And then there were four.
Four members remain in the Pacific-12 Conference, that is, after the departures last Friday of the Universities of Oregon and Washington to the Big Ten Conference and Arizona State University and the Universities of Arizona and Utah to the Big 12 Conference. With those universities bailing, only Oregon State and Stanford Universities; the University of California, Berkeley; and Washington State University remain in what has for many decades been one of the country’s most successful sports leagues.
Four also might be the number of major sports conferences still standing when the latest round of realignment settles. For roughly a decade, big-time college sports has been dominated by the so-called Power Five leagues (the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern Conferences). While the Pac-12 might still survive by raiding the members of other conferences below that tier, its continuation as a member of the ruling elite in college sports seems in doubt.
Conference realignment is not a new phenomenon: for most of the last decade, the five major football-playing conferences have been scheming to expand (or defend) their memberships to increase (or maintain) their attractiveness to television networks.
The wheeling and dealing has occasionally appeared on the verge of spinning out of control, with university presidents trading charges of backstabbing and the entire process being derided as an unadulterated money grab, leaving long-standing regional and other affiliations in the dust. One could peg the start of the merry-go-round at multiple points, but it began in earnest in 2012, when the University of Maryland at College Park left the Atlantic Coast for the Big Ten, abandoning decades of rivalries and alliances for millions in new television revenue.
The churn has intensified in the last year, particularly with last summer’s decision by the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, to forgo the Pacific-12 for the Big Ten, infuriating the University of California system’s Board of Regents in part because it left one of system’s other campuses, Berkeley, behind. Those moves are scheduled to take effect next year.
The Pac-12 responded to the decisions by its two core Los Angeles–based members by trying to find a way to put together a media rights package that would satisfy its (then) 10 remaining members, but amid those discussions, the University of Colorado at Boulder announced in July that it would leave to return to the Big 12 Conference (which it had abandoned a decade earlier for the Pac-12).
The league’s commissioner, George Kliavkoff, reportedly presented a deal to the nine remaining members on Aug. 1 that left their leaders dissatisfied with the per-school revenue generated by the plan, which leaned heavily on streaming on Apple TV+.
According to reporting from ESPN, The Athletic and Sports Illustrated, among others, officials of the Pac-12 believed up until Thursday night that they had done enough to keep the league’s members together.
But Friday, Washington and Oregon announced that they were leaving for the Big Ten, and Arizona, Arizona State and Utah bolted for the Big 12.
As was true of most of the episodes of conference shuffling in big-time athletics over the last two decades, the latest round laid bare how university leaders are prioritizing the financial stability of their sports programs over long-standing traditions and relationships—and the resentment that emerges as a result.
“We are disappointed with the decisions by some of our Pac-12 peers,” Washington State president Kirk Schulz and the university’s athletics director, Pat Chun, said in tersely worded statement on X (formerly Twitter).
The hard feelings were more evident elsewhere.
“The great history and tradition of this conference has been severely damaged,” Scott Barnes, athletics director at Oregon State, told The Oregonian. “The best interest of the student athlete hasn’t been served. Traveling to the Eastern seaboard multiple times a year is not in the best interest of student-athletes."
And numerous athletes took to social media to express their concerns about what is likely to be significantly expanded travel demands in the Big 12, whose 16 members in 2024 will extend from Arizona to Florida, and the Big Ten, whose 18 members in 2024 will spread from California to New Jersey.
In comments at a news conference Saturday, Washington’s president, Ana Maria Cauce, sought to play down the suggestion that the university’s decision was all about the money, as many critics argued.
“I want to be clear: This was not just about dollars and cents,” she said. “This was about national visibility for our players—being on linear TV so they could be seen, so they could have the national exposure. It was about stability … It was about having a future that we could count on and build towards.”
In his own news conference Saturday, Arizona State president Michael Crow said he and the university’s other officials were attracted to what he called a “technological 23rd century Star Trek thing with really unbelievable capability” in the deal Apple offered the Pac-12. But when Washington and Oregon failed to show for a 7 a.m. call of the league’s presidents on Friday morning, he said, it became clear that “the conference was no longer viable.”
“We were the stalwarts fighting for the Pac-12 until the last ditch,” Crow said, a tinge of resentment in his voice.
Many questions remain unanswered, with the most pressing facing the four remaining members of the Pac-12 conference. Will either the Atlantic Coast or Southeastern Conferences seek to add members to keep pace with the Big 12 and the Big Ten?
More broadly, enormous uncertainty surrounds the future of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and its new leader, former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker, who announced a new agenda for the organization just days before the latest conference turmoil.
Observers have wondered before whether as more power rests in the hands of fewer conferences and institutions—numbers that may have shrunk in recent days—they will have less and less incentive to remain as part of the larger association, which requires them to share revenues from men’s basketball with hundreds of other colleges and imposes restrictions on how they can allocate their resources.
Congress looms as ever, threatening to intervene in various ways to govern how the NCAA and its member institutions can and can’t restrict the ability of athletes to profit from their names, images and likenesses (NIL), among other things.
More instability is likely in the weeks and months ahead.