A proxy war of the sporting variety flared up last week when USC and UCLA ditched 94 years of Pacific Coast togetherness for the lure of even bigger annual media rights distribution with the Big Ten Conference, a payday expected to be more than $100 million per school per year when the Big Ten’s new deal with Fox begins in 2024.
That is about $80 million more per year for each school when compared to the sums the Pac-12 Conference broadcasting rights with USC and UCLA included currently draw with deals set to expire in 2024. Without the Los Angeles schools, expect those Pac-12 rights to plummet … if the conference can stay together in the time being.
This is the reality of the landscape — big-time college sports are almost wholly controlled by massive sports broadcasting networks ESPN and Fox Sports.
The networks are engaged in a pitched battle to fill TV windows with live sports content and provide advertisers access to the eyeballs of an ever-shrinking number of live event viewers.
Fox controls the Big Ten, which will grow to 16 teams when USC and UCLA arrive. ESPN has the SEC, which will soon add Big 12 powers Oklahoma and Texas, and the ACC locked down. The two networks have split Pac-12 coverage over the last 10-plus seasons, but that arrangement will end soon.
There has been plenty of team movement in the past. The Southwest Conference withered to dust when the SEC and Big 12 expanded in the early 1990s; many Big East teams joined the ACC; Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers joined the Big Ten back when TV market size was the prime focus of TV networks.
The Pac-12 had its shot at expansion, selecting Utah for the Salt Lake City market and Colorado for Denver a decade ago. But the conference closest to Silicon Valley couldn’t foresee the rise of streaming television and stood pat, hoping to reach the 2024 rights negotiation and reconfigure the marketplace.
Television market size is still a factor, but ESPN and Fox are building inventory and are essentially heading toward operating two super conferences with the big-money teams with larger and more fervent followings the more highly desired.
Heated in-state rivalries and long-term, simmering regional feuds? Expect them to die off.
Eventually, when the dominoes all fall, expect the Pac-12 to crumble and Washington and Oregon to be included together, likely in the Big Ten, at some point in the next few years.
There could be a short period spent in an expanded Big 12 for the Ducks and Dawgs, but the big networks will want to have at least a couple of Pacific time zone options each week. Time to get excited for the Illinois Fighting Illini to head west for a showdown on Montlake!
The realignment will work … at first. The millions will be made for the networks and the lucky 32 or 48 or 64 programs included, but the shine will come off those nonsensical matchups pretty fast and the sport will be gutted of what makes it special and weird and different from the boring, corporate NFL: genuine regional rivalries and the passion of attending or holding a lifelong allegiance to a particular program.
And are fans going to tune into a lesser skilled version of the same game when there’s less of an emotional pull to being a fan of college football? Football rules the television game, but what happens to March Madness and the NCAA basketball tournament with two super leagues playing and everybody else competing for scraps? Are sports as fun without the minnows causing chaos and pulling upsets?
As for Pac-12 small fry Washington State and Oregon State, they are adrift at sea at this point, bobbing slowly up and down and hoping to make landfall somewhere safely. It appears the most likely option for the Cougs would be the Mountain West Conference, to play with teams such as San Diego State, Fresno State, Boise State and Nevada and earn far, far less as part of that league’s media package.
Lame. The bottom line makes sense, sure, but it’s lame nonetheless.
Sports reporter/columnist Michael Carman can be contacted at [email protected] peninsuladailynews.com.