The Big Ten is the oldest college athletic conference in the United States, having been founded in 1896. It had existed for more than a century as a competitive structure for athletes in geographically close and shared member schools. ideas. Nine of the 10 institutions that made up its membership until the 1990s were public schools with massive student enrollments. Seven of the 10 were located in states bordering Lake Michigan. Dozens of other conferences sprang up across the country that followed the Big Ten’s master plan: they were regional, like the self-explanatory Southeastern Conference; many featured conceptually similar schools, such as the predominantly Catholic Big East.
Thursday, the news has fallen that the Big Ten is working on a move that completely shatters whatever was left of the old regional conference model. USC and UCLA—it’s the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles— are set to join the conference after spending about 100 years in the league now known as the Pac-12. As with last year’s news that Texas and Oklahoma were headed to the SEC, this bombshell is both totally unexpected and on the verge of completion. Big Ten member presidents have voted unanimously accept their Californian brethren.
Once a Midwestern league, the Big Ten is now poised to expand from coast to coast. It expanded eastward with additions from Penn State in 1990, then Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. By adding two schools in Los Angeles, the conference will cover the entire continental United States. The longest distance between two opponents in the oversized Big Ten will be around 2,800 miles. , from LA to Piscataway. The the closest The Big Ten member institution of both Los Angeles schools is Nebraska, which is 1,500 miles away and two time zones apart. This move is clearly an attempt to keep pace with the Joneses. When the SEC announced in 2021 its intention to add Texas and Oklahoma, it marked the dawn of the superconference era. Leagues had long had cultural identities around which their fans could rally; now the culture of every conference is “let’s add the schools that can make the most money”. If you think of an important cultural connection between Los Angeles and Iowa City, let me know.
The idea is that TV networks will pay gargantuan sums of money to conferences to broadcast football games featuring two marquee schools – the quality of the teams and the Q rating of the schools matters more in this regard than whether the game is a long-standing regional rivalry. . And for UCLA and USC, it should be noted that the Big Ten media rights deals are colossal compared to the Pac-12. In 2021, each Big Ten member school received more than $40 million just for this; each Pac-12 school received less than $20 million. The Big Ten’s numbers are expected to skyrocket after 2023, when its next TV contract is settled. The numbers will especially skyrocket with two new marquee members.
There are some fun, football-specific quirks to this arrangement. The Big Ten championship game, recently held in Indianapolis, could be played in the new Rams arena; the Rose Bowl, long a showcase for the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions, could possibly feature a matchup between USC and Oregon. It’s hysterical to imagine these Los Angeles schools trading their 10 p.m. ET kickoffs and 90-point games in 80-degree weather for middays played in 40-degree downpours in West Lafayette, Indiana, with final scores in adolescents. The Big Ten should now have 16 teams, although he abandoned numerical precision years ago.
But the real absurdity of this news only becomes clear by looking beyond football and considering the dozens of other sports played at the NCAA level. These sports are huge at USC and UCLA, two of three college athletic departments to have amassed more than 100 NCAA championships. (The USC Beach Volleyball National Champion team would be expected to need to find a new conference, since the Big Ten does not yet have a beach volleyball league. I bet all those lakes in Minnesota have beaches somewhere!) While a college football team only plays a handful of games each year, UCLA’s four-time national champion women’s volleyball team , played in 10 conference road games last season. In the Pac-12, that meant trips to the Bay Area and Arizona. In the Big Ten, that will mean trips to Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and the Washington, DC metro area. Athletes in these sports will have to spend months flying for more than five hours. This will force amateur athletes in overlooked sports (many without full scholarships) to adopt travel schedules comparable to those of professional teams. College is hard enough without 10 hours of guaranteed travel per week, on top of all practices and games.
It’s unsustainable, and that’s probably because it’s not meant to be sustained. Things in college sports are changing at an incredibly fast pace. Less than three years ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced that his state would allow college athletes to earn money from their name, image and likeness rights starting January 1, 2023. We didn’t have to wait that long, because dozens of other states (and Congress!) have rules in place that have expedited that time. Last year, the Big Ten formed an alliance (literally called “the Alliance”) with the Pac-12 and the ACC to strengthen its position as the industry progressed; now the Big Ten is stealing two of the most profitable member schools from one of its supposed allies. You shouldn’t assume that anything in the structure of college sports will remain intact by the time today’s freshmen are seniors, or by the time the green bananas on your counter turn yellow.
Some fairly predictable short-term moves could follow. The Pac-12 will likely attempt to annex a few Mountain West schools in an effort to retain relevance. The Big 12, still on the ropes from the Oklahoma and Texas starts, is also on the market to add. But the Big Ten could have the first dibs, as they seem unlikely to stay at 16. Maybe they’ll poach from the ACC to facilitate expansion to another area of the country, or maybe ‘He’ll dig deeper into the Pac-12 to build a legitimate West Coast wing. Maybe he’ll get along with Notre Dame after about 75 years of won’t-they-won’t-they-won’t- tension that you could cut with a butter knife. As Athleticismreported Nicole Auerbach, we could be heading for a world where the Big Ten and the SEC each have 20 teams and nearly blot out the sun. But even that is probably not the end of the game.
The college athletic system was built on a foundation that prioritized different rules and different goals. The conferences were built on culture and geography and benefited from the framework and money provided by the NCAA, which governs all schools from elites to Division III minnows. Now the biggest conferences have enough marquee member schools to thrive without having to split the money with smaller NCAA schools. A breakup with far-reaching implications is coming…and UCLA and USC are poised to secure a spot in one of the burgeoning superconferences that will shape the future of college sports.
There are absurd elements to the LA wing of the Big Sixteen, but try not to laugh too much at the potential for a Stanford-UCLA Rose Bowl, or worry too much about the travel itinerary of LA football teams. ‘USC. The Bigger Ten may seem strange, but it is part of a larger chain of massive upheavals. The dominoes extend further than any of us can see.