The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

The Downfall of Pac-12 and Football’s Uncertain Future

football helment made on grass field

The self-proclaimed “Conference of Champions” is currently on the ropes with eight of the twelve members departing the Pac-12, joining up with conference rivals in the BIG 10 and BIG 12. With such a rich history spanning over a century, filled with fierce rivalries, spirited competition, and unparalleled success, witnessing the fall of this historic empire is genuinely disheartening. 

The Pac-12’s decline began last summer when it was announced USC and UCLA would be leaving the conference and were set to join the likes of Ohio State and Michigan in the BIG 10 Conference. This move would send shockwaves all over the college sports landscape and would forever change the way NCAA athletics would operate. Flash forward a year,  there has been a growing sense of unease among the remaining Pac-12 teams. In July, Colorado declared its move for the BIG 12, and this kickstarted the wave of departures. Weeks later, Washington and Oregon were welcomed into the BIG 10, and slightly after, in a bit of a panic move, Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State jumped ship to the BIG 12. This left Washington State, Oregon State, Stanford, and California as the lone remaining members of the Pac-12 Conference. The looming question that remains is, will the Pac-12 look to absorb some smaller universities or will the Pac-12 simply dissolve and never return? The future remains uncertain, but the Pac-12’s days seem numbered.

In July of 2022, it was announced that The University of Southern California (USC) and The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) would be leaving the Pac-12 for the BIG 10 which came as a shock to the Pac-12 and to fans across the country. Why in the world would a conference comprised of predominantly Midwestern and Eastern schools agree to add two West Coast California institutions? Both schools align with the BIG 10’s academic criteria, given their prestigious reputation, and have successful athletic programs. But, more so, they introduce an entirely new media market to the BIG 10. It was later reported that USC and UCLA initiated conversations with the BIG 10 about membership, not the other way around. “We wanted to operate in a position of strength, and that was the Big Ten, said UCLA Athletic Director Martin Jarmond. This strategic move stands to be financially beneficial; by joining the BIG 10, USC and UCLA anticipate an annual revenue of roughly $80 million, a significant increase from their earnings in the Pac-12 by approximately $60 million.

The University of Colorado was the next domino to fall as they announced they were returning to the BIG 12 Conference, just twelve years after they departed for the Pac-12. This shift seemed inevitable; many believed Colorado should never have left the BIG 12, given the financial and competitive stability they once enjoyed there. On August 1, 2023, the Pac-12 held a conference and proposed a TV deal and grant of rights offer to the remaining nine schools (Arizona, Arizona State, Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, California, Stanford, and Utah). Many of these schools were not pleased with this proposal ($23 million annually for five years with subscription upside through Apple TV). Just three days later on August 4, the Pac-12 held another meeting, attempting to rally support for the offer; Robert Robbins, the University of Arizona President, commented “Parts of [the proposal] were very compelling and exciting, and it was Apple, in our backyard. But the base price — the guaranteed price [per year for schools] — the fact that there was no linear [television component] and that it was subscription-based, we were trying to think ‘Well, it’s going to be like selling candy bars for Little League or Girl Scout Cookies,’”. This sentiment was captured in a headline from CBSSports.com: “Arizona president Robert Robbins compares Pac-12’s media rights proposal to ‘selling candy bars”.

For a major university president to offer such a response is both hilarious and deeply embarrassing for the Pac-12. What a horrible miscue from the Pac-12 to even wait this long to propose a media deal with its members which in turn made the members impatient and begin looking for a new conference. 

Once that meeting on August 4, 2023, between the Pac-12 and its members adjourned, Washington and Oregon promptly withdrew from the conference. This was the tipping point that essentially buried the Pac-12. The University of Oregon and Washington departing was the nail in the coffin simply because college football reigns supreme in NCAA athletics, losing these football powerhouses, with their storied histories and recent National Championship appearances, greatly dimmed the Pac-12’s allure. People now have no reason to watch or pay for Pac-12 coverage when there is no excitement or even relevant teams left in the conference as sad as that may sound.  The reality is harsh: when a conference lacks marquee matchups and fewer eyeballs are on certain teams, viewership declines, and TV networks become reluctant to broker significant media rights deals.

After Oregon and Washington pulled out of the Pac-12 it only took a few hours for Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah to realize the Pac-12 was a sinking ship and departed the conference. The BIG 12, seizing an opportunity, quickly announced that these three, along with Colorado, BYU, Houston, UCF, and Cincinnati, would be joining their ranks in 2024.

With conference realignment becoming a daily occurrence in college athletics, the landscape feels reminiscent of the wild, unpredictable West. As change abounds, questions arise about the fate of smaller programs. Will they be pushed out of their existing conferences? Might the majority of conferences fade away, leaving only two or three standing? Are we heading towards an era of super conferences?

Nick Saban, the esteemed head coach at the University of Alabama, voiced concerns about maintaining competitive balance. Drawing from his eight-year experience with the NFL, he said, “The NFL prioritizes competitive balance in its rules. If they could ensure every team ends the season at 8-8, with each one playing their last game to clinch a playoff spot, they’d be overjoyed. Think of the fan engagement, the TV ratings, and the overall excitement that scenario would generate.” This statement was echoed by a headline that read, “Nick Saban on super-conferences: ‘Biggest concern is competitive balance’ 

Saban’s remarks highlight a daunting prospect: if the best teams are funneled into a few super-conferences, how will they be assessed when every game becomes a high-stakes battle? The world of college athletics is on the precipice of significant changes, marked by both exhilaration and uncertainty, with no clear roadmap ahead.

Griffin Dreifaldt is a student at the University of Colorado Boulder studying journalism and sports media. You can read more of his work at the CU Independent.

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