With Colorado heading to the Big 12, what comes next for Utah and the Pac-12?

Analysis: Utah’s AD Mark Harlan just reaffirmed his commitment to the Pac-12. But with Colorado leaving the conference, the landscape is once again changing.

(David Zalubowski | AP) Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, left, looks to pass the ball as Colorado linebacker Marvin Ham II pursues in the first half of a game Nov. 26, 2022, in Boulder, Colo. Colorado appears ready to leave the Pac-12 for the Big 12, according to multiple reports.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff spent last week in Las Vegas telling the college football world that everything was fine: The Pac-12 was on the verge of a media rights deal that would stabilize the conference.

“We’ll get our media rights deal done, we’ll announce the deal,” he said. “I think the realignment that’s going on in college athletics will come to an end for this cycle. ... The longer we wait for the media deal, the better our options get. "

It was hard to believe at times — especially as Colorado’s athletic director slipped out of town without answering questions about his university’s future in the league.

A week later, though, the Buffs are walking out the door entirely.

Colorado’s Board of Regents on Thursday voted to begin a move to the Big 12. The Big 12′s presidents and chancellors had already voted unanimously to accept Colorado, the Associated Press reported Wednesday.

The Action Network reported the Big 12′s stability and more lucrative outlook compared to the uncertain future of the Pac-12 and the wait for a new media rights deal among the reasons for Colorado’s decision.

The move once again puts the long-term future of the Pac-12 in question and raises concerns for Utah and the conference’s other remaining members.

Utah backs the Pac-12

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan helped Kliavkoff try to calm the waters last week. He reaffirmed Utah’s commitment to the Pac-12.

“I think our words and actions speak for themselves,” Harlan said. “We are a proud member of this conference and look forward to its future success.”

But that was before Colorado bolted, and things can change quickly in conference realignment. After all, Colorado was pounding the table for the Pac-12 to stick together last year. Now, it is the first school out the door.

(Lucas Peltier | AP) Pac-12 associate commissioner Merton Hanks answers questions with Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, left, and Utah athletic director Mark Harlan at the NCAA college football Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas.

Moreover, departures from the Pac-12 might not end with Colorado. The conference still does not have a media rights deal in place — the main driver of revenue for members — and there has been no date given for when a deal will be finalized.

Pac-12 officials held their own meeting on Thursday afternoon, according to multiple reports. But every day that passes without one, Pac-12 schools are susceptible to being poached.

Ever since USC and UCLA left for the Big Ten last summer, the Pac-12 has moved slowly. When it had an exclusive negotiating window with ESPN and Fox last summer, it came away with nothing.

After that, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark undercut the Pac-12 by securing its media rights deal first. The Big 12 was supposed to negotiate a year after the Pac-12, but Yormark skipped ahead and signed on with ESPN and Fox. It took up plenty of the remaining money — shrinking the pot for the Pac-12 — and gave the Big 12 stability.

“We all know there’s some challenges in the media market today,” Yormark said two weeks ago. “Going early was critically important for this conference, giving us stability and clarity.”

The Pac-12 seems to have missed multiple opportunities to get a deal done and secure its own members. Last week it was reported that Kliavkoff would present a television deal that was comparable to the Big 12′s $31 million per school and quell the talk of members fleeing. It didn’t happen and a week later Colorado is headed elsewhere.

What makes things worse for the Pac-12 is that the Big 12′s television deal has a pro rata clause in it, The Athletic originally reported. That means when the Big 12 adds a Power Five team, like Colorado, that school automatically gets a full revenue share of the Big 12′s television deal. It allows the Big 12 to be more aggressive in expansion, and gives it a more enticing bargaining chip to lure potential schools.

So not only does the Pac-12 have to get a deal that is comparable to the Big 12 — if not schools will go to where there is more money — but it also has to fend off the threat of the Big 12 expanding with a good offer.

Where will this leave Utah?

Harlan has expressed his loyalty to the conference and the Utes might even be able to stomach Colorado’s departure. But if more schools leave, which is looking more possible in the current climate, it would be hard to imagine Kliavkoff being able to secure a television deal on the level of the Big 12. And if the money isn’t there, Utah might have to look elsewhere too.

What comes next for the Big 12?

While Utah and the remaining Pac-12 members are assessing the landscape after Colorado’s departure, the Big 12 also has to make its own decisions. Utah can’t go anywhere without an offer.

Yormark has said several times that he would like to expand to 14 teams in 2024. Colorado’s addition brings the conference to 13.

That said, who he is targeting to be that 14th member is unclear. It is also possible that maybe Yormark stays at 13 or expands beyond 14. He said two weeks ago that he isn’t necessarily chasing a number of teams, it is more about fit.

Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark speaks at the opening of the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, Wednesday, July 12, 2023. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

But if the Big 12 is still on the prowl for more teams, there have been certain names reported that Yormark is interested in. Arizona, Arizona State have been constantly thrown out. UConn, for its basketball prowess, has also been in the mix. Utah, although less frequently, has been a reported target.

The Associated Press reported that the Big 12 would ideally like to add Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah to get to 16 teams.

Utah has always been an intriguing hypothetical for the Big 12. It would give the conference a built-in rivalry with BYU and put another team in the Mountain time zone. Yormark has often talked about the positives of the Big 12 being in multiple time zones for television inventory.

But with Colorado coming, Yormark’s need for another team in the Mountain Time Zone is decreased. Colorado also brings some rivalries for the conference, having been a member of the Big 12 long before it left for the Pac-12.

Beyond that, Yormark could look even further west to Oregon and Washington. Whether they are interested is another question. But Yormark has said he wants to be in all four time zones. The Big 12 would be the only Power Five conference to go coast-to-coast if it could get a school in the Pacific Time Zone.

Either way, Utah’s status will be top of mind for officials in both conferences in the coming weeks.

The next steps?

Arizona’s president already commented on Wednesday night that he will still wait to see a television deal presented by Kliavkoff before making any decisions about the future.

If Kliavkoff, now without Colorado, can still come up with a deal that mirrors the revenue from the Big 12, maybe the remaining nine members can stick together. Then the Pac-12 could also look to expand with San Diego State, SMU and Boise State as potential candidates.

But those are all big question marks. And even if Kliavkoff can find a deal lucrative enough, there is the fear of how fast that can happen.

Kliavkoff has spent over a year trying to get a deal done and the Big 12 is currently moving quickly in the wake of Colorado’s departure.

Kliavkoff said last week the conference’s options get better the longer the wait. Time will tell if that’s true.