THE CALIFORNICATION OF THE BIG TEN: NOW BIGGER THAN THE SEC?
An inevitable second superconference is here — fueled by Fox’s TV billions, in big markets amid the NIL boom — as college football subdivides into a select number of programs playing for championships
Sometime soon, such as today, a Big Ten Conference that now extends from the Beltway to the Sunset Strip will need a new name and logo. This, after all, is more than the dawn of a second superconference that pushes the collegiate sports model perilously close to that of a mini-NFL/NBA.
The defections of USC and UCLA from the dead-to-me Pac-12 bring sunshine and Californication, the Memorial Coliseum and Pauley Pavilion, to Midwestern and Eastern sectors that rely heavily on sports for identity, sustenance and life purpose. It’s nothing short of a cultural revolution, this abrupt shift in geography, and just in time for the NIL era. The equation is rather obvious: The bigger and more plentiful the media markets, the larger the number of wealthy boosters willing to pay massive sums for athletes under the parameters of “names, images and likenesses.”
Is it possible, in a seismic arms race that leaves college football with even more distinctive haves and have-nots, that the Big (16) just became bigger than the almighty Southeastern Conference? Unlike the SEC, which is squashed amid a glob of Waffle Houses stretching from Florida to Texas, the rival league can draw a line of media markets starting in New York and Washington, through Chicago and a variety of nearby major-league towns, all the way to Hollywood. With the number of schools likely to swell into the 20-to-24 range — Phil Knight will push for Oregon; prestige could bring Stanford and Washington; Colorado, Arizona State and Utah offer market size; intrigue may lure Notre Dame out of its outdated independence; Duke and North Carolina might want in for basketball reasons; and who knows what else awaits? — maybe this league should just call itself The Biggest?
Or, with an adjustment to that weird logo, how about BIG? Which would prompt the suddenly challenged SEC to ditch its stale, grits-and-drawls name and rebrand itself as the It Just Means More League. Or, the We Have Nick Saban and You Don’t League.
Either way, the latest disruption in a world of confusion is the work of — what else? — a TV network. The same Fox Sports executives who sit in a conference room on Avenue of the Stars in West Los Angeles and devise a preposterous way to replace Troy Aikman and Joe Buck on NFL broadcasts — throw $375 million at Tom Brady, a man of no opinions — is purchasing most of the Big Ten media package in the vicinity of $1 billion a year. But that’s not the only money pouring into BIG, which has limited broadcast packages to pitch at CBS, ESPN, NBC and Amazon. Apple also entered the scrum quickly after the USC/UCLA moves were announced. With two L.A. powerhouses in the mix, total media revenues should grow to $1.5 billion annually. At present, that means every conference school — from Rutgers somewhere in New Jersey, to Illinois and Nebraska in the pastures, to Ohio State and Michigan in the elite, to the beaches by the Pacific — each will land around $100 million a year courtesy of Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, the Fox Corp. boss.
This was a direct megalomaniacal response to ESPN’s recent $3 billion deal with the SEC, whose 14 programs collectively receive $300 million annually starting in 2024. Do the math. The Big Ten schools will get more, for now. It remains to be seen if the spike impacts the ultimate measuring stick: national championships, with the SEC winning 12 since 2006 to the Big Ten’s one in that span. But NIL wealth certainly will alter the landscape for the College Football Playoff, and the possibilities in L.A. — studios, agencies, rich sports donors everywhere — give the newfangled Big Ten a financial swath not as available in Tuscaloosa or Athens or Baton Rouge, even if Saban and Kirby Smart and Brian Kelly are on the sidelines. In announcing the moves, the two defectors were transparent about the dramatically improved finances and brand enhancement that come with divorcing the struggling Pac-12.
“This is the most volatile and uncertain era in the history of American collegiate athletics,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in a statement. “USC must ensure it is best positioned and prepared for whatever happens next, and it is our responsibility to always evaluate potential opportunities and be willing to make changes when needed. Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports.”
Said UCLA, in a letter signed by chancellor Gene D. Block and athletic director Martin Jarmond: “For the past century, decisions about UCLA Athletics have always been guided by what is best for our student-athletes, first and foremost, and our fans. Our storied athletics program, based in one of the biggest media markets in the nation, has always had unique opportunities and faced unique challenges. In recent years, however, seismic changes in collegiate athletics have made us evaluate how best to support our student-athletes as we move forward. … Big Ten membership offers Bruins exciting new competitive opportunities and a broader national media platform for our student-athletes to compete and showcase their talents. Specifically, this move will enhance Name, Image and Likeness opportunities through greater exposure for our student-athletes and offer new partnerships with entities across the country.”
Not that this upheaval should be portrayed as anything but another 21st-century sports mugging. Didn’t the Big Ten have a handshake agreement, part of a so-called Alliance, with the Pac-12 and ACC? Didn’t the league commissioners promise not to raid each other? Yes, they did, less than a year ago. “It’s about trust,” the ACC’s Jim Phillips said then. “It’s about, we’ve looked each other in the eye.”
“There’s no signed contract,” said the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff, who, in retrospect, should have had a pen. “There is an agreement among three gentlemen, there’s a commitment from 41 presidents and 41 chancellors and athletic directors to do what we say we’re going to do.”
Both men should have kept a stinkeye or two or the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren, who referenced his college law professor in saying a contract wasn’t necessary. “If you have to go back and look at a contract that you signed,” he said, “you’re probably dealing with the wrong party.”
He lied. Who doesn’t lie in a sports world bloated by billions?
It would be foolish not to point out that more uprisings aren’t ahead. If anything is surprising about the exodus, it’s that the USC/ UCLA moves — a year after Oklahoma and Texas bolted the Big 12 for the SEC — could have waited a few more years before the inevitable formation of 25-30 elite programs from the two superconferences. Do we really think South Carolina and Vanderbilt won’t be separated in the end? Maryland and Northwestern, too? At some point, as Saban and Dabo Swinney have advocated, one gargantuan group of powerhouses will joust among each other for titles. Clemson won’t be a sitting duck in the ACC forever, nor will NIL-delirious Miami, where brazen booster John Ruiz reportedly outbid Florida for five-star quarterback Jaden Rashada.
The price: $9.5 million.
Miami, USC, Ohio State … follow the money. Why do you think Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma? No longer can we cite an easier path to the College Football Playoff than what awaited him in the SEC. That said, he has built-in advantages at USC like no other elite coach. As Riley has seen already, there’s nothing like a stable of NIL donors in Beverly Hills or Bel Air to convince 15 transfers — including star quarterback Caleb Williams and top receiver Jordan Addison — to use the portal?
You can’t blame the L.A. schools, from the presidents on down to the boosters, for preferring a new toe-dip. As one who grew up in football-mad western Pennsylvania, and later wrote in sports-centric Chicago and Detroit and Cincinnati, I recognize the magnitude of UCLA playing Ohio State in the Horseshoe or USC hosting Michigan. It sure beats another late Saturday night kickoff, for games ignored by most of the country, in remote datelines such as Pullman and Corvallis.
It’s time. The song girls will need sweaters and pants in Madison or East Lansing in November, but if they shiver, they can take solace in knowing the TV audiences are much larger.
Not much unites America anymore, if you haven’t noticed. We no longer are “one nation, under God, indivisible,” in a gulf hopelessly widened by vaccine clashes, George Floyd, Trump and Jan. 6, and the Roe v. Wade reversal. In a quirky way, the new Big (16) brings a common purpose to three time zones, if not an eventual fourth. It wasn’t the intention, but when USC is playing the Buckeyes in the regular season, America will watch as eagerly as when Alabama plays Georgia.
It feels greedy, sure. It feels like a broken promise. It feels like TV turning something already too large into something monstrous. It feels BIG.
But ain’t that America, for you and me, as strummed by a Midwestern boy who made it in L.A. Sometimes, Hollywood and the heartland need each other.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.