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As Conference Realignment Becomes Official, the Power 5 Era Is Over

  • The wave of realignment in the works since the summer of 2021 will commence Monday.
  • The changes are yet another indicator that college sports have become even more commercialized.
Joshua L. Jones / USA TODAY NETWORK
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The most drastic conference realignment in more than a decade begins Monday.

Over the summer, the upper echelon of college sports will consolidate from five power conferences to four. The SEC and Big Ten, armed with the two biggest conference media deals and several incoming members, have begun to pull away as the NCAA’s two super leagues. To remain competitive, the Big 12 will add four new members, and the ACC will add three. The Pac-12 will continue with just two schools—and without “power” status or a clear future.

This wave of conference realignment is yet another indicator that college sports have become more commercialized than ever. Football media dollars bankrolled these agreements, and the broadcast contracts themselves dictated their timing. Meanwhile, regionality has waned in importance, as two conferences will have schools in the Pacific and Eastern time zones for the first time. 

The factors driving this new era are more similar to those shaping the pro leagues than they are to amateur sports. 

The path to the changes

This year’s new Power 4 makeup, led by the super leagues of the Big Ten and SEC, took about three summers to form. 

The first dominoes fell in the summer of 2021, when Oklahoma and Texas announced they planned to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. The allure was clear: The schools agreed to join a conference that had just inked a $3 billion media deal with ABC and ESPN, which promised to be the most powerful in the country. After negotiating an early exit from the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma will join the SEC officially Monday, marking the beginning of the realignment wave.

After the Big 12 found replacement schools, it seemed things were settling down. But the Big Ten was eyeing the opportunity to rival the SEC. The following summer, the conference, led by then commissioner Kevin Warren, made its move: USC and UCLA agreed to leave the Pac-12. Once again, two of the most valuable football brands were departing for a potential super conference. The promise that they would join the Big Ten helped usher in the biggest conference media deal in NCAA history: a mid–$7 billion deal with Fox, CBS, and NBC.

Throughout the fall and winter, power conferences explored whether they should expand further. But more moves didn’t come until summer 2023, when the Pac-12 failed to provide a lucrative media deal offer for ’24 and beyond—and collapsed.

  • Oregon and Washington agreed to join the Big Ten, a deal financed by Fox that promised at least $30 million to $40 million per year in media rights for each of the two schools, Front Office Sports reported at the time. 
  • Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and Arizona State left for the Big 12.
  • Stanford and Cal departed for the ACC. They were joined by SMU.

The Pac-12 schools technically join their new leagues Aug. 2, but they’re already as good as gone. They’ll participate in football media days for their new conferences in the coming weeks.

The Pac-12 will be left with Oregon State and Washington State, operating with a scaled-down conference office, a revamped production arm called Pac-12 Enterprises. Equipped with a new commissioner, a modest media deal for football with The CW and Fox Sports, a scheduling partnership with the Mountain West for football, and an affiliate membership for other sports with the West Coast Conference, the Pac-12 will try to survive in the new era.

A new media landscape

All the Power 4 leagues now have media deals locked in until at least 2030.

While the main on-field rivalry is between the Big Ten and SEC, the off-field battle will be between their new main broadcasters. Starting last season, Fox took control of the Big Ten. And this year, the SEC will begin its exclusive partnership with ESPN. Gone are the days of the iconic SEC on CBS afternoon football game, as well as the 40-year relationship between the Big Ten and ESPN. (The rights to the College Football Playoff, which will expand to 12 teams this year, will continue to be owned exclusively by ESPN. However, the network has sublicensed a small number of first-round games to TNT.)

The Pac-12 Network, in business for 12 years, will not survive in this new era. Some of the network’s employees, as well as its new state-of-the-art production facility in San Ramon, Calif., will continue as part of Pac-12 Enterprises, however. The new entity will produce games for OSU and WSU, and it will be available for other college and pro leagues to purchase production capabilities. Some former employees have reportedly been hired elsewhere in college sports, like at Big Ten Network, where they’ll bring their expertise covering former Pac-12 programs in their new conferences.

The Big 12 signed an extension to its current deal with Fox and ESPN. The ACC’s package with ESPN goes the longest: until 2036.

More changes looming

For a time, the length of the ACC’s media deal appeared to be a good thing. When it was originally signed in 2016, schools were relieved to secure a place on the network and a stable, multimillion-dollar income for two full decades. The deal provided the conference extra stability last year as the Pac-12 fell apart, and it helped entice three new members.

But for some ACC schools that believe they could earn more money elsewhere, the deal has lost its luster. FSU and Clemson are now both suing the conference to determine whether their media-rights contracts actually bind the schools to the ACC until 2036—and whether early exit fees exceeding $100 million are enforceable. FSU has said it fully intends to leave the conference, while Clemson is hoping to just explore the opportunity. The ACC is countersuing both schools to keep itself together. 

The lawsuits likely won’t yield a definitive result this year—unless the conference and schools decide to settle. But their outcome could lead to the breakup of the ACC, if the court rules that the contracts are either unenforceable, or not as strict as the ACC claims. 
Ultimately, is this a good thing? Schools that landed new homes can expect a major payday to help with recruiting, coaching salaries, athlete benefits, and university marketing. But players at multiple schools will have to travel farther than ever. And then, of course, there are the schools that got left out in the cold without a place to go—as well as the fans and employees of conferences, like the Pac-12, that didn’t survive this latest wave.

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