It is a day that will help change the landscape of college athletics forever, as USC and UCLA are moving to the Big Ten in a move that Pete Thamel called a “formality” to be completed in the next few days. This has sent reverberations around the sports world, and its impacts are going to be far and wide across the college sports landscape.
First off, we have to acknowledge just how strong the athletic programs the two schools are. Yes, it’s driven by football. USC is obviously a blue blood, one of the few programs in America who can create a true dynasty. UCLA is a better football program than many think, with eight conference titles in the last 50 years. Both haven’t been great lately, but USC is quite clearly headed in the right direction with Lincoln Riley at the helm, and there’s more than enough talent to go around in Southern California for UCLA to be a consistent top 20 team.
As a conference, it adds another blue blood to the big ten. The Big Ten will now have five of the ten winningest FBS schools of all time, with #1 Michigan, T2 Ohio State, #7 Penn State, #8 Nebraska and #10 USC. It adds another team who can realistically compete for the playoffs year-in and year-out in USC. And while people will decry the loss of local rivalries, USC and UCLA are obviously going to play every year, and while it’s not local, USC has played Penn State, Ohio State, and Michigan a combined 44 times, nearly all of them big games. There’s definitely history there. It puts the league that much closer to the SEC when talking about football prestige.
In basketball, it’s similar to the situation in football, except UCLA is the blue blood, and USC is the program with all kinds of potential. This will expand what is already the deepest hoops conference in America and will make teams that don’t finish .500 in conference play still able to make the NCAA tournament on a regular basis.
The biggest impacts in terms of championships will come in the Olympic sports. The Big Ten already had Olympic sports power Penn State, who has the 5th most NCAA championships in America. They’ll add the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams in UCLA and USC to become the premier Olympic sports conference, dominating in sports like volleyball, soccer, swimming, wrestling, and improving the big ten considerably in sports like baseball, softball, and track and field.
Academically, the move makes a ton of sense. The Big Ten prides itself as the premier academic conference in major college sports, and this only adds to it. UCLA is arguably America’s premier public university and USC is one of the top private schools in America, and the 2nd best West of the Mississippi. They fit the profile of what the Big Ten wants in their academics, and the Big Ten was a much deeper academic conference than the Pac 12, even considering Cal and Stanford.
Let’s not get it twisted, though, this was about money. The Big Ten media deal is about to be the largest media deal in the history of college athletics, and that’s before the conference added two schools from the nation’s second largest media market. TV payouts per school per year could approach $125 million at the end of the next deal. Big ten teams currently get around $35-40 million a year, and that number was already set to more than double before today’s announcement. If and when it pushes into the nine-figure per year range, it will make the Big Ten almost like a fifth major sport financially, one in which the school doesn’t even have to directly pay the players (yet). It was a no-doubter from the standpoint of the Big Ten members to invite UCLA and USC to sweeten that pot even more, and the Big Ten will now control five of the seven largest media markets in America, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C.
For as much sense as it made for the Big Ten schools, it makes considerably more for the two schools that are joining. Revenue projections by consulting firm Navigate had each Big Ten team getting $54 Million in 2022, and Pac 12 teams getting around $30 million. By 2029, these numbers, which were calculated before this move, had each Big Ten school getting $95 million a year and the Pac 12 distributing $56 million per team. That’s $400 million more over ten years, and that gap is only going to grow now.
For UCLA, it’s literally an athletic department savior. The Bruins ran a $62 million dollar deficit in 2021, and have nine-figure athletic department debt. A school that struggles mightily to sell football tickets will now get more marquee matchups to draw in more Bruin fans, as well as the throngs of big ten fans who love to make pilgrimages to Los Angeles. It seems likely that there will be regular season Rose Bowl crowds that are majority Wisconsin, Ohio State, Penn State etc. in the future, but that’s still money in the pocket of UCLA, money they were not making before. Not only will it upgrade their football program financially, but it will also help them to continue to make investments in their Olympic sports, an area where they have cheaped out on hires recently due to the dire financial straits of the athletic department. Just getting into the Big Ten, when the real prize was USC, is a stroke of luck for the Bruins, who now will not be left out in what appears to be the start of the final song of college athletics musical chairs.
USC was in a much better financial position, though details remain sketchy due to their status as a private institution. But, it helps them in many of the same ways as UCLA, and now expands their recruiting territory into talent-rich places like the DMV, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. It helps them keep their brand as one of the best places to play college sports, and will get them and UCLA on TV in more lucrative time slots on a regular basis.
As for college football as a whole, this is going to be the true end of the college football we all grew up with. Some may say that it started a while ago, and it did, as a slow drip. To me, the dam suffered a lot of damage last year when Texas and Oklahoma made their move, and USC and UCLA just broke it completely. We are headed towards two superconferences in the Big Ten and the SEC, each one ending up with 20+ members, and everyone else relegated to 2nd tier status.
I’m sure as you’re reading this, universities are scrambling. It’s more or less life and death for a lot of power five athletic departments right now. If you’re UNC, UVA, Clemson, Florida State, Oregon, Louisville and Washington, among very few others, you probably feel pretty good. If you’re, say, Pitt or Syracuse or Washington State, there’s a real chance you’re not playing big boy football anymore in about five years. The stakes are that high and it could happen very fast. This is not the last we will hear about expansion this Summer, and the future of college football could be much more clear soon.
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