An earthquake hit major college athletics last week.
This week, the aftershocks threaten to further shake the landscape.
From coast to coast, conference executives are expected to meet over the next few days to make key decisions that will shape the future of conference realignment. The tremors may start with the ACC, whose presidents are scheduled to meet this week to further explore — and potentially make a decision — on Western expansion.
Mountain West Conference presidents are scheduled for a meeting Monday night, as well, to examine options that include a merger with the remaining four Pac-12 schools or the acquisition of some of them. The American Athletic Conference has expressed interest in the remaining four Pac-12 schools, too. To that end, the Pac-12’s four remaining schools, if they were to re-form the league, may very well target those same AAC schools (Confused? Welcome to realignment!)
Meanwhile, the gears of the College Football Playoff are starting to turn, as high-ranking figures within the CFP begin to re-examine both the revenue distribution model and the format of expansion.
There’s something else, too. College athletics’ four-year-old pursuit of landing Congressional legislation to manage name, image and likeness (NIL) experienced a setback this week. The money-grabbing realignment shifts will make it more difficult to convince lawmakers that athlete compensation needs any management at all, multiple administrators tell Yahoo Sports.
“I’m sad and embarrassed for the industry,” says one Power Five athletic director.
“An embarrassing last seven days,” says a Power Five conference official.
“It’s called self-interest,” says another.
ACC presidents were scheduled to meet last Friday to further examine westward expansion.
For nearly a year now, the league has explored expansion in a variety of ways. However, the Pac-12’s loss of Colorado on July 27 and the potential of Oregon and Washington moving to the Big Ten triggered more serious discussion. The league focused on five schools from the West: Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Cal and Stanford.
When the Big 12 secured Arizona, ASU and Utah, Friday’s ACC meeting turned from a potential decision-making gathering to one that many expected to bring closure to the expansion discussion. That said, the conversation among ACC administrators has continued into this week and may culminate in a decision from the group: (1) add no new members; (2) add Stanford and Cal; or in the more unlikely scenario, (3) add Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State.
Within the league, westward expansion isn’t necessarily a move supported by all members. Even the potential acquisition of the original five — Arizona, ASU, Utah, Cal and Stanford — was seen by some as a decision that produced little additional revenue while also creating a cross-country logistical headache.
Tied to an ESPN television deal lasting 13 more years, the conference is in search of additional revenue, most notably to keep its football powers (Florida State, Clemson, Miami, etc.) happy.
Is this really the answer?
The Mountain West
Presidents from the Mountain West are scheduled to meet Monday night to further discuss the league’s own possible acquisition of the Pac-12’s remaining four schools, specifically Oregon State and Washington State.
However, some within the MWC believe that another better option exists: merging with the Pac-12 in a consolidation of regional schools that would see the league rebrand or possibly keep the Pac-12’s name. Is this even possible?
“I think it’s the best option,” says one administrator.
Not everyone agrees. The meeting Monday night is not expected to produce a decision, but a pathway may be more clear after presidents discuss options.
Even with a merger, there is doubt that the Pac-12 will retain its autonomous five (A5) powers, something that the Division I Board of Directors controls. A5 status gives more legislative authority and a higher revenue distribution to the five leagues: Pac-12, Big 12, SEC, Big Ten and ACC.
Another wrinkle in all of this: the remaining four Pac-12 schools aren’t necessarily like-minded in their future plans. Stanford, the biggest brand of the four and owner of the country’s most historically successful Olympic sports programs, may believe that independence is a more suitable option than, say, merging with or joining the Mountain West.
If the Pac-12 four attempted to reform the league, they’d likely look east toward those in the AAC. Exit-fee figures for AAC teams, while negotiable, aren’t as high priced as the Mountain West, where schools would owe $34 million each to leave the league after this academic year.
In turn, do any of the four Pac-12 schools have interest in joining the AAC? Though unlikely, the AAC is interested in such acquisitions.
In interviews with Yahoo Sports, multiple conference commissioners believe that both the revenue distribution model and the format for the expanded College Football Playoff need to be re-evaluated if FBS goes from 10 to nine conferences.
CFP commissioners are scheduled to meet in Dallas in late August in a previously scheduled gathering in which the topic is expected to arise. The CFP is in the 10th year of a 12-year contract with ESPN. Last year, executives voted to change the format from a four-team to a 12-team playoff starting in 2024, with six automatic qualifiers and six at-large spots (6+6). In the approved format, playoff spots go to the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams.
If the Pac-12 fails to re-generate, the belief among many is that the format needs tweaking. Three commissioners suggested subtracting an automatic qualifier and adding an at-large spot — a 5AQ + 7AL model (5+7). There are plenty of other options, such as granting no automatic qualifiers. In such a format, the 12 highest-ranked teams would get a spot.
“Does the playoff need to drop from 12 to eight?” asks one official, adding another potential option to the list.
The revenue-distribution model is another question mark. Officials have finalized a new model for 2024 and 2025. While the model features a similar base distribution to conferences as it has had in the past, it also distributes additional revenue to conferences based on the number of teams that participate in each round.
With the Big Ten growing by two and four others joining the Big 12, how does that model change?
“One fewer Power Five conferences means more money for the other four,” says one Power Five athletic director, “but how exactly do you distribute it?”
Changes to the 2024 and 2025 CFP format and revenue-distribution model would likely need to garner unanimity from the 11 FBS commissioners as it remains under the 12-year contract. After 2025, unanimity is not necessary.
In an interview with Yahoo Sports three weeks ago, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey acknowledged that there is “no deal” after 2025. Could the format change in 2026?
“We’ll have to see what the contracts look like,” he told Yahoo Sports, referring to the potential TV contracts. “You’re asking me the magical hypothetical ifs and coulds. Could something happen? Sure."
The board of managers’ decision last year represents “more than a verbal agreement,” Sankey said, “but there are no contracts. And those are contracts between participating entities, conferences, the bowls games and broadcasters.”