Colorado votes to leave Pac-12 for Big 12 in latest conference realignment move

The University of Colorado is leaving the Pac-12 to return to the Big 12, signaling the latest major move in conference realignment.

Colorado voted on its decision to head back to the Big 12, the conference it called home from 1996 to 2010, at a board of trustees meeting on Thursday afternoon. It was a unanimous 9-0 vote. The CU board met Wednesday to discuss potentially moving to the Big 12, as it has multiple times in recent months.

Colorado, a member of the Pac-12 since 2011, is expected to formally apply for Big 12 membership later Thursday. Once the move to rejoin the Big 12 in 2024 becomes official, Colorado will become the third defection from the Pac-12 in the last year. USC and UCLA accepted invitations to the Big Ten last June and will play one final season as Pac-12 members before officially joining the Big Ten on July 1, 2024.

During Thursday's board meeting, CU chancellor Phil DiStefano said that he and athletic director Rick George are "of the strong belief" that a move to the Big 12 will "set up CU Boulder for long-term success and will provide stability in an era of unprecedented change."

"After careful thought and consideration, it was determined that a switch in conference would give CU Boulder the stability, resources, and exposure necessary for long-term future success in a college athletics environment that is constantly evolving," DiStefano and George said in a joint statement. "The Big 12's national reach across three time zones as well as our shared creative vision for the future we feel makes it an excellent fit for CU Boulder, our students, faculty, and alumni."

The departures of USC and UCLA put the Pac-12 on shaky ground as it hoped to land a new media rights deal while the Big 12 aggressively pursued expansion candidates, including some of the remaining 10 teams in the Pac-12. Colorado was the most receptive school to those overtures, and the talks of CU leaving the Pac-12 for the Big 12 intensified in recent days as the Pac-12 has failed to produce a new media rights agreement.

"The landscape of collegiate sports is ever-evolving, and the University of Colorado Boulder has determined the Big 12 is the best future fit for our athletic teams," Colorado president Todd Saliman said. "The move is good for our student-athletes and the university."

The Pac-12 has been negotiating a new media rights deal for the last year but has not presented financial figures during updates with the league’s presidents and chancellors, including last week ahead of the conference’s media day, Yahoo Sports’ Ross Dellenger reported.

The lack of progress has been a major source of frustration for league members as the Pac-12 falls behind the other major conferences in revenue.

“We need to see the numbers,” one Pac-12 official told Dellenger.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said last Friday that losing members to the Big 12 was “not a concern.”

“Our schools are committed to each other and to the Pac-12,” Kliavkoff said. “We'll get our media rights deal done, we'll announce the deal. I think the realignment that's going on in college athletics will come to an end for this cycle.”

Six days later, one of the members of his league is departing. Could other Pac-12 teams follow suit?

BOULDER, CO - SEPTEMBER 10:  A general view of the east stands and boxes during a game between the Colorado Buffaloes and the Idaho State Bengals at Folsom Field on September 10, 2016 in Boulder, Colorado.  (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)
Colorado is on the verge of departing the Pac-12 to return to the Big 12. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Without a new media rights agreement, there has been a lingering layer of uncertainty about the financial viability of the Pac-12 moving forward. The Pac-12 distributed $37 million to each of its members in 2022-23, much of it from the current television package. The league’s current TV deal with ESPN and Fox expires next July.

The Pac-12 opened a negotiating window for a new deal soon after USC and UCLA announced their departures for the Big Ten. Since then, there has been little evidence of progress even with Kliavkoff telling reporters that the longer the conference waits, the “better our options get.”

“There's an underlying shift in the media market that's happening. We're long-term taking advantage of that. Short-term it may have provided some hiccups,” Kliavkoff said.

The Big 12, meanwhile, officially extended its media rights deals in October with ESPN and Fox through 2031. Power Five expansion additions (like Colorado) will receive a full pro-rata share of the distribution, which is expected to start around $31 million annually per school, according to the Big 12’s new TV contract.

There are still steps to take before things become official, but Colorado will become the 13th member of the Big 12 for 2024-25 when the move comes to fruition. The makeup of the league will look significantly different than the last time it included Colorado.

The Big 12 will lose Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC next July and has already officially welcomed BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF earlier this month. Former Big 12 (and Big Eight) rivals Nebraska and Missouri are no longer in the conference. TCU and West Virginia are the other current members that were not in the Big 12 when Colorado was last part of the league.