What's next? Pac-12 vs. Big 12 realignment saga rages on with Colorado's move

Two years ago, after Texas and Oklahoma announced their eventual departure for the SEC, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby reached out to his colleague at the Pac-12, newly hired commissioner George Kliavkoff.

He presented a proposal: Let’s merge the two conferences, share a media rights package, establish a scheduling alliance and so on. Bowlsby even flew to California.

The Pac-12 rebuffed interest in a merger and the league also decided against expansion, refusing to pluck off panicked and easily poachable Big 12 schools.

Twenty-five months later, oh how the tables have turned.

The Big 12’s raid — maybe not yet over — has the Pac-12 staggering. Leaders of the conference are planning to meet Thursday, sources tell Yahoo Sports — a discussion that will presumably center on an approach to the news of Colorado’s departure.

The Pac-12 needs to expedite its own expansion plans and present a television deal to remaining members in an effort to keep intact the conference and prevent a cascade of departures that could impact the entire landscape of college sports. Months ago, the conference identified at least two expansion targets — San Diego State and SMU — that now seem necessary to its own survival.

The Big 12’s threat continues to loom over the conference. Big 12 members are seeking at least one more Power Five program to pair with the addition of Colorado to reach the desired 14 members in 2024. The league added UCF, Cincinnati, BYU and Houston this year to get to 14 members before the Sooners and Longhorns leave for the SEC after this season.

Will the Pac-12 survive after this year? Where will the Big 12 go next?

Some answers:

The Pac-12 TV puzzle

In many ways, the Pac-12 can prevent a domino effect from unfurling if (1) it finally presents to members a suitable television contract, and (2) it expands back to at least 10, if not more.

Meetings on Thursday out West are expected to center around those two things. But many within the industry continue to express doubt that a television deal will be good enough to prevent further departures.

“If there is a deal better than the Big 12, why wouldn’t it have been put on the table already?” asks one curious administrator.

While many focus on the monetary value of a new TV contract — it needs to likely be at least $27-$30 million in annual distribution per school — one of the more important aspects is the visibility. How will you watch the games? While Pac-12 marquee football games in the late-night window are an attractive piece, along with a Friday night affair, the majority of the league’s other inventory could find its way into a streaming-only option — an inadequate proposition for many.

One high-placed Pac-12 source believes that league presidents would not be interested in a package that features more than half of the football and basketball inventory on streaming.

Colorado’s decision is a loud and obvious sign: confidence in a deal is low. Impatience among other members is growing and there’s a good explanation as to why.

Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks at the NCAA college football Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)
Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff speaks at the NCAA college football Pac-12 media day Friday, July 21, 2023, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Lucas Peltier)

The league’s negotiations have been ongoing for a year now. Suggested deadline dates aired publicly by Pac-12 presidents have not been met. The talks have been cloaked in secrecy. Kliavkoff has been tight with details, even with his own constituents. Some take that as an ominous sign. Others say it’s quite normal.

Colorado made clear its opinion of the situation. Without a presented deal next week, the expectation is that more programs will share in the opinion of Colorado.

"Is this when the dominoes start to fall?” asked one league official.

Despite Kliavkoff’s show of confidence over the last few months, it is unclear with whom the Pac-12 has been negotiating. The two largest linear networks, ESPN and FOX, seem like distant prospects for a variety of reasons.

ESPN is in the midst of a transformation. The network has expressed a move to be more selective in rights packages, made dozens of layoffs this summer, experienced changes in key leadership positions and already has agreements with the SEC and Big 12. Maybe most important: The Pac-12 situation is well behind ESPN rights negotiations with other leagues, such as the NBA and WWE/UFC.

FOX, meanwhile, has the primary rights for the Big Ten (and pays billions for them). FOX reached such an agreement after the league poached two of the Pac-12’s most valuable brands in USC and UCLA. Connect the dots.

And while streamers such as Amazon and Apple have delved into the sports world lately, linear is the preferred option.

The Pac-12 expansion plan

While a television deal is most important, expanding is essential. A nine-member league cannot stand.

For one, the Pac-12’s current scheduling model is for nine league games. With only nine members, the schedule would need to be reduced to eight and teams would have to hurriedly scramble to find a fourth non-conference opponent — a difficult and expensive task with a year’s notice.

The more practical solution is to add members. San Diego State was preparing to accept a Pac-12 invitation and join in 2024 before a June 30 deadline passed. To leave in time to compete in 2024, the school would now owe the Mountain West roughly $35 million in an exit fee, double the $17 million that it would have owed before the deadline.

SMU’s situation is different and much more conducive. SMU is a program with deep-pocketed boosters ready to spend for an elevation to the Power Five. With history as a guide, any exit fee from the American - $10-$15 million — is likely to be more affordable than SDSU’s amount.

However, timing is at issue. A decision from the Pac-12 on any expansion is needed as soon as possible. Transitioning from one league to another with less than a year’s notice is already tight but also does a disservice to the league in which you are exiting — something that could further impact (elevate) an exit fee.

The Pac-12 must think long term as well. Expanding back to 12 could help secure a future for the conference. Any Pac-12 TV contract is expected to be short in length — five to seven years — meaning the league could be right back in this place soon enough.

Should the league add members to reach at least 12 or 14 — that way ensuring a more stable league that could withstand more loss of members in the future?

And what are those other options? Air Force? Colorado State? UNLV? These are some practical western programs that may be on the conference’s list.

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark speaks during Big 12 football media day at AT&T Stadium on July 12. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark speaks during Big 12 football media day at AT&T Stadium on July 12. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Big 12 pursuit

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, a New York businessman, has proved that he is calculating and aggressive in his pursuit of expansion.

So why would he stop now? He won’t.

The goal is to at least get to a 14th additional member, sources tell Yahoo Sports. Colorado is expected to receive a full share from the Big 12 as the league’s new television deal calls for a pro-rata for any Power Five additions (roughly $32 million in distribution a year).

While Yormark has targeted UConn as that expansion option, the preference is to add a Power Five program more in the geographic footprint. But does one exist?

Arizona, Arizona State and Utah were in a grouping, with Colorado, that Big 12 administrators identified as expansion targets during a meeting in May. While Arizona has long been thought as a more real possibility to leave, conversations between the Wildcats and the Big 12 have slowed to a crawl this summer, or outright stopped.

Will the discussions pick up again? A source at the school believes the program will wait until a Pac-12 TV deal is presented before it makes a decision.

That said, most thought Colorado would do the same before … well, you know.

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.’ ”

And what of Washington and Oregon, arguably the Pac-12’s most valuable remaining brands? The two schools were somewhat high on an expansion list that former Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and company created last year.

However, there is a sense that the league is not interested in adding more schools, something new commissioner Tony Petitti reiterated during Big Ten media day on Wednesday.

But what if Oregon and Washington, twisting in the Pac-12 winds, are in such an urgent situation that they would accept a partial share of Big Ten distribution to join? Some are asking the question.

If the Big Ten doesn’t crack the expansion door, do the Huskies and Ducks look to the Big 12?

“What if they are just out there for the taking?” asks one Big 12 source. “It would be hard not to take them.”