already, the networks are dictating the terms and conditions of the week’s disruption by the Los Angeles schools, and are bidding to get the University of Washington and University of Oregon to join.

The CSL franchises will rent the facilities, nicknames, colors and season-ticket-holder lists from the universities. The rental revenues will be sufficient to sustain each school’s 15-plus non-revenue sports, in addition to the funds new in the past year to the industry  – third-party payments to athletes for use of their names, images and likenesses, to promote businesses.

The football athletes will be full-time employees with salaries and benefits, competing in a 12-week regular-season schedule and four weeks of playoffs. Player contracts will include two transfer options over five years. Only a single significant business tradition will remain – education will be a player option, only codified.

Largest casualty of this disruption will be the 60 to 80 current Division I programs left off the CSL big-dance card, Washington State University being the nearest example. The smaller-budget programs likely will be herded into a baseball-style AAA minor league, their games slotted into daytime broadcast TV and on streaming channels desperate for live, inexpensive programming.

Any revenue shortfalls in the reformed enterprise will be subsidized by proceeds from gambling, which will establish campus pop-up sports books, indoors during crappy weather, in case traditionalists want to say they “attended” the game without having to be uncomfortable.

Best of all, the sham of amateurism, and its hardened hypocrisy, will have largely vanished.

Longtime readers of this column in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Sportspress Northwest may sense a resolution coming to my longtime lament about big-time college sports – the systemic, corrupt unfairness to athletes. It’s happening.

The decades of misdeeds by the NCAA, one of the most reform-resistant institutions in America, turned into so many legal and moral setbacks in the past few years, it was forced to do the unthinkable.

 Then-president Mark Emmert, the former president of the University of Washington, had to beg Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wa), newly elevated to the chair of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, for federal intervention to solve the problem of 50 state legislatures making up their own rules governing national sports.

When was the last time a major American sport asked to be taken over by the federales? Never. Not this time, either. The senators rightly said they had better things to do than untangle fishing net from the propeller.

 As a fairly direct result, college athletics departments recognized it was every school for itself. Hence, the Trojans and Bruins soon enough will slip-slide in November onto frozen tarmacs in Ann Arbor and Columbus to play conference games. Unplesant as that may be, it’s where the money is.

The Pac-12 distributed only $19.8 million per school in fiscal year 2021, by far the least among Power 5 conferences. The Big Ten’s per-school distribution was $46.1 million, second only to the SEC’s $54.6 million. The difference is largely from the Pac-12’s notoriously bad TV deal struck under the previous league commissioner, Larry Scott, as well as a West Coast market more indifferent to college sports than the Midwest and South.

Scott’s successor, George Kliavkoff, has drawn kudos for his one-year stewardship, but the Pac-12 TV deal isn’t up for renegotiation until after the 2023-24 season. USC and UCLA couldn’t wait. Kliavkoff, it turns out, bought the last available ticket on the Titanic. 

As for the Huskies program, which, as with every other Pac-12 member, was blindsided by the news, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it stays with the conference after the loss of the LA schools and the SoCal TV market. Kliavkoff may be a brilliant choice to negotiate a new TV deal, but now he has to win the pot with a pair of treys.

First, he has to play defense on the Huskies, who have an annual stadium-remodel debt service of $14 million. They also have the West’s No. 3 TV market, which makes them attractive to the Big 10. 

Up until now, the Huskies attempted to hold a posture not unlike Church Lady, Dana Carvey’s character on Saturday Night Live. The Huskies seemed to view with disdain the antics of college football’s sinners, all the while eager to burst forth with the devil’s dance like everyone else.

To Church Lady’s perpetual question, “Isn’t that special?”,  the answer is no. Not Washington, not Oregon, not USC, not UCLA, not the Pac-12, not tradition, not custom, not history.

It’s all about entertainment, the first word in ESPN’s name. Five 6,000-mile round trips to the Eastern time zone in a season? Only if the players are salaried entertainers.

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Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.

18 COMMENTS

  1. College football has become absurd. University execs like the system because they get basically free winter vacations to the bowl games.

    • True, but they like it better when the athletics department pays for itself via TV revenues. That happens, mostly, at Washington. Never happens at WSU ($30 million operating deficit last year), which is why the news was really bad in the Palouse.

  2. Fully expected to see you writing about this. Your perspective is informed by decades at looking at the inside, with at least one foot out. Professionalism has a legitimate place in our society. What about institutions that promote social integrity and civic pride?

  3. Maybe now UW can actually win a few conference titles. I’m curious to see who’s brought in to replace USC and UCLA. Fully expecting Arizona and Stanford to leave as well. This is Larry Scott’s legacy.

    • Not sure about any future moves, John. No rules or customs here; a free-for-all. My best guess is Pac-12 goes away in two years, and there’s two 24-team super leagues.

      • Kinda predicting the Zags and San Diego St come in but I agree with you. Who would want to join the PAC at this point?

  4. I consider the LA teams’ decision to be a camouflaged gift to U.W. It’s a chance to downsize Husky athletics, maybe develop a special excellence in basketball and crew, and get off the train to fully merchandized sports. The Ivy League has a lesser league, but it still rallies the alumni and attracts athletes. I say this fully expecting the bandwagon for major-league statues to roll right over me.

    • Not much appeal for UW grads or long time fans (I’m both). And there are a number of rich and powerful boosters to be considered. This is quite a story. I hope Crosscut covers it.

  5. Since we’re rolling college things back, I’m old enough to remember when Facebook was a nice little campus site for dating hook-ups. I miss those those days.

  6. thanks Art! I was hoping you would address this. I’m torn between hoping UW joins the big table, or being content with emphasizing academics and playing in a smaller conference with maybe San Diego state and Boise state etc. but I suppose there’s not much chance of that . . .

    • Most fans share your conflicted-ness. The presidents want to cook up a scheme to keep the conference together, but it only works if the mafia dons (ESPN and Fox) agree to offer financial protection. If that requires a 3 a.m. kickoff in Minsk, the presidents will kiss the rings.

  7. Art, did you have a chance to check out on Jon Wilner’s take on this matter? It’s a different perspective than yours. But as you probably know, he is very well informed and very thoughtful on the subject of the Pac(X) Conference. This is an immense occurrence. And its impact will be felt for a long time to come. If you have time, take a look. I have already suggested to him that he takes a look at this yours.

    https://sports360az.com/2022/06/wilner-hotline-pac-12-football-six-ideas-a-few-of-them-radical-to-overhaul-the-schedule-and-maximize-media-value/

    Please keep the channel open as this is certainly an ongoing topic.

    • Jon is an excellent reporter and created a valuable media asset. His take in this column is about how to manage the crisis post-LA in the next season or two. My take looks down the road five years to what the college industry will become. Different time frames, each with their share of worthiness.

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