If USC and UCLA defecting to the Big Ten was the first act of Pac-12 realignment, then the second act started in earnest Tuesday.
The conference put the rest of the college football world on notice this morning, saying it would immediately be going to the negotiating table for its media rights contract that expires in 2024.
It’s not exactly the move you would expect from a league that just lost its biggest media market and two biggest brands — USC football and UCLA basketball. It is an even stranger move when you factor in the reports throughout the weekend indicating the Pac-12 could see more departures in the coming weeks.
But the surprising timing of the announcement by the Pac-12 has led many to believe there is a plan formulating behind the scenes that could potentially keep the league intact. A high-level Utah source told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday the league remains “tethered together” for now and Utah remains committed to the conference.
If the Pac-12 is heading to the negotiating table now, it believes it is coming from a position of strength. Which either means the conferences thinks it can hold onto its remaining 10 members or expand.
Last week, the prevailing notion was Oregon and Washington were next in line to leave the conference — either to the Big Ten or the Big 12. It was also reported by CBS Sports that Utah, Arizona, Arizona State and Colorado were in deep discussions to leave for the Big 12.
A source within the Utah athletic department, though, said it was “blatantly false” that any of those schools were taking a meeting with the Big 12. Colorado and Arizona State also issued statements in support of the Pac-12 and its decision to start negotiations now.
That said, the issue for the conference remains that merely holding its members won’t be enough.
After USC and UCLA left, the future revenue projections from a media rights deal for the entire conference have dipped by nearly $200 million. With USC and UCLA in the Pac-12, studies predicted that a new Pac-12 media rights deal would have been in the range of $500 million. Now, a former FOX Sports executive estimated a new deal would be worth about $300 million.
This means significantly less revenue for each individual member, not to mention playing in a league with diminished power and no obvious path to the College Football Playoff.
The Pac-12 could add teams from the Mountain West, like San Diego State and Boise State. But with both of those schools in smaller media markets, the added value to a media rights deal would not offset the loss of the two major schools.
The better option, at least to this point, would likely be to merge the Pac-12 with either the Big 12 or the ACC. Pac-12 insider John Canzano reported the Pac-12 is actively exploring what a “loose merger” of the Pac-12 and ACC would look like.
Combining the existing media markets of the Pac-12 and ACC could be lucrative for ESPN in a negotiation. The ACC has schools in Boston, Washington D.C. and Atlanta. The Pac-12 brings in Denver, Seattle and Salt Lake City.
But for that scenario, and most scenarios, the first step would be to keep the existing members in the Pac-12. Oregon and Washington remain heavily valued targets for expanding conferences like the Big 12 and even the Big Ten down the line.
Colorado, while it issued a statement in support of the Pac-12, is also having a board of regents meeting tonight to receive “legal advice” about how to navigate the Pac-12 situation.