The Shocking Demise of the Pac-12: What’s Next?

What happened to the "Conference of Champions," and where does it go from here?
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer and higher education analyst with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former...
Published on August 25, 2023
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  • Several universities have announced their departure from the Pac-12 athletic conference.
  • Only four teams remain, and the future of the conference remains in doubt.
  • The Pac-12 has a long and distinguished history and several notable rivalries.
  • Departing teams are pursuing more money resulting from lucrative media deals.

When the music stopped on Aug. 4, the Pac-12 was left without a chair.

That day, the Universities of Washington and Oregon announced they were joining the Big Ten beginning in 2024, while the Universities of Arizona and Utah, along with Arizona State University, declared they would be departing for the Big 12, following the University of Colorado's decision a week earlier.

Washington and Oregon will eventually reunite with two other Pac-12 schools, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), both of which confirmed last year they'd be in the Big Ten starting in 2024.

So now the once revered Pac-12, a conference with a 108-year history replete with All-America athletes and national championship teams, has been reduced to Stanford, the University of California-Berkeley, Oregon State University, and Washington State University. The Final Four, as it were, but in this case an inauspicious designation.

How did this happen? And what does this mean for college athletics, especially football?

The Pac-12's Historic Imprint on College Sports

The Pac-12 has a long and glorious history that, by some measures, is unrivaled among college conferences.

Formed in 1915 as the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC), the league coincidently included only four members: Cal-Berkeley, the University of Washington, the University of Oregon, and what would become Oregon State University.

Over many years, members would come and go — including the Universities of Idaho and Montana.

In 1959, the PCC became the Pac-8 and would eventually become the Pac-10 with the addition of Arizona and Arizona State in 1978.

The current incarnation of the Pac-12, including Colorado and Utah, debuted in 2011.

Over its history, the Pac-12 has distinguished itself as an elite athletic conference, adopting the moniker "Conference of Champions." USC has produced seven Heisman Trophy winners, tied for the most with the University of Oklahoma, Notre Dame, and Ohio State University.

UCLA dominated college basketball in the 1960s and early 1970s and still holds the most national championships, with 11.

Among the colleges with the most Olympic medal winners, the top four — USC, Stanford, UCLA, and Cal-Berkeley — all compete within the Pac-12 (for now).

And across all intercollegiate sports, the schools with the most titles include Stanford, UCLA, and USC as the top three.

Within the conference, traditional football rivalries flourished. USC vs. UCLA squaring off in the Rose Bowl and Memorial Coliseum. Washington and Washington State battling for the Apple Cup. The "Civil War" waged between Oregon and Oregon State.

And, of course, Stanford and Cal competing in "The Big Game," inaugurated in 1892 and forever memorialized by "The Play."

Some of these traditions might continue, but conference realignments breed new rivalries while others founder. Consider what happened when longstanding combatants Oklahoma and Nebraska departed for different conferences, essentially ending one of college football's most heated rivalries.

The Pac-12's dissolution has affected the entirety of college sports, relegating the West to second-class status as the dominant conference in that region can no longer stake its claim among the Power 5.

All this history and tradition down the drain, and for what? Money, of course.

Chasing More Lucrative Television Contracts

For the Pac-12 schools decamping for the Big Ten, the move offers an opportunity to align with perennial powerhouses such as Ohio State and Michigan; to gain more national exposure, broaden their recruiting base, and attract better talent; and to realistically battle for a national championship.

It also means more cash.

Last year, the Big Ten inked a seven-year media rights agreement with Fox, CBS and NBC worth $7 billion. Each school could realize up to $100 million annually.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12's current television contract with Fox and ESPN is worth $3 billion. The deal is set to expire next year, and the conference has yet to secure a long-term agreement with one or more networks. Given the Pac-12's state of affairs, a lucrative contract on par with the Big Ten's doesn't appear feasible.

The lure of the lucre was evidently too powerful to ignore.

"The old question — how long would it take TV money to destroy college football? Maybe we're here," Washington State football coach Jake Dickert told reporters. "To think, even remotely, five years ago the Pac-12 would be in this position, it's unthinkable to think that we're here today."

That's a lot of thinking, but it's hardly unthinkable to think these schools wouldn't think twice about doubling their revenue streams.

Among the Power 5 conferences, the Pac-12 ranks last in terms of per-school revenue. Purportedly, the conference has pursued a streaming deal with Apple TV+ that, based on subscriptions, could net schools in the range of $20 million annually.

Meanwhile, the conference maintains its own Pac-12 Network, which last year grossed each school $37 million. But the schools contribute to the network's operation, so that figure doesn't represent net profit. All told, the network netted $18.5 million last year.

The Big 12, soon to be home to four Pac-12 schools, earns upwards of $45 million annually for its member schools thanks to a TV deal with ESPN and Fox worth $2.28 billion. Presumably, adding four members will reduce the per-school take unless the contract is renegotiated.

So what happens now to the Pac-12 and its remaining members?

The Future of the Pac-12

These seismic shifts have served only to accelerate the emergence of the "Power Two" conferences: the Big Ten (soon to have 18 members) and the Southeastern Conference (SEC).

The Big Ten now has coast-to-coast representation and has gained a solid foothold in the nation's second-largest media market, Los Angeles. Yet it's still playing catch-up with the SEC, which has claimed 11 of the last 15 national football championships.

For now, the Big 12 remains viable but will lose A-list members Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC following this season.

The remaining Power 5 member, the Atlantic Coast Conference, is rumored to be the desired home for Stanford and Cal-Berkeley, though some ACC teams have reportedly blocked their addition. At the same time, arguably its two most successful teams, Clemson and Florida State, want out of the ACC.

Another potential scenario involves the four remaining Pac-12 schools joining the Mountain West Conference, home to California schools Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State. The resulting merger could preserve the Pac-12 name if the newly formed conglomerate chooses to keep that moniker.

At the very least, this alignment makes some geographic sense. There's certainly nothing about Stanford and Cal that screams "Atlantic Coast." Given the physical and mental toll extensive travel takes on student-athletes, situating opponents on opposite coasts is a sure recipe for burnout, as some Big Ten teams might soon discover.

Unfortunately for the Pac-12 faithful, the most likely result is the complete demise of the conference. It has fallen prey to the pursuit of financial gains, the modus operandi governing college sports, even among student-athletes who criss-cross the transfer portal in search of more lucrative name, image and likeness deals.

Fans have one more season of Pac-12 competition to enjoy before the "Conference of Champions" becomes relegated to the history books.