College Sports Shakeup Continues as UCLA, USC Join Big Ten
The money-fueled move intensifies the scramble among athletic conferences and television networks to reshape college sports in pursuit of valuable media rights.
- The University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Southern California announced they will both join the Big Ten in 2024.
- Now, other schools and other conferences are looking to further change the college sports landscape.
- Money is fueling the conference shakeup, as television networks and streaming services seek a slice of the huge profits generated by college sports.
The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Southern California (USC) made waves when they announced they will both join the Big Ten Conference in 2024 — but not just because of the impact the move will have on the playing field.
At stake for the schools, college athletes, conferences, and networks are billions of dollars and national exposure now that college sports events are televised or streamed online 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
UCLA and USC made their surprising announcement that they will leave the Pac-12 Conference on June 30. They will join the 14 current members of the Big Ten to create the first college super conference with schools stretching from the East Coast to the West Coast in many major media markets, making it look more like a professional sports league.
"Seismic changes in collegiate athletics have made us evaluate how best to support our student-athletes as we move forward," UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and athletic director Martin Jarmond said in a statement explaining their decision to join the Big Ten.
Sea Changes in College Sports
At the top of the list of changes in college sports referred to by UCLA and USC officials are name, image, likeness (NIL) rules that allow college athletes to profit from their fame.
The list of changes also includes the announcement last year by the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma that each will join the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 2025 to create another 16-team super conference.
The SEC's expansion was viewed by other conferences as a threat to their power to determine the future of college athletics. The Pac-12, Big Ten, and Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) banded together, promising to work as a team to protect their conferences.
“If Notre Dame, with its huge national following, decides to fully join a conference, it is likely to accelerate more change among the conferences.”
Now that USC and UCLA have tipped their hands, other schools and other conferences are looking to further change the college sports landscape. The Big Ten is reportedly considering adding more schools and the Big 12 Conference may poach teams from the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, the ACC and Pac-12 are allegedly considering an alliance.
Holding the key to the future is the University of Notre Dame, which is independent in football and plays all its other sports except hockey in the ACC. If Notre Dame, with its huge national following, decides to fully join a conference, it is likely to accelerate more change among the conferences.
However, CBS Sports reported this week that Notre Dame would remain independent if it can earn at least $75 million annually in media rights revenue from current broadcast partner NBC. The Fighting Irish's deal with the network is set to expire in 2025.
Big Ten, Big Bucks
Notre Dame's reported media rights strategy underscores the degree to which money is fueling the college sports conference shakeup.
“Television networks and streaming services — including Apple — want to expand their hold on college sports or get their first slice of the huge profits generated by NCAA schools.”
Fox Sports is aligned with the Big Ten, while rival ESPN is partnered with the SEC. ESPN's contract with the SEC is for 10 years and $3 billion beginning in 2024. ESPN also owns and operates the SEC Network, while also holding the exclusive rights to the lucrative College Football Playoff through 2025-26.
Fox Sports, meanwhile, is a majority owner of the Big Ten Network. The conference is nearing the end of a six-year, $2.64 billion deal it signed with ESPN and Fox in 2017. It is currently listening to media rights proposals from a variety of traditional and nontraditional suitors. Regardless of those negotiations, Fox Sports will remain the Big Ten's main rights holder.
If there was any doubt about the role of money and media rights in shaking up college sports, the Pac-12 brushed those aside with a statement on July 5. The statement announced that its board of directors had made it a priority to immediately begin negotiations for its next media rights agreement, while secondarily looking for new members.
How Will the Big Ten Expansion Impact College Athletes?
The new alignment could prove to be especially valuable for Big Ten athletes as NIL deals proliferate.
The super conference will have schools in the huge Los Angeles and New York-area markets, as well as other massive markets such as Detroit, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. The NIL marketing opportunities for athletes could present countless opportunities to make money, while in turn giving Big Ten schools a recruiting advantage.
The downside for athletes will be travel.
Athletes also say travel impacts their performance, academics, and personal relationships, according to a December 2021 report by Bowling Green State University researchers.
Imagine future Big Ten games where Rutgers University in New Jersey or the University of Maryland travels to Los Angeles to play USC or UCLA. Classes will be missed and sleep will be hard to come by.
Another downside to expansion is the additional costs schools will have to bear for hotels, flights, and meals.
Consider that, The Ohio State University, a Big Ten member, spent more than $10 million in 2017 for sports travel expenses, according to one report.
That figure is certain to be much higher with the new realignment.