Colorado and the Big 12, in a months-long courtship, appear ready to tie the knot.
The school’s board of regents held an executive session on Wednesday and scheduled a second board meeting for Thursday that is expected to center on making a move from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 in 2024, sources tell Yahoo Sports.
An agenda of Thursday’s meeting posted on the Colorado board of regents' website lists the start time as 3 p.m. MT with the subject as “athletics operation” and the type as “ACTION” — a sign that a formal vote will be called.
The Big 12’s board of presidents voted unanimously in a Wednesday night meeting to approve Colorado’s addition to the conference, according to ESPN. Colorado's board of regents still need to vote to make the decision final.
The Big 12 and commissioner Brett Yormark have pursued the Buffaloes for months now, hoping to pry them away from a Pac-12 conference that was rocked by the announced departures last summer of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten.
The Pac-12 remains without a television contract after its current deal expires next summer, a precarious position in which the loss of the Los Angeles market has negatively impacted the conference’s value. Pac-12 presidents met Wednesday morning for another update on a television deal from commissioner George Kliavkoff. Colorado representatives on the call did not reveal their intentions to leave or that they planned to hold a board meeting that afternoon, sources with knowledge of the call tell Yahoo Sports.
The timing of the impending move — late July — is not coincidence. During discussions with Colorado, Big 12 officials set a deadline for the Buffaloes to make a decision by Tuesday.
In many ways, Colorado’s exit is a long time coming. Its flirtation with the Big 12 dates back to last fall, soon after the Big 12 secured a long-term television deal of its own with Fox and ESPN.
Signs grew more obvious last week that Colorado administrators were growing impatient and lacked confidence in Kliavkoff’s ability to land a suitable deal. Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano suggested publicly that Kliavkoff produce television contract figures at a meeting scheduled for last Thursday. Figures were not presented and DiStefano’s move was seen by many within the league as a move to pressure the Pac-12 commissioner.
And then, in a striking sign that transpired amid Pac-12 football media day last Friday, Colorado athletic director Rick George dodged questions from reporters in a bizarre scene in which he fled down a dark hallway and then out of the building with a trail of interrogating reporters in his wake.
Over the past few months, George and DiStefano left cracked open the door of a possible move from the Pac-12. Last week, they seemed to kick it open.
If Colorado completes this move — expected by Thursday afternoon — it would be a return to its old stomping grounds. The school played in the Big 12 for 15 years until leaving for the Pac-12 in 2011. Before that, it competed against Big 12 rivals in the Big Eight.
The Big 12’s next move is now in question. The league added Houston, UCF, Cincinnati and BYU this year as a response to the loss of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC starting in 2024. Colorado’s entrance would give the conference 13 members.
Is there a 14th out there? Yormark, an aggressive and calculated former leader of a New York entertainment agency, has targeted UConn as a potential expansion possibility. But the preference among many of his member schools is to first seek another Power Five program. UConn football currently competes as an independent. According to the Big 12’s new TV contract, Power Five expansion additions receive a full pro-rata share of the distribution, which is expected to start around $31 million annually per school.
Arizona is long-rumored to be another target, but communication between the Wildcats and the Big 12 has waned of late. Before making any decision, the school plans to wait for Kliavkoff to present a television deal, a source told Yahoo Sports.
However, Arizona resides in a state with another Power Five, conference foe, a fact that could make matters tricky. Arizona State has shown little or no interest in leaving the conference. In an interview last month in Washington, D.C, Arizona president Robert Robbins addressed the potential issue of the Wildcats and Sun Devils competing in different leagues.
“We don’t have to do the same thing,” he said, “but [ASU] President [Michael] Crow and I are very tight. I think it’d be unlikely that we’d be split up.”
Pressed about a Pac-12 deal and the prospects of leaving for the Big 12, Robbins said, “Everybody remembers the line from 'Jerry McGuire.' "'Show me the money.'"
Colorado’s potential exit leaves the Pac-12 in a precarious position on many levels. The Pac-12 was expected to play a nine-game conference schedule in 2024. With only nine members, the schedule would need to be reduced to eight or teams would have to hurriedly scramble to find a fourth non-conference opponent — a difficult and expensive task with a year’s notice.
Another scenario exists: The Pac-12 poaching expansion targets SMU or/and San Diego State. San Diego State was preparing to accept a Pac-12 invitation and join in 2024 before a June 30 deadline passed without any invite. The school would now owe the Mountain West roughly $35 million in an exit fee, double the $17 million it would owe before the deadline date.
SMU’s exit-fee situation is unclear.
The Pac-12’s year-long plight for a new TV contract has been at the center of college football over the past several months, with implications that could reshape the industry's entire landscape. Conferences and their members rely on media rights deals as their chief revenue generators. The Pac-12 distributed $37 million to each school in 2022-23, much of it from its current television package. The league’s TV deal, with ESPN and Fox, expires next July.
The timeline of a deal has been a moving target. Over the past several months, conference presidents have set deadlines for a deal, none of which have been met. At media day last week, Kliavkoff expressed confidence that he’d land a deal in the “near future.”
The pursuit of a new package began last summer, when USC and UCLA announced their intention to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten starting in fall of 2024. The stunning news hurtled the Pac-12 into an unstable situation.
Other leagues, namely the Big 12, mobilized to attract Pac-12 members. As Yahoo Sports reported last week, one school was more susceptible to leaving than any: Colorado. A new TV package was essential in keeping intact the 10 remaining schools and, at a later date, expanding to add others, such as potential targets San Diego State and SMU.
Both the visibility and monetary structure of a TV package are imperative. While those within the Big 12 express continued confidence in poaching Pac-12 schools, Pac-12 officials remained confident last week that their broadcasting package will rival that of the Big 12.
In a board meeting with Pac-12 presidents on June 30, Kliavkoff and conference leadership presented officials with a general framework of a TV deal that is expected to include a linear presence for the conference’s marquee football and basketball games.
Through the lengthy negotiations, Pac-12 officials have preached patience to school administrators amid an ever-changing landscape of college athletics, where streamers are entering the marketplace and large linear networks, such as ESPN, have become more selective while also cutting personnel.
But it’s unclear with whom the Pac-12 has been negotiating. ESPN, Fox, NBC and CBS have all recently struck partnerships with other conferences, including the SEC (ESPN), the Big Ten (Fox, NBC and CBS) and the Big 12 (ESPN and Fox). Streamers, such as Amazon and Apple, have delved into the sports world lately as well.