UCLA and USC should leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten

UCLA and Southern California looked set Thursday to move from the Pac-12 conference to the Big Ten in the coming years, a move that would spark another seismic overhaul of the competitive and economic landscapes of college sports.

The move came as the Big Ten, whose membership currently includes 14 universities in a mostly Midwestern footprint stretching from Nebraska to New Jersey, struck a new television deal that was expected to be among the richest in sports history. university. The Big Ten expected to receive formal nominations from California universities as early as Thursday, with a vote by university presidents and chancellors likely to follow soon after.

A Big Ten run on the Southern California media market would unquestionably establish it as the strongest counterweight to the Southeastern Conference and further focus its influence in an industry bombarded by political and legal rights pressures. athletes. The exodus from UCLA and USC would also jeopardize the Pac-12 conference, which has had the schools in its ranks since the 1920s but has struggled in recent years to keep up financially and on the field with the Big Ten and the SEC.

Not even a year ago, Oklahoma and Texas decided to leave the Big 12 conference for the SEC, which recently served as the nation’s premier college football league. Their moves sparked a series of realignments across the country.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 roster, however, remained unchanged during the uproar. Leagues, seeking control over SEC bloat, have even joined forces with the Atlantic Coast Conference, another Power 5 league, on some issues.

Then came Thursday’s threat of defections, discussed in secret for months and first reported by The Mercury News.

A person familiar with the deliberations, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private, said UCLA and USC had approached the Big Ten about the possibility of joining the league. Especially in an industry governed by contracts and statutes, with millions of dollars a year at stake for schools in Power 5 conferences, the sequence of events can be crucial for legal reasons.

If the Big Ten and the SEC grow as expected, each will have at least 16 universities within the next few years, including some of the most popular brands in college sports. Big Ten members already include Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.

The additions of USC and UCLA would surely add to the stature of the Big Ten, and likely to its ratings as well. The two Los Angeles universities have been anchors of the Pac-12 in its various guises over the decades, with a long history of bringing attention to athletic excellence.

USC has long been the marquee college football franchise on the West Coast with its long list of national championship teams, Heisman Trophy winners and its distinctive white horse, Traveler, wearing a Trojan mascot from top to bottom. at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Across town from Westwood, UCLA projects a similar stance in men’s basketball, with the Bruins playing under 11 national championship banners at Pauley Pavilion and boasting a rich catalog of alumni who played in the NBA. .

USC, which is planning the debut of former Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley, is a diminished football powerhouse from the early 2000s, when it won a share of two national titles and still competed for d others under the direction of trainer Pete Carroll. The UCLA football team has struggled for local relevance in recent years. But the schools have many advantages for the Big Ten, including a strong presence in the nation’s second-largest television market and even smoother access to one of its richest recruiting bases.

In recent years, as the Pac-12’s fortunes in football have waned – and the league has been crippled by a TV deal that pays its schools tens of millions of dollars less a year than the Big Ten contract – schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson have routinely mined Southern California for elite talent.

Beyond football and men’s basketball, UCLA and USC are strengths in so-called Olympic sports. USC, for example, has won national championships in beach volleyball, women’s outdoor track and field, and men’s tennis over the past decade. For its part, UCLA has recently won titles in baseball, beach volleyball, women’s gymnastics, women’s soccer, softball and women’s tennis. Both schools have also won titles in water polo, which is not a Pac-12 sponsored sport for men or women.

Overshadowed by the potential financial windfall is the increased burden placed on athletes, whether football players or distance runners, who will regularly travel back and forth from Los Angeles to distant campuses at State College, Pennsylvania; New Brunswick, NJ; and College Park, Md., for the competition.

Any deal drawing USC and UCLA would most likely lift the shadow of Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who drew criticism in 2020 when his league initially decided not to play the fall football season. due to the pandemic. Although the conference ultimately reversed its decision and held a fraction of the games it had planned, the episode clouded Warren’s tenure. (The Pac-12, under Larry Scott, also canceled and restarted its 2020 football season.)

Meanwhile, potential departures from USC and UCLA pose a severe test for George Kliavkoff, who became Pac-12 commissioner a year ago. Last August, following decisions by Oklahoma and Texas, the league said it had no plans to expand “at this time”, in part due to “the current competitive strength and cohesiveness of our 12 universities”.

Kevin Draper contributed report.