By Andrea Adelson, Kyle Bonagura and Adam Rittenberg
Two weeks ago, many of college sports’ most powerful people gathered at the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas for the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics convention.
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, countless athletic directors and other power brokers from around the country participated in panels, networked and mingled.
Just before the featured session on June 28, NACDA honored its athletic directors of the year, including Wake Forest’s John Currie, NC State’s Boo Corrigan, Arkansas’ Hunter Yurachek and USC’s Mike Bohn. All four took the stage before a packed ballroom of more than 1,000.
In a video honoring the winners, Bohn said, “Every day, I am more and more inspired by the collaboration of my peers across the entire intercollegiate athletics enterprise to build for a bright future. This is also a great opportunity to reflect on why we all do what we do. It’s an incredible privilege to work each day to make our program the best it can be for our student-athletes, supporters and the broader university community.”
Unbeknownst to nearly everyone in attendance, Bohn and others had been working quietly for months on a stunning move that would throw the future of the college sports landscape into flux. USC, which joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1922 and had been in the league that would become the Pac-12 ever since, was set to uproot and join the Big Ten. The Trojans would leave with crosstown rival UCLA, a Pac-12 member since 1928.
Around the same time as the NACDA awards, Big Ten athletic directors held a call to discuss the possibility of USC and UCLA joining the league. And then after a unanimous vote by Big Ten presidents and chancellors last Thursday, the league announced USC and UCLA will join on Aug. 2, 2024. For the second straight summer, college athletics was rocked by realignment, after Texas and Oklahoma announced last year they would be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC.
“Another stunner,” one Power 5 athletic director said the day moves were announced.
The USC-UCLA-Big Ten courtship accelerated so quickly that many across the country — especially inside the Pac-12 — were caught completely off guard. Some ADs learned about the moves on their flights home from NACDA. One described a “Holy s—, shock and awe” moment when he got word via text message.
Ahead of the Fourth of July holiday, many college athletics power brokers were on vacation, including Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who found out while in Montana.
On the heels of the SEC power move the year before, and with the Big Ten on the cusp of a multibillion-dollar TV deal, it served as the final, clear warning to everyone in college football that there were two powers in town.
“We wanted to operate in a position of strength, and that was the Big Ten,” UCLA AD Martin Jarmond told ESPN.
“I don’t believe there’s a college administrator in the country that didn’t recognize that clearly there were two conferences that were separating themselves from everyone else,” Bohn said to the Los Angeles Times. “That particular [Oklahoma-Texas] move further emphasized that.”
While the immediate fallout from Texas-Oklahoma was mostly contained to the Big 12 — the league responded by adding UCF, BYU, Houston and Cincinnati — and the Group of 5 conferences, the Big Ten’s move shook things up for everyone outside the Power 2. Within the Pac-12, ACC and Big 12, talk immediately turned to survival and expansion, often at the same time.
“No one wants the land from under them to be pulled out,” a Big Ten source said. “So everyone has to be nimble. One day, you might be saying one thing, and you mean it from the bottom of your heart. And the next day you have to flip, based on economics, based on governance, based on something.”
So how did the deal come together as quickly as it did, and what type of chaos ensued in the days that followed? Andrea Adelson, Kyle Bonagura and Adam Rittenberg spoke with more than 30 athletic directors, industry sources and officials from schools and conferences across the country to provide a window into what happened.
‘This would have been unimaginable a short time ago’
In early May, the Hyatt Regency Scottsdale in Arizona became the perfect setting for potential realignment discussions. The Big Ten and Pac-12 held their spring meetings there, along with the Big 12 and the Mountain West. Representatives from Fox, ESPN and other media partners also attended to meet with athletic directors, commissioners and coaches.
Negotiations for the Big Ten’s media rights agreement had been progressing. On May 2, commissioner Kevin Warren told ESPN reporters he hoped to get the basic parameters of a deal, expected to be worth roughly $1 billion annually, finalized by Memorial Day, or soon thereafter.
“We’re right exactly where I thought we would be, looking at the next 30 days or so being the critical time period,” Warren said at the time. “But there’s many, many hours left this month to make sure we get everything negotiated properly and come to some term sheets or a memorandum of understanding.”
As the Big Ten moved closer toward a deal, USC and UCLA were evaluating their futures.
“The urgency was there for both of them,” a Pac-12 source said. “It would have been much more difficult if one tried to move by themselves.”
Memorial Day came and went without any major leak or announcement about the Big Ten’s media rights deal. The weeks went by in June, and things remained quiet. Had the negotiations stalled? Did the Big Ten want to get more media partners involved?
Fox would remain the Big Ten’s lead media partner, having increased its stake in the Big Ten Network. CBS also had emerged as a strong candidate, according to sources. But the Big Ten’s decades-long partnership with ESPN appeared to be in doubt, according to sources. Regardless of where the media deal ends up, there’s no question adding the Trojans and Bruins makes it more attractive.
USC and UCLA brought plenty to the table: brand power, a major media market of Los Angeles and academic profiles that suit the Big Ten (both are members of the Association of American Universities, which Big Ten presidents and chancellors prioritize). But both presented challenges, including a location nowhere near the Big Ten footprint that would create travel issues, especially for Olympic sports programs. Both also were in the Pac-12, the Big Ten’s strongest and most historic ally.
That relationship was best signified by the Rose Bowl, which has mostly paired teams from the two conferences since the end of World War II. Longtime Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany often called the Rose Bowl the league’s most important external partner. USC has made 34 Rose Bowl appearances, 14 more than any other school, while UCLA has made the bowl game 12 times and plays its home games in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl stadium. Warren and Kliavkoff both voted against the most recent College Football Playoff expansion push for reasons that included uncertainty about what would happen with the Rose Bowl.
The uncertainty about the future of the Rose Bowl’s place in the postseason ecosystem likely made concerns about the impact on the game from USC and UCLA’s moves less pertinent. The thought being that if the playoff is going to expand as expected, the Rose Bowl was already going to be forced to reinvent itself in order to maintain a meaningful presence.
In a letter sent Friday to volunteer members of the Tournament of Roses, which includes the Rose Bowl Game and Rose Parade, Amy Wainscott, the tournament’s 2023 president and chairman of the board, acknowledged the game’s murky future.
“We know we must be flexible and open to changes as we work to ensure that the tradition of the Rose Bowl Game will continue into the future of college football,” she said.
The Big Ten had added brand-name programs before — Penn State in 1990, Nebraska in 2010 — but the USC and UCLA moves carried more “collateral damage,” a term used by both Big Ten and Pac-12 sources after the announcement.
One Big Ten administrator said USC and UCLA created “a hard conversation” because of the Pac-12 and Rose Bowl relationships, and even the fledgling alliance with the Pac-12 and ACC. The source added: “In some ways, it was hypocritical, but if we didn’t move, someone else was going to. Was it worth a missed opportunity and regret later?”
“People understand both the magnitude of the opportunity and the ramifications,” another Big Ten administrator said. “We were very mindful. It was a great day for the Big Ten, and we’re happy to welcome those two schools, but it marked a terrible day for many of our colleagues around the country in a conference that has been a strong partner to us for a long, long time. This would have been unimaginable a short time ago.”
During the final weekend of June, things began to move quickly. On the morning of June 28, Big Ten presidents and chancellors, who sources said largely directed the realignment push, held a call about USC and UCLA.
“I was surprised by the pace at which it accelerated at the end,” a Big Ten administrator said. “The two schools were dictating their own timeline.”
By June 29, when the Big Ten ADs got on another call for more discussions — with Warren joining from London, where he had a previously scheduled trip — one source indicated “the cake was baked.”
“There really wasn’t much of a debate,” the source said. “Kevin did a really good job of framing what this move would mean for everything, revenue and getting us in the L.A. market. The finances are still not done, so no one knows, but he was very confident in what the numbers would look like.”
That source also said USC and UCLA were the only schools positioned to be considered by the Big Ten at that point. The two new additions, especially USC, revitalized Big Ten energy around longtime expansion target Notre Dame, a top rival of USC. But the Big Ten is in “a pause period,” according to a source, who added, “It’s not open season.”
If Notre Dame doesn’t change course, the Big Ten might remain at 16 members.
“Everybody in that room was pretty happy and excited about what this looks like,” a league administrator said. “Now you get to roll your sleeves up and get to work.”
‘Our best option is to keep the league together’
Roughly 24 hours after the news broke, the Pac-12 CEO group, which includes university presidents and chancellors, held an emergency meeting with Kliavkoff. By this point, UCLA and USC had officially announced they were leaving, so Kliavkoff started by acknowledging the obvious in a “matter-of-fact” tone, a high-ranking university official told ESPN.
That led to the obvious question from the group: “What’s that mean for all of us?” the source said.
It is a question that, more than a week later, doesn’t have a definitive answer and likely won’t for some time. Since then, the conference has made two announcements: That it will explore all expansion options and immediately begin negotiations on its next media rights agreement. The remaining schools have all given indications — for whatever that’s worth in this climate — that they would prefer to stay in the conference, and both steps work toward making that possible.
“Our best option is to keep this league together,” a Pac-12 athletic director said. “What the next move is will determine the future of the league. We’re all unified to get there. Everyone wants this thing to work.”
In several conversations with ESPN, league sources did not direct anger toward UCLA and USC for leaving the conference. The prevailing reaction was one of disappointment for the uncertainty it brings for those left behind but also of understanding for why they did. One administrator said he wasn’t surprised by USC’s departure, noting the brand power USC carries in football.
There was more surprise, according to sources, that UCLA was able to depart considering its close relationship with Cal as part of the University of California system. Cal and UCLA are the highest-profile schools in the system, and both regularly rank among the nation’s best public universities.
“The mystery to me is how the regents allowed UCLA to go and leave Cal … wounded,” one source said. “This is not good for Cal or anybody else in the Pac-10.”
As the president of the University of California, Dr. Michael Drake oversees 10 campuses, but prior to his appointment in June 2020, he served as the president of Ohio State for nearly seven years (Jarmond, a former assistant/deputy athletic director at Ohio State, overlapped with Drake for roughly four years before leaving to become the AD at Boston College in 2017.) Drake ostensibly would not have needed to be educated on the merits of Big Ten membership.
Drake’s office denied a request from ESPN to interview Drake about his involvement in UCLA’s move or the ramifications it will have on Cal. ESPN’s request to speak with Cal athletic director Jim Knowlton was also denied.
“UCLA leadership informed President Drake that discussions between UCLA and the Big Ten were occurring but he was not involved at all in those discussions or in any negotiations,” a spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President told ESPN in an email. “… decisions related to athletics are formulated and executed at the campus-level. There is no requirement for a decision from the University of California Board of Regents or the Office of the President.”
Although the UC regents didn’t need to formally approve UCLA’s conference separation from Cal, UCLA likely needed support from key regents to make a move that, while helping itself, could hurt its sister school.
“You have to think UCLA didn’t do this in a vacuum without the [UC] regents knowing,” a Pac-12 source said.
Setting aside the Cal ties, UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, especially with the league on the brink of a historic media rights agreement, is easy to understand. The Los Angeles Times reported in January that UCLA’s athletic department posted a record $62.5 million deficit for the 2021 fiscal year, bringing the department’s three-year debt to $102.8 million. An inability to host fans during the 2020-21 football and basketball seasons, coupled with limited revenue from playing at the Rose Bowl and Under Armour reneging on a 15-year, $280 million apparel sponsorship agreement left UCLA in dire financial straits.
“They’re in such tough shape financially,” a Power 5 athletic director said. “They were desperate.”
“I inherited a deficit with UCLA athletics,” Jarmond said. “So when you have a significant financial challenge, it’s difficult to just maintain, never mind to invest. This move not only preserves the programs we have now but also allows us to invest in them in levels that can lead to more competitive success.”
Multiple sources told ESPN that USC and UCLA approached the Big Ten about membership, not the other way around. The Big Ten wasn’t active in pursuing expansion candidates and had been focused on its media rights negotiations.
Although administrators had heard “some rumblings” about realignment in the spring, the league kept a tight circle around the potential additions until the final days, deferring mostly to its presidents and chancellors.
“It was a lot smoother than maybe I would have anticipated,” the source said.
‘There would be a hell of a court fight’
The ripple effects of the move were felt immediately for anyone outside the Power 2.
In the ACC, Phillips held an emergency call July 1, first with ACC presidents and then athletic directors, to once again go over a long-term strategy. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick was on the call because the Irish have all their sports aside from football inside the ACC.
ACC sources felt a sense of deja vu going back to last year, when questions about the long-term viability of the conference grew louder after the Texas and Oklahoma moves. The ACC has had strategy conversations like these ever since, including whether it was financially beneficial to expand with schools like West Virginia or, yes, USC.
“We looked at everybody,” one source said. “What do you do? I don’t think coast to coast was an appetite that the presidents wanted. I think that perspective would have changed if they had known.”
Whether presidents feel differently now about a possible partnership with the schools that remain in the Pac-12 remains to be seen. The league has had two more calls since July 1, with a number of scenarios under discussion. In addition, the ACC has fielded calls from interested schools, including Memphis, one source said. Multiple sources in the league kept coming back to the same central question: “Where is the financial value?”
In addition to those calls, informal conversations have been going on between schools and other leagues as a way to gauge both their value and where future expansion might be headed. Nothing appears to be imminent. What makes officials in the league office believe they are in a position of strength is its grant of rights, which ties member schools to the ACC through 2036.
The grant of rights guarantees a school’s media rights and the revenue associated with it stay within the conference. That means schools would forfeit their TV money and the ability to have all their conference-controlled content — in all sports — air on television.
Multiple schools have already investigated whether it would be feasible to get out of the grant of rights without a monumental financial penalty. Last February, one ACC AD described the grant of rights as “a really good legal document” and questioned whether anyone could challenge it. “That’s really a $300 million question. There would be a hell of a court fight, I will tell you that.”
That sentiment held firm among those who spoke to ESPN after USC and UCLA joined the Big Ten. Without going the legal route, there is the exit fee — which is triple the conference’s operating budget — of roughly $120 million at the moment. Then there are the media rights that would be forfeited through 2036.
Multiple sources conceded that at some point, a school with an offer to leave would have to legally challenge the grant of rights unless they are nearing the end of the current contract.
“The concern is, do Clemson and Florida State and Miami try to get out and then they fight it?” one source said. “So they lawyer up and see if they can get out? But that grant of rights is pretty rock solid.”
Beyond convincing Notre Dame to join the conference, there is little the league can do to raise its financial profile to get into the same ballpark as the Big Ten and SEC — and that includes some sort of partnership with the remaining Pac-12 members.
While those inside the league remain confident in Phillips, there’s also an acknowledgement that he walked into an almost impossible situation, one that could grow untenable in the years to come.
The day before the USC and UCLA moves became official, the Big 12 announced the hiring of new commissioner Brett Yormark. Although Yormark doesn’t officially start until Aug. 1, he launched right into the realignment puzzle.
The Big 12 presidents and chancellors almost immediately began eying potential additions from the weakened Pac-12, according to sources.
“We’re going to look under every rock,” a Big 12 administrator said. “We’re going to do what we think is best for us.
There is also a belief that the Big 12 is working from a position of strength and should be aggressive in securing its future. One league source pointed to new media markets with the additions of Cincinnati and UCF, its reach across three time zones and the addition of an independent in BYU that makes the league more appealing as a landing spot for some of the Pac-12 schools as compared to the ACC.
“Don’t sleep on the new Big 12,” the source said. “I can tell you that right now.”
The mood around the league is dramatically different from July 2021, when it felt much like the Pac-12 did last week, blindsided by the departures of key members.
“You felt more like the hunted than being the entity doing the hunting,” a Big 12 source said. “It’s just ironic how one year later, the Big 12, our solidarity is at an all-time high. We’re just in a different position.”
The Big 12 can also sell prospective Pac-12 schools on its own experience of hoping to hold a conference together based on the whims of its two biggest properties. After Texas flirted with leaving in 2011, the Longhorns came back with a sweetheart deal that included their own television network. Yet, when they had a shot to jump to the SEC, they took it. That’s a big warning to Pac-12 schools that Oregon and Washington, the biggest prizes left on the West Coast, might want to save the conference now but could jump if a better deal comes along. And schools like Utah, Arizona and Arizona State already recruit Texas heavily.
Beyond the other Power 5 conferences, the movement reverberated on Group of 5 campuses, too, especially in the Mountain West. The way multiple Mountain West sources see it, there are two primary scenarios to account for: Pac-12 expansion and Pac-12 dissolution.
As one Mountain West athletic director put it, “Every one of us would jump at the chance to be in the Pac-12.” The day after USC and UCLA announced they were leaving, the Fresno State athletic department touted the size of its media market on Twitter, making a not-so-subtle case as an expansion candidate.
The other obvious candidates would be Boise State, San Diego State, Colorado State and UNLV, all of which have redeeming qualities a new-look Pac-12 could find attractive.
But there is also the flip side. One high-ranking Mountain West source outlined a scenario — realistic or not — in which the Pac-12 falls apart. In one hypothetical, he asked what would happen if Oregon and Washington were to also depart for the Big Ten? “Would the Arizona schools, Colorado and Utah go to the Big 12? Then what? I could see Washington State and Oregon State in the Mountain West. They would be good fits.”
To be certain, dealing in hypotheticals is part of what schools and conferences are almost required to do at this point. “I can think of 10 different scenarios right now with 10 different outcomes,” one Power 5 AD said.
Because USC and UCLA will not be the last schools reshaping realignment. They are only the latest.
All conferences must now prepare for what comes next.
Dave Wilson contributed to this story.