Image credit: Oregon coach Mark Wasikowski (Photo courtesy of Oregon)
Last Friday, a storm brewing for much of the summer came to a head. Conference realignment—perhaps better called conference consolidation, in this situation—shook the landscape of college sports.
In a series of moves on a day of wild, fast-moving news, the Pac-12 broke apart. First, Oregon and Washington left for the Big Ten, following in the footsteps of Southern California and UCLA a year prior. In the wake of those moves, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah left for the Big 12, joining Colorado, which had made the jump a few weeks ago.
The departures of the eight schools will all be effective July 1, 2024, as the Pac-12’s current TV contract expires. As of now, when the new academic year begins next July, the Pac-12 will be down to four schools—California, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State.
With that kind of seismic movement, there’s a lot of fallout, to say the least. Here’s a Q&A to try to make some sense of it all.
Why did this all happen now?
College sports for the last two years have been dealing with the ripple effects of the decision in July 2021 for Oklahoma and Texas to move from the Big 12 to the SEC. Those moves—as well as the coming expiration of TV contracts for many conferences—created a series of events that led the sport to Friday’s earthquake.
The Big Ten and SEC are by far the two richest conferences in college sports and have massive TV contracts. Their wealth, relative to the rest of the conferences, has created an environment of instability as many schools and conferences fear getting left in their wake. The Big Ten and SEC, meanwhile, dealing from a position of power ahead of significant contact negotiations, moved to pick up some of college sports’ biggest brands—Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC, USC and UCLA to the Big Ten—and signed even bigger TV contracts.
That left the Big 12 and Pac-12, which had deals coming up in similar timelines, scrambling. The Big 12, under commissioner Brett Yormark quickly added BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston, a move that stabilized the conference, and then quickly signed a new TV deal.
The Pac-12, under commissioner George Kliavkoff, took a different tact, opting instead to focus first on a TV deal and then consider expansion. The Pac-12 was patient in negotiations, believing it would eventually find the right offer. That never materialized, however. Kliavkoff presented the conference presidents with a streaming-only offer from Apple TV, which was not good enough to placate all the remaining schools. Oregon and Washington had an offer from the Big Ten, one which reportedly won’t pay them as much as the other 16 schools in the conference at first, but offers them an entrée into one of the two richest conferences and presents a more certain future. Once those schools accepted that offer, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah acted quickly to finalize a deal to join the Big 12, which had courted them for several months.
What’s the point of all this movement?
Money, mostly. College sports are a big business and these moves, taken in totality, will make a lot of money for a variety of entities, particularly the TV companies and the schools. How much that money really matters for the schools is a bit up for debate, at least in terms of on-field performance, but money is money.
Prestige is also a factor here. The Big Ten and the SEC occupy a different position in the college sports landscape than the other leagues. There’s a reason they can command so much money from TV networks, after all. To be a part of those leagues is, at some level, to be more nationally relevant, especially in the sport that brings in the most money—football.
So, money and football? That’s what this is all about?
Ok. But what does it mean for baseball?
The fallout is significant. It ranges from the apparent death of the Pac-12, a conference that has won five of the last 17 national championships, to the resurgence of the Big 12 to the effect it will have on players who suddenly find themselves in much different situations than what they signed up for.
Let’s start with those players. What’s the impact on them?
The breakup of the Pac-12 does create some real concerns for players—and not just those at former Pac-12 schools. We don’t know yet what the Big Ten schedule will look like going forward, but Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington are destined to take more long flights to the Midwest. Arizona, Arizona State and Utah shouldn’t have as many lengthy flights ahead of them—flying to Texas is no harder than flying to the Pacific Northwest, but they are in a conference that now stretches as far east as Orlando and Morgantown, W.Va.
Every player in the Big Ten is also going to take on added travel. While Maryland or Rutgers is unlikely to have to deal with an additional cross-country flight more than once a year, Big Ten teams already spend a ton of time on the road. This only adds to it.
All that travel, missed class and altered sleep schedules will have some impact. USC and UCLA have been studying how to mitigate that and it may lead to more charter flights, but there’s still nothing that anyone can do to make Bloomington, Ind., closer to the West Coast. There’s also the fact that now more games will be further away from home, which makes it harder for family and friends to see games. What that does for a player’s mental health will vary, but many will no doubt feel its effects.
Meanwhile, players from the West Coast were already increasingly committing to SEC schools. Nine players on LSU’s national championship roster have a hometown west of the Rockies. While that may not be surprising given that Jay Johnson is a California native who spent his whole career out west before LSU hired him, Texas A&M in 2023 had seven such players and Vanderbilt had six.
Previously, Pac-12 schools could tell recruits that their games would almost all be on the West Coast. Now, that won’t be the case for the schools that have left. Will that lead even more West Coast natives to leave to play in the SEC or other powerhouse programs? It would seem that one of the top recruiting advantages former Pac-12 schools had against an SEC team has now been lessened.
What about the schools that have been left behind? What’s to become of Cal, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State?
At this point, there are a lot of balls in the air for those schools. Reportedly, the ACC is exploring adding Cal and Stanford. On the surface, that makes little sense, but it would give those schools a financial lifeline, add a substantial media market to the ACC, which would in turn make the ACC Network more valuable and give the ACC another broadcast window, which might also increase the value of the ACC Network. More money for the network would equate to more money for the schools, but would it be enough to offset added expenses? Cal and Stanford would also fit nicely in a conference full of high-academic schools. The downside—and it’s a big one—would be the travel.
Oregon State and Washington State appear to be in deeper trouble. A move to the Mountain West would make sense geographically, but it would also mean substantially less money. Washington State is already dealing with serious financial problems and a drop out of a major conference would only exacerbate that. There’s a chance the remaining four teams stick together and work out some sort of expansion, but that won’t be easy to pull together quickly and in less than 11 months they’re set to be in a conference of four teams without a TV contract. Time is of the essence for all four schools.
If we can separate finances from this for a minute—and that may or may not be fair to do, considering that Cal tried to cut baseball a decade ago and Stanford tried to cut 11 sports (though not baseball) in 2020 before it reversed course a year later following significant pressure from supporters and in lieu of a better financial situation following the pandemic—this doesn’t have to be that bad for Oregon State and Stanford, two of the best baseball programs in the country. Both have strong facilities, excellent coaching staffs and an impressive track record both of on-field success and player development. That stuff doesn’t dry up just because they’re not in the Pac-12—or even if they drop out of a power conference altogether.
The Beavers and Cardinal have achieved at a higher level than Coastal Carolina, Dallas Baptist or East Carolina, but those programs are examples of what is possible outside the biggest conferences in the current era of college baseball. If they continue to invest in their programs (and that’s no small consideration if revenue is going to slow) and make the right moves on the coaching market, they can succeed no matter where they end up.
You really think those programs are going to be ok?
At least Oregon State and Stanford. Cal and Washington State were already in tough spots, both financially and on the field—Cal’s struggled to recover from nearly being eliminated a decade ago and has been to one NCAA Tournament in the last seven seasons and Washington State has made the tournament twice in the last 30 years (2009-2010).
But Stanford still can recruit to one of the best academic universities in the country. It already faces an uphill battle in recruiting and still gets premium talent to campus. Why does any of that have to change? If Stanford falls out of a power conference maybe it won’t be in a position to get to Omaha in three straight seasons—hosting is much harder outside of the top conferences—but I don’t see what falls apart in its formula for success just because its conference affiliation changes.
Oregon State is perhaps in a more perilous situation because it doesn’t have Stanford’s academics to fall back on. But this is a program with perhaps the best fan support of any on the West Coast, three national titles in the last 18 years and is built on a grinder mindset. That’s a pretty similar recipe for success as most of the best programs operating outside power conferences (Coastal Carolina, ECU and Southern Miss all fit that kind of model). Will it be easy for the Beavers to maintain their current level? Maybe not, but I think it’s doable.
What about the Big 12? How good is it now?
On the diamond, the Big 12 comes out of these moves very well. We still haven’t seen the conference without Oklahoma and Texas in it, but their departures are coming at the end of the season. The Sooners and Longhorns are the only current Big 12 programs to win or play for a national championship in the 21st century. Texas is also one of the biggest brands in the sport. As good as Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech are and have been, that’s still a significant loss.
The initial moves to add BYU, UCF, Cincinnati and Houston were solid and added to the league on the diamond, but didn’t really change the dynamic. The Pac-12 additions can do that, however.
Arizona won the 2012 national championship, its fourth in program history, and played for another title in 2016. Arizona State has won five national titles and played for five more, though it hasn’t been to the College World Series since 2010. Utah isn’t going to be as impactful, as it’s played in the NCAA Tournament just twice this century.
Nothing is going to make up for the loss of Texas. The Longhorns have won seven national titles and have been to Omaha more than any other team in the country. But with Arizona, Arizona State, Oklahoma State, TCU and Texas Tech, the conference now has a strong core of teams with serious Omaha credentials. Houston and West Virginia have recently hosted regionals. Baylor, UCF, Kansas and Kansas State all have real upside.
If we’re ranking conferences, I’ll still take the ACC over the Big 12 because I think it has more teams that have proven they can win big. But the Big 12 should continue to be an entertaining conference.
What about the Big Ten? How good is it now?
This one is a complicated question. At the most basic level, the Big Ten got better Friday. Washington went to Omaha in 2018 and Oregon this season was two outs away from its own CWS breakthrough. They are joining a conference that already added USC and UCLA. It has a solid core with the likes of Indiana, Maryland, Michigan and Nebraska and nearly every team in the conference has achieved exciting heights in the last 15 years. This is a conference that has seen a major stadium building boom and that has made an investment in coaching and player development.
The ingredients are all there for the Big Ten to take a big step forward. A conference that has Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington—not to mention Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota and an ascendent Penn State and Rutgers—should routinely produce Omaha-caliber teams. Whether it has national championship winners is another question, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Because here’s another reality: for as many strides as the Big Ten has made, it still was the fifth-best Power Five conference a week ago and the Sun Belt was arguably a better league. There’s no denying the Big Ten’s potential going forward with its new composition but at least right now it’s more potential than reality. UCLA is a top-tier program and won the 2013 national championship. It was the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament in 2015 and 2019 had the top-ranked recruiting class in 2021 and will have another top-three class this fall. It also hasn’t been to Omaha since 2013. USC has the most national championships in history. It hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2015 (this spring’s snub notwithstanding). Michigan was a win away from the national championship in 2019. It’s turned its entire program over since then. Indiana reached incredible heights a decade ago. It’s still won just one regional in program history. Washington also has won just one regional, Nebraska hasn’t won one since 2005 and Ohio State hasn’t won one since 2003.
I could keep going. The point is that while nearly every Big Ten team has reason to believe it can win big with the right coach or the right break or just a little bit more investment, there’s precious little consistency to go around. If the Big Ten is going to capitalize on this potential on the diamond, it’s going to have to build consistent winners and not just teams that flash once every few years.
But how good is the Big Ten?
If you want a simple ranking, I think the new Big Ten slots slightly ahead of the Sun Belt. I’ll take the top end of Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon and UCLA, plus the big-brand power of Ohio State, USC and Washington over Coastal, Georgia Southern, Louisiana-Lafayette, Old Dominion, Southern Miss, Texas State and Troy.
Any final thoughts? What does this all mean?
There are maybe some straws you can grasp for if you’re trying to see this optimistically for baseball. A bigger, better Big Ten might finally be the impetus the conference office needs to take the sport more seriously. The Big 12 has made basketball a central part of its strategy going forward. Maybe now with a couple more baseball powerhouses, it looks to the diamond a bit more.
But it’s hard to see Friday as a good day for college sports, overall. The Pac-12 Network was almost impossible to watch but it wasn’t worth destroying a conference over. Dismantling the biggest West Coast conference seems shortsighted for just about everyone.
It’s clear that college sports could use someone in charge that looked out for the actual endeavor and not just TV money. That’s not coming anytime soon, however. So, we’ll all just have to make the most of the new landscape. And, hey, maybe the Big 12 will give us the rematch of the 1967 CWS championship game between Arizona State and Houston.