Armageddon has arrived. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps it was avoidable.
It doesn’t matter now. College athletics has hit the era when truly anything could happen — as if USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten wasn’t “anything” enough.
The Pac-12 is down to just nine schools and on Tuesday it received the details of a proposed television deal that is heavy on games appearing on an Apple TV subscription site. A streaming service not only limits exposure to recruits and would-be students alike, it puts any financial guarantees at the hands of selling subscriptions.
Where once the Pac-12 thought it could get 70-plus percent of what the Big Ten and SEC are making ($50-million per school, per year minimum), it is now wondering if there will even be a Pac-12 in any recognizable fashion. The Apple deal might only make $20-25 million per school.
Arizona, Arizona State and Utah could easily follow Colorado’s lead and bolt to the Big 12 (or Big 16 by then) for the 2024 season and beyond. The Big 12 is offering about $31 million per year.
Left behind would be a six-school contingent — Cal and Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State, Washington and Washington State. Each will look for something better. Washington and Oregon will renew their begging to the Big Ten. They might even consider the ACC — and yes, the Atlantic Coast Conference partnering with the Pacific Northwest is certainly a geography joke.
Or the remaining Pac-6 could expand back to 8 or 10 or 12 by raiding the Mountain West, but what would that get them? Maybe they could sit at six and play a double round-robin each year and try to grab a College Football Playoff auto-bid. Maybe Stanford could go independent.
They could, well, literally who knows? No decisions have been made. Yet.
If you have a suggestion, the Pac-12 is probably willing to listen.
College sports leaders have spent the past few years trying to lobby Congress to save them from having players choose schools due to richer and richer name, image and likeness deals. This was supposedly a threat to college athletics.
At the very same time they’ve engaged in widespread tampering featuring money-based offers and promises to get entire universities to enter the transfer portal and switch leagues.
They’ve sought no government solutions to this. They’ve not pleaded for federal intervention into the free market, even if conference realignment has created far more disruptions, a far more slanted competitive playing field and may soon leave an entire region of the country on the outside looking in when it comes to major college athletics.
The result is the result.
The remaining nine Pac-12 schools don’t want to split apart, ending generations of partnership and memories. This is the Conference of Champions. It’s served all of them well.
What other choice is there though? This is a game of musical chairs and someone is going to be left out. It doesn’t matter how proud your fan base is or how committed to sports you are. This is about geography and timing and a ruthless run at money.
The Arizona schools and Utah almost have to leave before getting boxed out. It’s survival of the fittest at this point. The only thing staying in the Pac-12 has going for it is tradition and a clear path to the coming College Football Playoff via the league’s automatic bid.
No one cares about tradition anymore, though. Meanwhile, college football spent so much time being run by the bowl industry that the implementation of a bigger playoff field with automatic bids that could bring some conference stability appears to have arrived too late.
Even then, how long is the next harbor safe?
Superconferences are coming. The SEC and Big Ten would prefer to sit at 16 members. If they wanted to be bigger, they would be bigger. Yet they may have to add, even if it doesn’t make much sense. No league is secure. Two or three 20-team conferences? Two or three 24-team conferences? Is that the future?
All of this borne from decades of salary inflation, staff expansion and a nonsensical facilities arms race that has left schools acutely leveraged just so they could build a new opulent locker room to replace the recently new opulent locker room.
Nowhere along the way did anyone pump the brakes. There wasn’t anyone who even could.
Left to their own devices, everyone just spent more and more until they were desperate to make more and more. Now the future in places such as Pullman and Corvallis are bleak and what is billed as the “National” College Athletic Association may not truly work for the entire nation.
Major college athletics thinks Congress was the only thing that could save them from some of their players who might want to switch around in pursuit of more money.
Apparently no one could save College Sports Inc. from doing the same thing to itself.