As if the realignment wasn’t nuanced enough, the current wave features a Shakespearean element.
It took center stage the moment the drama began on June 30, when the Pac-12’s former “alliance” partner voted to accept USC and UCLA’s membership applications and steal the heart of a 107-year-old conference.
A month later, we arrive at the ‘Et tu, Kevin?’ stage of production.
On Tuesday at the Big Ten’s preseason media presentation, commissioner Kevin Warren announced, boldly and publicly, that the conference would continue to explore expansion options.
“We’re not going to expand just to expand,” he said. “It will be strategic, it will add additional value to our conference…”
Not long after Warren’s statement, CBS Sports and Action Network reported (via unnamed sources) that Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal were on the short list of candidates under consideration.
The double whammy piled another layer of uncertainty on the future of the Pac-12, making commissioner George Kliavkoff’s meatball surgery efforts that much more complicated.
He also made a point that many fans have overlooked:
The biggest threat to the Pac-12’s survival is the Big Ten, not the Big 12. The former is a dream destination; the latter is an alternative option.
But for all the smoke coming out of Indianapolis, the hotline doesn’t think the situation has materially changed.
Despite Warren’s statement and subsequent media reports naming names, the Big Ten is no closer to poaching additional Pac-12 schools than it was a week ago.
Instead, the next step in this drama is up to Notre Dame. And NBC.
For the sake of transparency, and because realignment is as fluid as it is complex, the following should be considered informed speculation on our part.
There we go…
The most significant news of the week came not from Warren but from Mark Silverman, the president of Fox Sports.
Fox is the majority player in the Big Ten Network, which in turn controls the league’s broadcast rights. (As one Big Ten source recently noted, “You might as well call it Fox Inc.”)
On Wednesday, Silverman he told Athletic that Big Ten media rights negotiations would be completed “in the next few weeks” and likely by Labor Day.
There are no signs of additional schools being invited at this late stage, leaving Oregon, Washington and Stanford with limited near-term options and giving the Pac-12 a chance at survival.
(A point we made earlier that’s worth repeating: USC doesn’t want Oregon—or Washington, for that matter—) in the Big Ten. The Trojans deftly undermined Oregon’s recruiting efforts and competitive prospects by trailing the Ducks in a depleted conference. throw them a lifeline on the golden stage?)
Additionally, fans should pay close attention to which media companies are partnering with the Big Ten for the contract currently being negotiated.
The Pac-12 is looking to have ESPN take a small stake in the Big Ten’s inventory, or even better: no stake at all, because the network would have more money and broadcast windows available for West Coast content.
(If ESPN takes a significant stake, that’s bad news for the Pac-12. Very bad news.)
NBC also has an important role to play. His contract with Notre Dame expires at the conclusion of the 2025 season, and all signs indicate that the network plans to keep the rights to Irish home games.
The smaller share NBC takes out of Big Ten inventory, the more cash it will have available to Notre Dame.
And if Notre Dame gets paid, the chance of another disruption in the Power Five landscape diminishes.
Why? We believe the Irish would prefer to remain independent in their next contract cycle, as long as revenue figures and access to the College Football Playoffs meet the desired threshold.
That would also benefit the Pac-12.
Without Notre Dame as the No. 17 team, the Big Ten’s strategic calculus changes, and a second wave of realignment becomes less likely (though certainly not implausible).
A single Pac-12 school, or a combination of Pac-12 schools, seems to have the most value to the Big Ten when combined with the mighty Irish to form a super-duper 18 or 20-team conference.
Without the Irish, no combination of Pac-12 schools creates an equivalent financial gain for existing Big Ten members, who will likely collect more than $75 million annually in total media rights distributions.
As we see it, if NBC and Notre Dame marry for another contract cycle…
The Big Ten is at 16, prompting the SEC to do the same…
The sport enters the era of an expanded playoff with two 16-team behemoths at the helm, just as its media partners Fox and ESPN prefer…
The ACC remains locked into its rights deal for the next decade…
And the Pac-12 and the Big 12 move forward, perhaps independently, perhaps in an alliance with each other or with the ACC…
Kliavkoff’s trick is to get a contract commitment from Oregon, Washington and Stanford that provides enough security to reassure the Four Corner schools while attracting the best possible offers from potential media partners.
The Pac-12’s exclusive 30-day trading window with ESPN and Fox ends on (or around) Aug. 4, and there’s little reason to believe either network will make an offer the conference can’t refuse.
Barring a twist in tactics, a possibility that cannot be discounted, the Pac-12 will head to the open market with the full complement of its available media rights, including the 36 football games that have been sequestered on the Pac-12 Networks for the past decade .
Yes, the loss of the Los Angeles market is a big blow to the conference’s valuation.
That said, the league’s rights are likely undervalued because the current deal was signed in 2011 and the price of live sports content has skyrocketed in the decade since.
How this all plays out is anyone’s guess. Be discerning about what you read and be careful what you believe.
We should get the first major clue soon from the Big Ten office, currently located inside the Globe Theater.
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