The University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, two bedrock members of the Pacific-12 Conference, announced late Thursday that they will leave their longtime home on the West Coast for the Big Ten Conference, the traditional bastion of Midwestern athletics that in recent years has expanded all the way to New Jersey.
The shift, which will be effective in 2024—after the Pac-12’s current television contracts expire, USC noted in its news release—is the latest in a decade-long seismic shift in the landscape of big-time college football and men’s basketball that has blown up historical geographic boundaries and rivalries in universities’ pursuit of greater revenues.
The addition of USC and UCLA will give the Big Ten league 16 members (it currently has 14, as does the Southeastern Conference), and their departure will be a gut punch for the Pac-12, losing two key members in its largest television market, Los Angeles.
These moves are widely seen as setting up a scenario where the Big Ten (if it will still be called that when it has 16 or 20 members—it has held out so far at 14) and the SEC will be two major superconferences, leaving the Pac-12, the Atlantic Coast Conference and others in clear second-class-citizen territory.
While news of the stunning move appeared to come out of nowhere—news reports about it emerged only earlier in the day Thursday—it had in fact been in the works for months, after USC and UCLA reportedly reached out to the Big Ten about a move. That a change of this magnitude, involving multitudes of officials at more than a dozen universities, was kept under wraps for that long is remarkable.
Both universities said their decisions had been made with the needs and interests of its athletes first and foremost. “As the oldest NCAA Division I athletic conference in the United States and with a footprint that will now extend from the Pacific to the Atlantic, Big Ten membership offers Bruins exciting new competitive opportunities and a broader national media platform for our student-athletes to compete and showcase their talents,” UCLA chancellor Gene Block and Martin Jarmond, the university’s athletics director, said in a news release.
They specifically cited increased opportunities for UCLA athletes to receive more money for the rights to their names, images and likenesses under new NCAA rules.
In fact, USC’s announcement said beginning this year it would give each athlete “the opportunity to receive up to $5,980 annually in direct financial support in the form of academic achievement awards, consistent with the Supreme Court’s recent Alston ruling,” in what appeared to be a down payment on the impending move.
The increased dollars for athletes will be possible because the Big Ten earns a lot more money from television rights than the Pac-12 does. In 2019–20, the last year for which data are available, each long-term member of the Big Ten earned $54.3 million each, while Pac-12 members took home $33.6 million, the Los Angeles Times reported.
Administrators at the universities spoke openly about the additional revenues, though they couched the benefits in what would flow to athletes and played down concerns about potential downsides for them, such as greatly increased travel.
“Entry into the Big Ten will also help ensure that UCLA preserves and maintains all 25 current teams and more than 700 student-athletes in our program,” the UCLA officials said. “Additionally, it means enhanced resources for all of our teams, from academic support to mental health and wellness. And although this move increases travel distances for teams, the resources offered by Big Ten membership may allow for more efficient transportation options. We would also explore scheduling accommodations with the Big Ten that best support our student-athletes’ academic pursuits.”
Officials at the Pac-12 did not hide their frustration.
“While we are extremely surprised and disappointed by the news coming out of UCLA and USC today, we have a long and storied history in athletics, academics, and leadership in supporting student-athletes that we’re confident will continue to thrive and grow into the future,” the league said in a statement.
This will start another intense round of conference switching that is likely to affect every conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision and probably those beyond it, and therefore many of the 330 or so universities that compete in football at the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I level.