The Pac-12 is the most successful conference for collegiate athletics. They have won more than 500 NCAA championships and are the leader in national titles 56 years in a row.
But when it comes to the biggest moneymakers, football and men’s basketball, the “Conference of Champions” has come up short for years.
The conference’s failures in football and media rights mistakes have left the Pac-12 in a difficult financial position. This has allowed two marquee schools to leave the Pac-12.
The conference and its remaining member schools now face a more uncertain economic future after the 2024 loss of UCLA and USC.
“You have exploding costs on one end and your revenue sources are being decimated, which is a tremendous pressure,”Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College economics professor, said. “On the other hand, what do you do? Well, something pretty radical I think is going to have to happen.”
For years, the Pac-12’s problem has been growing.
The Pac-12 was once a powerful football conference. However, it has become a minor player in the national championship conversation.
In 2017, the Pac-12 had only one team participate in the College Football Playoff. It was Washington, which lost to Ohio State in 2015. Oregon’s fortunes have tailed off since Chip Kelly left the Pac-12 to join the NFL in 2013. Southern California was once the conference’s most prominent program but has never recovered from the NCAA sanctions that were imposed by Pete Carroll.
The Pac-12 has been just as quiet in men’s basketball, getting two teams — Oregon in 2017 and UCLA in 2021 — through to the Final Four.
The lack of success made the Pac-12’s football games maybe-watch TV, which in turn has made it more difficult to lure top coaches and recruits away from rival conferences — particularly the football juggernaut SEC.
“In the old days, USC and UCLA would be right up there at the top of the national football heap every year, and they’ve fallen way down,” Zimbalist said. “And so you need some fill up, some boost to get them to a point where they can really be a strong, strong franchise again — and I just don’t see that.”
Media rights agreements were a key factor in the Pac-12’s drop-off.
Larry Scott, the former Pac-12 Commissioner, pushed for the conference’s own network, rather than partnering with Fox, ESPN, or any other network. A network that is self-sustaining would allow the Pac-12 control over programming, to showcase the Olympic success stories and to reap all the financial rewards.
Scott was wrong to predict that the Pac-12 Networks would not rise like he envisioned. The Pac-12 Networks were hampered by inability with DirecTV to reach an agreement, which kept the conference’s sports from reaching millions.
Although the Pac-12 was able to negotiate a lucrative deal with Fox and ESPN to show some of their games, the networks wanted to air them on late-night slots on the East Coast.
The conference was awash with deals “Pac-12 After Dark” hole. The Pac-12 was the Power Five school with the lowest distribution. It paid $19.8 million to its member institutions in 2021.
In contrast, the SEC gave $54.6 million to each member school in 2021, and $46.1 million to the Big Ten.
Financial stability is a key factor in college sports. UCLA and USC left because they wanted more money. They also warned that they would have to cut sports if they didn’t go for the Big Ten.
These moves will have a negative impact on the Pac-12’s bottom line. The conference lost two major programs and its position in the country’s second largest media market is also being lost.
“When you see the rich get richer, people are going to grab for their share,” said Tom McMillen, president and CEO of Lead1, which represents Football Bowl Subdivision athletic directors and programs.
The Pac-12 is at crossroads after the loss of USC, UCLA, and USC.
Last week, the conference declared that it is expanding its reach and is in negotiations for its next media rights agreement. The current one expires in 2024.
The Pac-12 could partner with an other conference that needs a lift like the ACC. This could cause problems for smaller sports and make travel more difficult. It could also be able to add members from a smaller conference, such as the Mountain West, and convince schools from Big 12 countries to defect, just like Utah and Colorado did last year.
If several schools leave for another conference that offers stability, the conference could be forced to close its doors. Perhaps the Big 12 will form another superconference with SEC and Big Ten.
“I think you’ll see more consolidation,” McMillen said. “This is not new. This is economics 101. There’s a lot of efficiencies. Think about all this: we have 32 conferences. There’s probably $1 billion of overhead and when you merge conferences, you’re obviously streamlining some of that.”
There will be more conference realignment. The fate of Pac-12 remains to be decided.