University of Utah departing decimated Pac-12 conference for the Big 12

The Utah board of trustees voted Friday night to accept an invitation from the Big 12.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Former Ute Lei Talamaivao walks across the field during Utah's inaugural Pac-12 season. After more than a decade in the conference, the Utes have reportedly submitted their application to join the Big 12.

Utah athletic director Mark Harlan stood next to Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff two weeks ago and pledged his support for the Pac-12 and its commissioner.

On a blistering day in Las Vegas, Harlan took the heat for the sputtering conference multiple times. The Pac-12, after all, was the league that took a chance on Utah over a decade ago. It pulled it up from the Mountain West and gave it a shot in the Power Five.

“We are a proud member of this conference and look forward to its future success,” Harlan said resolutely.

But a lot can change in 14 days. Since then, Colorado has bolted to the Big 12. On Friday, Oregon and Washington announced their intentions to join the Big Ten, pushing the Pac-12 to the brink.

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. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)

That left the Utes with little choice: Utah will join the Big 12 along with Arizona State and Arizona. The U.’s board of trustees voted unanimously to accept an invitation from the new conference in an emergency meeting Friday evening.

The Utes will head to the Big 12 starting in 2024. Harlan and Co. waited to the very end, hoping that Kliavkoff could pull off a miracle to save the conference, but ultimately time ran out.

How we got here

The pathway to this moment started a year ago when USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Realistically, time was ticking on the viability of the league from that moment on.

With an impending media rights negotiation upcoming — and nearly 40% of the television revenue walking out the door — Kliavkoff needed to act if the league was going to remain afloat. He needed to find more sources of revenue, and quickly.

At the time, though, it did feel like Kliavkoff had options. For one, he had the benefit of negotiating the Pac-12′s media rights deal before the Big 12. The Big 12′s deal was set to expire in 2025. The Pac-12′s was to expire in 2024. So Kliavkoff could go to media partners early, with all the money still left on the table, and get a good deal.

Plus, there were several schools that Kliavkoff could add that might have made the Pac-12′s product more valuable to media partners. San Diego State and SMU wanted to come into the league. While SDSU could not replace USC and UCLA, it would have kept the Pac-12 somewhat relevant in southern California. Meanwhile, SMU could arguably get the league into Texas both from a television standpoint and recruiting standpoint.

But Kliavkoff balked at both expansion and the early negotiating window. The Pac-12 had an exclusive negotiating window with FOX and ESPN last summer, but came away with nothing. Instead, Kliavkoff decided to take the Pac-12′s media rights to open market and see if they could get a better price.

And he also decided that any expansion of the league would come after a media rights deal was signed.

(LM Otero | AP) Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark smiles before speaking at the opening of the NCAA college football Big 12 media days in Arlington, Texas, July 12, 2023. When Colorado announced it was leaving the Pac-12 to return to the conference the Buffaloes jilted a dozen years ago, the Big 12 celebrated the reunion with a two-word statement released through Yomark: “They’re back.”

With this as the decision, Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark undercut Kliavkoff. The Big 12 jumped the line, skipped ahead a year on its media rights deal and struck a deal with ESPN and FOX. Yormark could have waited to take the Big 12 to open market too, possibly getting a better deal than $31 million per school. But he opted for stability. He wanted the deal in place, one that would keep the Big 12 together, and then on the move to expansion.

And once the Big 12 had its deal, Kliavkoff’s options dwindled. ESPN and FOX no longer had as much money to give the Pac-12. And other bids for the league weren’t as lucrative as Kliavkoff had hoped.

It was reported that Kliavkoff shopped the conference around to CBS, NBC and other television partners. But he couldn’t find a deal in the range of $31 million. And as the months pased without a deal in place, the remaining Pac-12 members got restless. The Big 12 was offering any Pac-12 member $31 million if It joined (thanks to a pro rata clause in the media rights deal).

The Pac-12 couldn’t match it.

Exit strategies

Colorado was the first to leave the conference to the Big 12 last week.

On Tuesday, in the wake of Colorado’s departure, Kliavkoff presented a last-ditch plan for the Pac-12 to sign a deal with the streaming service Apple TV. It would guarantee about $20 million per school. But subscriptions, it was reported, that the deal could end up being worth more than the Big 12′s.

But as one industry source put it, “it is risky any time you are not working in guarantees.”

A Utah cheerleader makes a confetti angel after Utah defeated Southern California in the Pac-12 Conference championship NCAA college football game Friday, Dec. 2, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Steve Marcus)

That may have been the final straw for some.

Arizona’s Board of Regents met Thursday night to discuss the possibility of the Wildcats and Sun Devils joining the Big 12.

The Big Ten, meanwhile, quietly held talks with Oregon and Washington. After the Pac-12′s presidents and chancellors met for an emergency meeting Friday, it became clear that the Ducks and Huskies — two of the century-old conference’s founding members — were headed for the Big Ten.

Utah, one of the most hesitant of the Pac-12 schools to consider a change in conferences, was left without much choice. The U. submitted a formal application on Friday morning. It had been accepted by the Big 12 a few hours later.

How does Utah fit in the Big 12?

Utah’s fit in the Big 12 seems pretty clear. It will continue to give the new-look conference a stronghold in the Mountain Time Zone. It will also bring a rivalry with BYU to the league. Both are valuable to Yormark as he positions the Big 12 as the third power conference behind the SEC and Big Ten.

“If the Big 12 can add Utah, it will clearly be the dominant conference in the Mountain time zone taking nothing away from the commercially underrated Big Sky conference,” said Ray Katz, co-founder of Collegiate Sports Management Group. “So in terms of lining up with prime time and other day parts, this will be very powerful from the perspective of driving ratings, overall viewership, advertising revenue and future commercial value.”