Who’s to blame for college football conference realignment chaos? Here are top candidates.

Arizona State President Michael Crow recently tried to explain why there has been so much sudden instability and change at the highest levels of college football.

After 45 years in the Pac-12 Conference, his school announced last week it was joining the Big 12 in 2024, along with three other Pac-12 schools in another unsettling wave of realignment.

"There are a lot of forces at work, including the overlords of the media empire that are out there that were driving a lot of this," he said.

But who exactly and why? USA TODAY Sports came up with a short list of power brokers whose leadership and decisions facilitated this, for better or for worse, and then reached out to them to see whether they wanted to discuss it publicly.

None said they did.

What did they do?

As a result of their actions − directly or indirectly – the once-glorious Pac-12 has nearly disintegrated, leaving huge fan bases on the West Coast abandoned by longtime peers in favor of more money from television companies, along with more cross-country trips for athletes in other sports across three time zones.

On the other hand, the Big Ten Conference now is adding Oregon, Washington, Southern California and UCLA to expand to 18 teams for 2024, part of a strategy to deliver more big games and growth for some of the game’s biggest brands.

Here is who deserves credit (or blame) for it.

The opinion delivered by John Paul Stevens

The former Supreme Court justice died in 2019, but his fingerprints have always been all over any realignment chaos in college football. That’s because he delivered the majority opinion in a 1984 case that broke the NCAA’s monopoly over college football television rights. Back then, the NCAA controlled television for college football with the goal of protecting ticket sales and preserving “competitive balance” nationally by spreading TV exposure and revenue to a wide swath of teams, not just the biggest brands.

In a 7-2 decision, Stevens affirmed that this centralized system violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, opening the door for schools and conferences to pursue TV deals on their own in a free competitive market. That’s what is happening in realignment today as a result – schools and conferences changing affiliations to get more money from TV or other media companies to show their games.

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In retrospect, this might have seemed inevitable and correct under the law. But not everybody agreed back then, and fellow Justice Byron White warned about the professionalization of college football in his dissent. Incidentally, White starred in football at Colorado, which left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 in 2011, only to recently decide to return to the Big 12 in 2024.

"An agreement to share football revenues to a certain extent is an essential aspect of maintaining some balance of strength among competing colleges, and of minimizing the tendency to professionalism in the dominant schools," White’s dissent stated.

Carol Folt’s choices

The USC president was the biggest domino to fall in the downfall of the Pac-12. If she didn’t decide last year to join the Big Ten in 2024, the Pac-12 would not have become nearly as vulnerable to poaching from other leagues as it’s been in recent weeks, when six more teams decided to leave, including Oregon and Washington.

UCLA would have been less likely to leave the Pac-12 without USC, and media companies such as Fox, ESPN or Apple would have been more likely to make attractive bids for the rights to Pac-12 games with the huge Los Angeles market still anchoring their investment in them.

Folt instead decided it was better for USC’s future to take the money and run for a sports league based in the Midwest, where fan passion translates into more eyeballs and money. The money difference might have made it seem like a no-brainer for USC and UCLA: around $70 million in the Big Ten, which is about double of what they could have gotten in the Pac-12.

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On the other hand, she is in charge of a nonprofit institution whose stated central mission is the “development of human beings and society as a whole through the cultivation and enrichment of the human mind and spirit.”

Does abandoning USC’s longtime peer institutions in the Pac-12 for more money support that? What about long plane trips to games in the Midwest and New Jersey for USC’s non-football athletes and their families?

"It’s difficult to rationalize that move in any way other than it’s just a money grab without regard for the athletes," said Joel Lulla, a lecturer at the University of Texas and sports media expert who previously worked on legal and business matters for ABC Sports and IMG.

In 2021, Folt also “shut down” a chance for the Pac-12 to add members from the Big 12 when it could have to improve its standing for the future, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Fuel from Fox Sports

If it was a money grab for USC, much of that money is coming from Fox Sports, the primary media rights partner of the Big Ten and a 61 percent owner of the Big Ten Network. That means Fox Sports is in effect funding the expansion of the Big Ten as it takes in four schools from the Pac-12.

It’s a good business move for Fox in the sense that it’s better to “buy” only the four biggest brands of the Pac-12 for $50 million-$70 million each per year instead of “buying” all 12 teams in the league for $30 million-$40 million each. In return, Fox Sports gets more marquee cross-country matchups to offer viewers and advertisers without having to pay to show less-popular regional Pac-12 matchups, such as between Washington State and Oregon State.

"Fox brought new money to the table for Oregon and for Washington," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said Wednesday about the Big Ten’s newest members.

In February, Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks discussed Fox’s role with the league’s prior decision to add USC and UCLA.

"We feel good about our long-term strategic relationship with the Big Ten through the Big Ten Network, and then also Fox and being able to at least help in our own way with the addition of USC and UCLA," Fox Sports CEO Eric Shanks said then on The Marchand and Ourand Sports Media Podcast.

It’s not clear how involved Shanks was with any consultations to add schools in the Big Ten. Current and former television executives have stressed that schools and conferences make such decisions in the end, not TV executives. But without the funding from Fox, there is no western expansion of the Big Ten.

Shanks noted in the same podcast in February that the college football landscape had shifted in 2021, when Texas and Oklahoma announced they were leaving the Big 12 for greener pastures in the Southeastern Conference, which already had a $3 billion, 10-year deal with rival ESPN and ABC starting in 2024.

USC and UCLA announced their move to the Big Ten a year later and “are the right, great pieces of value add for the Big Ten,” Shanks said in the podcast. “It keeps the Big Ten and SEC … on par at least with each other.”

It also keeps Fox on par with ESPN in their lucrative chase for live viewership.

ESPN and Brett Yormark

Much like USC and UCLA’s departure devastated the Pac-12, the departure of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 could have done the same to that league.

It didn’t for a few reasons, including the Pac-12’s decision, supported by Folt, to not raid that league to expand the Pac-12. The Big 12 then added BYU, Houston, Cincinnati and Central Florida before hiring a new commissioner, Brett Yormark, who went hunting for more new members to revive his league with fresh new contract money from ESPN and Fox Sports.

He was able to offer four Pac-12 teams something they craved – stability and certainty in the form of a $31.7 million share from ESPN and Fox Sports.

The Pac-12 didn’t have any of that in its future after failing to secure a new media rights deal beyond next year. Reacting to those concerns, Colorado announced July 27 that it was jumping from the Pac-12, followed by Arizona, Arizona State and Utah about a week later to expand the Big 12 to 16 teams in 2024.

Television money is “the gasoline that powers the engine” in college sports, former Fox Sports Networks President Bob Thompson told USA TODAY Sports. But that resource isn’t bottomless.

"It’s the same thing with expansion," he said. "Unless you have the wherewithal behind you to make it work, and the schools (being added) are valued as accretive as opposed to dilutive, you’re going to have a hard time making everything work. Conferences can’t just bring in a new institution and continue to look to TV as the singular financing source. Linear television is facing some significant headwinds, and streaming just isn't necessarily going to be the answer."

Larry Scott’s legacy

The former commissioner of the Pac-12 led bold moves early in his tenure, adding Colorado and Utah in 2011 and announcing what was then a record deal with ESPN and Fox Sports worth about $2.7 billion over 12 years.

He also led the launch of the Pac-12 Networks, which took a risky approach by not getting buy-in from a strategic television partner, unlike the Big Ten Network, which is majority-owned by Fox Sports. The Pac-12 Networks instead were wholly owned by the league. The league’s presidents and chancellors, under Scott’s leadership, even turned down a chance to bring in ESPN to distribute the Pac-12 Networks and extend a rights deal with the league around 2019.

But these decisions appear to have overestimated the demand for this product, limited its reach and prevented ESPN from becoming more vested in the league’s growth and survival.

"I think if they had chosen that route, how likely is it that ESPN would have walked away from the Pac-12 TV rights?" said Thompson, now the principal at Thompson Sports Group LLC. "I don't believe they would have. ESPN would have a vested interest, a significant investment in the network, and they would certainly want to continue to get a return on that investment. Walking away from the Pac-12 would have made no sense."

Scott stepped down in 2021. His successor, George Kliavkoff, stepped into it then and was only on the job a year before USC and UCLA even said they were leaving.

Kevin Warren’s ambitions

The former Big Ten commissioner left to join the front office of the Chicago Bears earlier this year and wasn’t even on the job four years. But his ambitions left their mark, helping secure a seven-year, $7 billion media rights deal and adding USC and UCLA in a move announced in 2022. Shortly after that announcement, Warren was asked about the future of the Pac-12.

"I think there's two types of people in the world, that they look at change as it's a problem, or they look at change as an opportunity," he told reporters then. "I'm one of those individuals that, when change occurs, I get excited about it, that it really is an opportunity for us to do a lot of things that people have thought about but maybe been a little bit reticent to do. So I'm embracing change. I'm going to be very aggressive."

He was, but it came with a big expense. The Pac-12 is down to the Pac-4 with Stanford, Cal, Washington State and Oregon State flopping around like fish on the ground, desperate for water. The Power Five Conferences seem set to become the Power Two, with the SEC and Big Ten expanding next year at the expense of others.

And the money chase continues until it stops, if it ever stops, after the John Paul Stevens’ decision in 1984 set it off.

"I don’t know where or how it all ends," Thompson said. "I guess when a revenue source dries up and there’s not a suitable replacement. If there is no replacement, then things might revert to where they were years before.

"The model is built somewhat on this one-legged stool that is television revenue. Sure, there are tickets and donations and some other revenue streams, but TV revenue is a very, very big part of the equation. If that goes away, if the model doesn’t sustain itself, what’s going to happen? That’s the question."

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: College football realignment chaos: Who's to blame?