Big Ten growth, UCLA's motives, Notre Dame: Answering realignment Q's

Big Ten growth, UCLA’s motives, Notre Dame: Answering realignment Q’s

The initial dust has settled after the college football-shattering news that USC and UCLA were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. But what remains except more questions? There’s a lot we don’t know yet, and a lot to uncover, but for now, The Athletic’s college football staff will answer your biggest burning questions about what comes next — Future Pac-12 members? Notre Dame to a conference? ACC angst?

Is the Big Ten on aggressive expansion?

You never want to be too definitive about timing because these environments are always fluid. But the Big Ten just got the two members it wanted to add and got that done quite expeditiously. Multiple sources told The Athletic that there appears to be “no big rush” to add more members — if the league ultimately opts to grow further, which seems likely … at some point. If Notre Dame called Kevin Warren next week and said the Irish were on board to join the Big Ten, of course the league would drop everything to make it happen.

But Notre Dame stands alone, an obvious slam-dunk for any conference. Everyone else? Well, it’s worth crunching the numbers and digging into the pros and cons to make sure any potential addition brings enough value to the league.

This isn’t the time for a knee-jerk reaction, particularly when you are the conference that changed the landscape of college sports overnight. We know now that the Big Ten has an expansion committee it used to evaluate USC and UCLA as potential members, so the league already has what it needs to in place to appraise whoever reaches out with interest in joining — and, according to sources, multiple schools have already done just that.

If the Big Ten had wanted to add more than just USC and UCLA in this week’s round of expansion, it would have. The conference got the two members it felt brought the most value — money, tradition, TV markets — and opted to stop there for the time being. And this makes sense, especially now that the L.A. schools are locked in as Warren works through the final weeks (months?) of the Big Ten’s monster media rights negotiations. Of course this conference can afford to be patient. If college sports is moving toward an era of superconferences, every prominent school will want to join either the Big Ten or the SEC. (A source told Stewart Mandel that further consolidation into the top 24-32 programs breaking off was “inevitable now.”)

The Big Ten holds all the cards, and it knows that. Why rush anything for schools you know don’t have better options on the table? — Nicole Auerbach

Why did UCLA make the leap to the Big Ten?

Just look at the finances. When Martin Jarmond took over as athletic director in 2020, the Bruins’ athletic department was already in a deep financial hole, and that was before COVID-19 caused an additional $62 million deficit. The biggest issue facing the former Ohio State and Michigan State assistant AD? Trying to keep the athletic department whole, and ensuring that none of its sports were eliminated or vulnerable.

That huge financial hit in the wake of the pandemic perhaps made UCLA leadership more receptive to making such a big move given their sense of urgency. It was also no secret the gap between the Big Ten and SEC and the rest was about to widen further with the next round of TV deals.

“The ground was shifting and we needed stability,” Jarmond told The Athletic.

Two new NFL teams (the Chargers and Rams) settling in Los Angeles in recent years didn’t help, either. It only made the football and ticket market that much more competitive. The financial resources that would come from joining the Big Ten, as well as competing against bigger brands, also figured to add to the atmosphere around UCLA sports — something the school got a taste of last year when LSU visited the Rose Bowl on a night that probably had more juice for a UCLA home game in years. — Bruce Feldman

What’s the word in the Pac-12 after the initial shockwaves?

One Pac-12 source said USC’s move felt “obvious” given how much change was forthcoming between 2023-25, when media contracts were being renegotiated, as was the College Football Playoff contract. “It happened exactly as everyone knew it would. Somehow it’s still shocking when it happens.”

Added a Pac-12 coach: “This doesn’t just feel like USC leaving the Pac-12 behind for more money. It really feels like they get to leave Oregon (the other real West Coast recruiting power) behind. I think this will hurt Oregon recruiting, and USC knows that.”

“I think they have to get creative,” the Pac-12 source said, musing about where the conference goes from here. “But if I’m Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah, I’m on a Zoom today aligning on a plan to get to the Big 12. The Pac-12 may want to look at dividing along football and basketball-only members. I think Gonzaga and St. Mary’s basketball only. And then explore SDSU, Fresno, Boise and UNLV as football only.” — Stewart Mandel and Feldman 

Is Notre Dame just in wait-and-see mode?

Notre Dame doesn’t need to have its final answer on conference realignment today and entered the weekend as a rank-and-file (partial) member of the ACC. When the league had a call for its athletics directors on Friday, Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick was a regular participant. So, while Swabrick has publicly predicted a new world order at the top of college athletics, that doesn’t mean Notre Dame will drive the train to make it happen, even following the departures of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten.

If there’s a precedent for how Notre Dame behaved in the world of conference realignment before, it’s how Swarbrick found a match for Notre Dame in the ACC originally. Almost exactly one year after Syracuse and Pittsburgh bolted the Big East for the ACC, Notre Dame did too. The Irish weren’t the first to jump, but they weren’t the last, either. Swarbrick understood Notre Dame’s leverage and played it, grasping that the ACC needed Notre Dame to stabilize the conference and launch the ACC Network. The Irish still had a television partner with NBC, still had a home for Olympic sports in the Big East and now had better access to the postseason with guaranteed Power 5 games.

Those three things are still true today. For now.

If the ACC loses a football-first member like Clemson, Miami or Florida State, what’s left behind could be so reduced Notre Dame may view the ACC the same way it viewed the Big East back then. And even if the ACC holds firm, the financial implications of not joining the Big Ten are severe. Swarbrick has said Notre Dame makes less money as an independent than it would as a full-time ACC member. That means membership in the Big Ten would be a windfall, with school payouts potentially approaching $100 million. Even for a school with an endowment of $13 billion, that’s real money.

Sources around the Big Ten indicate the league will be patient with Notre Dame. Yet, if the league delayed its next media rights deal to maximize the financial impact of USC and UCLA, wouldn’t the league want to do the same with Notre Dame? If there’s a factor that might lead to a decision sooner than later, that might be it. — Pete Sampson

Are there any likely candidates to join the Pac-12?

​​The Pac-12 declaring it is ready to explore “all expansion options” is certainly a curious statement. Let’s rewind to July 27, 2021. In his debut appearance at Pac-12 Media Day, Kliavkoff said “significant inbound interest” from schools (hint: they’re in the Big 12) gave his conference an opportunity to consider expansion. Exactly 30 days later, the Pac-12 announced it would not expand.

“This decision was made following extensive internal discussion and analysis,” the conference said in a statement, “and is based on the current competitive strength and cohesiveness of our 12 universities.”

They ended up being wrong about that second part. Was the first part at least true? How extensive were the evaluations of expansion targets by the newly hired commissioner and the presidents and chancellors? We’ll soon find out if the Pac-12 did its homework last summer. If they did, Kliavkoff should be prepared with a short list and a strategy that he’s ready to act on.

The commissioner made it clear last July that the athletic, academic and cultural fit of any potential addition had to align with Pac-12 ideals. But remember, it’s the risk-averse presidents and not the ADs who make these decisions. And it’s fair to wonder how seriously his board took the candidacies of Big 12 schools that expressed interest.

The “fit” issue is real. Academic prestige is the standard for these leaders. The rankings that matter to them come from U.S. News & World Report. That makes the Pac-12 a desirable destination to other school presidents, no doubt. But now that their conference’s circumstances have dramatically changed, the question becomes whether the Pac-12 presidents at all willing to stray from their usual academic and cultural standards and make decisions based on the measures that matter to everyone else: football relevance.

They could circle back on the Big 12 members. They could take a close look at San Diego State. They could try to break into Texas with Houston or SMU. It’s not hard to throw a list together. What’s hard is making the sell to those presidents. If you’re going by their criteria and high standards, there are few options that would be considered obvious wins. — Max Olson

Is the ACC actually panicking?

The ACC had an AD meeting Friday morning via Zoom that was scheduled in response to Thursday’s realignment news. One AD described the tenor of the meeting as much better than anticipated, given the anxiety surrounding the conference (and several others) in light of the Big Ten’s growing power.

Commissioner Jim Phillips presented a strong, positive front, the AD said, as he reminded all of the strength and stability of the league relative to every other conference outside of the Big Ten and SEC, and as he stressed the stability that the league’s Grant of Rights provides.

No one on the call was naïve, and ADs brought up multiple potential avenues to explore in the imminent future, be that to expand themselves, to align themselves with the the Big 12 or Pac-12, or to stand pat, which seems like the least appealing current option during a period that calls for action.

Swarbrick was described as an active participant on the call, answering questions as they were asked to him. That probably means nothing in the grand scheme of the Irish’s relationship with the ACC, but it certainly contributed to a “business as usual” vibe for the conference. For now.

And about that grant of rights — it stretches to June 30, 2036. That agreement binds the schools’ media rights to the conference, and unless it can be broken, it would make the schools worthless to another conference. The Athletic examined conference grant of rights deals — including the ACC’s original deal agreed upon in 2013 — in an analysis of whether these allegedly irrevocable deals can be broken. Short answer: It would be pretty difficult.

But that doesn’t mean certain ACC schools aren’t examining their options. The league’s members are locked into a deal with ESPN that lasts 14 more years. That’s an awfully long time. Heck, 14 years ago, the Big East was still a football conference. Nebraska and Texas A&M were still in the Big 12. The league that just turned into the Pac-10 on Thursday was … the Pac-10. It’s a tough pill to swallow to realize that Rutgers may soon be receiving more than twice as much from its conference as Clemson or Miami receive from their conference. This becomes especially contentious because some schools seem much more invested in football success than others.

If the grant of rights remains ironclad, expect several ACC schools to push for uneven revenue sharing based upon on-field/court success. Administrators at several schools feel they shouldn’t have to foot the bill to carry the flag for the league while other schools collect the money and don’t try as hard to contribute to the conference’s success. — Matt Fortuna and Andy Staples

What does this mean for the Group of 5?

Much like after the Texas/Oklahoma announcement, teams and leagues in the Group of 5 first must wait for other dominoes to fall, multiple commissioners and ADs told The Athletic.

(In a funny coincidence, Friday was the first day some of last year’s realignment began to go into effect, as Marshall, Southern Miss, James Madison and Old Dominion are now officially in the Sun Belt, and JMU puts FBS at 131 teams. Everyone else impacted by the Texas-Oklahoma trickle down a year ago already have their moves done or set … except Texas and Oklahoma.)

If the Pac-12 can’t pull anyone from the Big 12 and still wants to expand, Boise State and San Diego State could be the most likely candidates to fill the Pac-12 — if the league can get past the academic disparity. Boise State moves the TV needle more than anyone left in the Group of 5, still with its own carve-out contract with ESPN separate from the rest of the Mountain West. TV value, more than anything else, drives realignment now, and Boise State still has some.

Sources say San Diego State, meanwhile, would pitch itself as a way for the Pac-12 to have a presence in Southern California after the loss of the L.A. blue bloods, plus an investment in athletics with a new football stadium and solid football/men’s basketball programs. Remember, Boise State and San Diego State turned down the AAC a year in part to keep its options open if there was more Power 5 realignment. An outside-the-box move for the Pac-12 could be SMU.

If the Pac-12 takes a few Big 12 schools and the Big 12 needs more replacements, it could turn to the Group of 5 as it did a year ago. Boise State, SDSU and SMU, as well as Memphis, could be options in that scenario.

But what’s most intriguing for the Group of 5 is if one of the Power 5 leagues collapses. It felt possible a year ago with the Big 12, and the AAC was ready to absorb the leftovers. Now, if the Pac-12’s biggest remaining brands leave and a few others head for the Big 12 or ACC, the Mountain West or the AAC could become landing spots for leftovers like Washington State or Oregon State. While it would certainly be a disappointment for those schools, they’re natural geographic fits and could boost those leagues’ TV deals.

Leagues won’t expand unless new members bring additional TV dollars. For Group of 5 schools hoping to move to the Power 5, that is increasingly hard to find. But as one commissioner told me, it’s really hard to kill conferences, and back-filling is usually a desperate and successful way to survive. — Chris Vannini

(Photo: Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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