The tone is changing in Big Ten Country, with the repercussions felt from Tucson to Seattle and Boulder to the Bay Area.
Commissioner Kevin Warren conducted a series of interviews this week at his league’s preseason basketball media event in Minneapolis. Naturally, the most closely watched utterances had nothing to do with basketball.
As has been the case repeatedly since the Big Ten added USC and UCLA on June 30, Warren was asked about the possibility of more expansion.
“Because of the landscape we live in, college athletics right now … you have to be mindful of potential conference realignment or expansion,” he told The Sporting News. “But this is not something we’re aggressively doing right now.
“When people ask me right now: Do I think certain conferences may grow through a natural evolution to 18 or 20 schools? I do believe that. Now, over what time period is the critical question. I don’t know if that’s within a year, or five years, or seven years.”
The Big Ten’s next move, or non-move, carries deep implications for the Pac-12.
If the conference were to offer membership to Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Cal to create a western branch, the Pac-12 would immediately implode with the Four Corners schools (Arizona, ASU, Utah and Colorado) seeking a home in the Big 12.
But if the Big Ten doesn’t gobble up more West Coast campuses, the odds of the 10 remaining Pac-12 schools sticking together — and signing a new media contract this fall or winter — would increase significantly.
Warren’s comments this week were vastly more measured than his public pronouncements over the summer, following the additions of USC and UCLA and the signing of a media contract reportedly worth more than $1 billion annually.
Back then, Warren spoke aggressively about expansion — “I could see perpetual and future growth” — and looked like a man reveling in his own success.
And why not? Warren had taken a beating in the first year of his tenure during the bungled handling of the COVID season. With the L.A. schools secure and a mega-media deal in hand, he had the chance to take a victory lap and did so with chest puffed and legacy burnished.
But Warren’s comments in July and August about future growth were grossly misleading, because his schools and media partners were never as far down the road to a 20-team conference as the commissioner’s pronouncements suggested.
The majority of Big Ten athletic directors and presidents aren’t ready for expansion, largely because it’s not a value play and partly because they’re wary of a move that would kill off the Pac-12.
Meanwhile, the Big Ten’s media partners don’t have the cash or the interest in adding schools, with one exception: Notre Dame.
It’s simple math, folks.
Now, we don’t know exactly how much the Big Ten’s new media rights contract is worth annually to the 16 schools, and we believe reports after the Aug. 18 announcement inflated the true value. But let’s use $70 million per school per year as the baseline, because it’s within a reasonable range.
(We also believe the initial valuations Warren received from the Big Ten’s media partners were considerably less than he had promised the schools, forcing him to add USC and UCLA in order to reach the $1 billion mark. But that’s a topic for another day.)
Using that baseline figure, any additions also would need to carry a media valuation of $70 million just to be revenue-neutral for the 16 members.
In other words, four more West Coast schools would require $280 million per year in additional payments to the Big Ten from its media partners.
Over the seven years of the contract, that’s $2 billion.
Are Washington, Oregon, Stanford and Cal worth $2 billion over seven years to Fox, NBC and CBS?
Why? Because the networks already have what they want: They already have Ohio State, Michigan and USC.
— Fox, which is based in Los Angeles, took exactly what it wanted from the West Coast: the Los Angeles market.
— NBC has zero need to pay another dime for college football. In addition to the Buckeyes, Wolverines and Trojans, it has Notre Dame.
— And CBS doesn’t need the additional inventory that would come with a western division because it only has one time slot to fill (3:30 p.m. Eastern).
In theory, the Big Ten could add four West Coast schools and sell the games to ESPN or Amazon.
But why would Fox, the prime driver behind the Big Ten’s media strategy, want to help its competitors?
The entire point of taking USC and UCLA was to box ESPN out of the L.A. market. Why grant ESPN access to the Trojans and all the teams on their schedule in a given year?
So if additional West Coast expansion isn’t worthwhile to Fox, NBC and CBS, they certainly aren’t going to fork over $280 million per year over seven years.
Which means the new members would be dilutive, not accretive, and the Big Ten schools would have to accept less money in a 20-team league than they would in a 16-team league. And there’s no chance Ohio State and Michigan would agree to that. None.
For those reasons, further Big Ten expansion this year looks increasingly remote.
We believe Warren would grow the conference to 20 tomorrow if he could. But he doesn’t have the votes or dollars to make it happen.
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Never say never when it comes to realignment, but 20 doesn’t appear imminent. Which means the Pac-12 is more likely to sign a medium-length media contract and move forward with the 10 remaining schools.
But that’s not the end of the story. Because by the turn of the decade, the market forces will have shifted and the Big Ten will be strutting to the negotiating table for another media contract.
As we outlined recently in a deep dive into the future of the sport, the next wave of realignment could very well strike in the late 2020s with the Big Ten and SEC expanding again and a third super-conference emerging.
The third league would feature many of the schools currently in the Big 12, plus those from the Pac-12 and ACC that don’t make the jump into the massive SEC or equally massive Big Ten.
Consolidation around the Big Two is inevitable.
A western arm of the Big Ten is inevitable.
An exodus of Pac-12 schools into a reconfigured Big 12 is inevitable.
But increasingly, it appears that point is years, not weeks or months, away.
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