The Big Ten and the SEC are consolidating power. The rest of college sports, some fear, could become a muddle.
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For about a year, George Kliavkoff cut an unruffled image as the Pac-12 Conference’s new commissioner.
“Dozens” of universities, he said last summer, reached out about joining the league that calls itself the “Conference of Champions.” A partnership among the Pac-12, the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast conferences did not need a contract but would thrive on “an agreement among three gentlemen.” Just last month, Kliavkoff told The Oregonian that he was “absolutely not” worried about losing members.
The Pac-12 spent Friday, the first anniversary of Kliavkoff’s tenure, in crisis anyway. But the newly announced defections of Southern California and U.C.L.A. to the Big Ten could well have consequences beyond upending the Pac-12’s pride and plundering its coffers. They could also help winnow the Power 5 conferences, even if only in perception, to two.
The college sports industry, buffeted by losses in the courts, turmoil at the N.C.A.A. and rising skepticism among policymakers and fans about whether colleges treat athletes fairly, was already headed toward a reinvention. Consolidations of influence and wealth, especially among the top conferences, appeared inevitable.
But the Big Ten’s answer to the Southeastern Conference’s annexation of Oklahoma and Texas last summer has set college sports on a course where at least 32 of its glitziest athletic programs — from Alabama and Georgia in the SEC to Michigan and Ohio State in the Big Ten — will live in just two leagues by the 2025 football season. More schools could follow, potentially altering everything from the future of the N.C.A.A. model to how the College Football Playoff is conducted.
Realignment, as the college sports industry refers to conference-membership changes, has offered episodic doses of athletic and administrative chaos for generations. In the early 2010s, in fact, the Pac-12 (and its earlier iteration, the Pac-10) was at the center of drama over the fates of, among other schools, Oklahoma and Texas.
What has made this stretch particularly remarkable is the eagerness of marquee brands to flee leagues in which they wielded extraordinary prestige and leverage. Since last July, leaders of four athletic powers have pursued exactly that path.
Mike Bohn, the athletic director at U.S.C., for instance, said that his university had to “ensure it is best positioned and prepared for whatever happens next” in college sports and that the Trojans would “benefit from the stability and strength” of the Big Ten. Over in Westwood, U.C.L.A. officials said this week that their “move offers greater certainty in rapidly changing times.”
And so for all of the praise that the schools showered on their erstwhile, languishing allies, their planned exits amounted to indictments of the old and embraces of a fast-consolidating new. The Power 5 could formally survive, but the existing gaps between leagues, such as in fan obsession and competitive strength, are becoming far harder to hide.
The Big Ten and SEC swagger in one tier. Not all of their members are championship contenders, but enough are. And plenty of seats are filled, and the television riches rain down. The future, enshrined in a contract the SEC has already signed and a rights package that the Big Ten is expected to announce soon, is lucrative on a scale unimaginable not all that long ago. The leagues’ expansions are central to their ambitions.
“We made this move for us at this time because it was the best move for us,” Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director, said in an interview on Friday, insisting that the SEC’s maneuvering last year “wasn’t our motivation.”
U.C.L.A. and U.S.C., he said, aligned with the Big Ten’s philosophy and culture from a competitive perspective, but he acknowledged that, “considering we’re in the middle of our television negotiations, adding them enhanced the opportunities in that space.”
The second tier more clearly belongs, for now, to the A.C.C., the Big 12 and the Pac-12 — proud, often-successful leagues dented by exoduses, comparatively meager media deals, assorted sporting debacles or some combination of those woes. In addition to independent schools such as Notre Dame, a handful of lower-profile conferences round out the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The fear of leagues like the A.C.C., the Big 12 and the Pac-12 is that they’ll be relegated, even informally, toward the college sports muddle, leaving them forever unable to keep up with the conferences that distribute the largest payouts and use those dollars for best-in-class coaches and facilities that help them stay atop the ecosystem.
So improvisation has all but become a sanctioned sport at conference offices.
The Big 12 has moved to add schools such as Cincinnati and Central Florida. Many around the A.C.C., the only Power 5 conference whose membership has been unaffected by this round of realignment, hope to conjure a renegotiation of a television deal that is not scheduled to expire until 2036.
The Pac-12 is presenting as brave a face as one can muster when blindsided. On Thursday, the league pronounced itself “extremely surprised and disappointed” — even though conference officials had worried for years about the possibility of a U.S.C. exit — and on Friday, it said it would “explore all expansion options.”
“The 10 university presidents and chancellors remain committed to a shared mission of academic and athletic excellence on behalf of our student-athletes,” the league said.
The remaining 10 schools are Arizona, Arizona State, California, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, Utah, Washington and Washington State. Some of them, though, would be prizes for other leagues because of their locations in major media markets or their athletic reputations. And in college sports, pledges of allegiance, whether from prospects, coaches or universities, are often impermanent, particularly when promises of big money or threats of irrelevancy are involved.
Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, did not explicitly dismiss the notion of adding more schools. In some respects, his two-sentence statement on Friday read like an invitation to potential members.
“Conference membership change has been a constant in college athletics over the years, and modern issues facing college sports have only accelerated further realignment,” he said.
“While college athletics is undergoing transformational change on many levels,” he said, “the Southeastern Conference and our member universities are uniquely positioned to continue to provide our student-athletes with unequaled opportunities to compete for championships, pursue academic success and realize personal growth, as well as provide access for our fans to support their schools in unprecedented numbers.”
Smith, although a representative of just one of 14 current Big Ten schools, said he did not expect his league to pursue more members, though he acknowledged “you’ve got to listen” if Notre Dame, his alma mater, calls.
“You’re always trying to be open, but I just don’t see anything happening in the near future,” said Smith, who previously oversaw athletics at Arizona State. “I just don’t see why we’d expand beyond the 16.”
For the schools left behind, the ones staring more than ever into the muddle, there may be no bigger worry than that. The leagues with the most money and sway may have no more than a handful of seats left.