The true impact of this latest round of conference realignment is the image of one of the world’s most powerful sports figures “working the phones.” That’s how one source this week described Phil Knight’s level of desperation.
A marketing genius, benefactor, philanthropist and multi-billionaire, the Shoe Dog himself is apparently using all his resources to find a home for Oregon, a program Knight has made one of the most recognizable college sports brands as a de facto offshoot of his Nike empire.
Knight has been reduced to cold-calling telemarketer. And that’s a sad situation.
The migration of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in 2024 has made it such. In the past week, we have again been reminded of the ruthlessness of this system.
The Pac-12 may or may not survive, but after the loss of its two flagship programs, it is forever altered. All that with a reminder that the ACC is scrambling to keep its top teams, while the Big 12 may be on its fourth round of reorganization since 2010.
What we’re witnessing in real time is the consolidation of the best brands atop the sport. Everything else be damned. When Knight is being reduced to speed-dialing to save his Ducks, well, that takes potential exclusion to another level.
You may have noticed: The SEC and Big Ten are a Notre Dame (or so) away from staging their own playoff. Maybe they don’t even need the Fighting Irish, who are again deciding whether to join a conference after 130 years of independence.
What you can see is access and relevance slipping away for all but the elites — and those lucky enough to be in their conferences. Certain ACC schools are freaking out. They are looking at being $50 million per year behind the SEC and Big Ten in annual rights fees.
One industry source said it might take $500 million for a school to exit the ACC given the league’s ironclad grant of rights that keeps schools in the conference until 2036. You can buy a lot of superstar coaches, $1 million coordinators, facilities and swag copters for that kind of money.
Some of the pressure has shifted to boosters. Will they make up the difference? Can the current rate of spend be sustained?
A source at one high-resource football program says the donors are tapped out.
Someday soon, the SEC and Big Ten could decide to flex by funding 95 scholarships instead of the current 85. There might be some outside the top two conferences who can keep up, but at what price?
Add to it all that the leadership and thinking from the four newest Power Five commissioners – all hired since 2020 — is more varied than ever before.
Last week, CBS Sports presented a three-part series on the future of college football. One of the conclusions? The 130 FBS schools will break away from the NCAA, perhaps sooner than later.
Now, that number seems smaller, more perilous. Maybe 50-80 will make the cut. You can see why Knight is sweating swooshes.
This was always bound to happen. Folks freaked out when the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina in 1991. Same for the Big Ten adding Penn State in 1990. The Southwest Conference collapsed on itself due to multiple NCAA violations. The Big 12 emerged in 1996, then almost fell apart. Only six original members remain (Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech). Big East football ended in 2013 as the conference reformed.
Now, the SEC and Big Ten have most of the power and leverage given there has never been a gathering of brands at the top of the game like has been assembled in those conferences.
What’s left is a mad rush by the other major conferences to grab the biggest remaining brands. No other conference can bring to the table what the SEC and Big Ten will by 2024-25. The battle now is to see whether one or more of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 can amass enough notable programs to keep the SEC and Big Ten from staging a credible playoff on their own.
That brings us back to Knight’s cold calling. It’s happening in a world that could leave Oregon and Washington without a chance to compete for national championships. A world that now thinks nothing of flying volleyball players across four time zones to play a match. A world that has stripped two Power Five conferences of their soul in consecutive summers.
Oregon and Washington are the two best football programs “in play” considering the Pac-12 is down to 10 teams; however, there is a reason they haven’t been considered prominently in realignment. Industry sources say neither brings requisite value to the Big Ten ($80 million-$100 million per year). The Pac-12 schools most prominently mentioned for the Big 12 are the so-called “Four Corners” schools: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah.
The Big 12 has been told by TV rights advisors that the two most important considerations for expansion are brand and geography. Geography pushed Oregon and Washington to the margins. (That doesn’t mean the likes of Arizona and Arizona are necessarily “brands.”)
If the Big 12 expands, it wouldn’t necessarily be for money but rather survival and relevancy. One high-profile industry source called the difference between an expanded Big 12 or Pac-12 “a coin flip.” Think of the reason for expansion more this way: Can a credible playoff can be staged without Oregon and Washington being allowed to compete for a spot?
ESPN sort of answered that question when it thought nothing last summer of throwing the Big 12 on the scrap heap as Texas and Oklahoma moved to the SEC.
The network was telling us without telling us that the world wouldn’t end if the likes of Oklahoma State, Iowa State and TCU, among others, did not get a chance to finish in the top four of the College Football Playoff. The question was further answered when the Pac-12 was marginalized last week.
Ratings matter. They matter more when a 9-3 Oklahoma from the SEC might have a better chance of getting into a playoff than a 12-1 Oklahoma State from the Big 12.
One industry source called Oregon and Washington “tweeners” in realignment. They are certainly not USC and UCLA in terms of branding and marketability, but they’re not Arizona and Arizona State, either. That’s what realignment has revealed: The real things that make college football relevant to the only people that matter — TV executives, programmers, advertisers — are being exposed in increasing and specific detail.
Without Oregon and Washington, the Pac-12 might fall apart. With them, it may not matter.
Conference realignment notes
The next major focal point is the Big Ten announcing its new billion-dollar TV deal. That could come in a gala, perhaps a rollout splash at the league’s media days later this month. The Big Ten may be done expanding. It doesn’t matter, really, because Notre Dame has time and leverage on its side. If it decides the money is too big to deny and/or access to a playoff becomes too difficult to sustain success, it may join the Big Ten.
Any conclusion to this round of realignment that leaves the new Big 12 whole is a win for the league. It is happy with the 12 current teams going forward in 2025. The worst-case fallback for the Pac-12 is some sort of hybrid merger with the Mountain West. That’s what would be left for two football powers in Oregon and Washington that combined have won a national championship, played for two titles since 2010 and participated in a combined five Rose Bowls since 2001. Those two schools are also the Pac-12’s only participants in the CFP.
A merger between the Big 12 and Pac-12 remains a possibility, but … a source told CBS Sports the process of finalizing its membership — at least from the Big 12 side — could be completed in weeks, not months.
Of the four new Big 12 schools (BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF), three are from the American. That forms part of narrative surrounding the Pac-12’s path forward as the league went to market early this week for its TV rights. Why would you want to go to a conference whose membership is one-quarter Group of Five teams? Why risk “momentary” stability for the history and tradition of Pac-12?
Why indeed? The Pac-12 is going to market with ESPN and Fox with a 10 teams that have pledged no loyalty to each other. The Big 12 already has been hovering, ready to pluck members from the West Coast. But rightsholders are already asking: What are we bidding on? What schools are going to be there?
Clemson, Florida State, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia from the ACC have been mentioned as possible realignment dance partners, but at least they are in a conference with a TV deal. This reveals a further reality: It truly is a scramble now. Superconferences are here and not going anywhere. Insert Notre Dame and maybe Stamford (as a partner for ND), Clemson and Florida State or Miami. Suddenly, a two-conference playoff becomes a reality. Everything else could be an unsavory Group of Six or Seven. At that point, the obvious play is for a new subdivision to form that stages its own playoff. The money — not huge money — would be there.