July 11, 2022

Conference Realignment - Bad News for Non-Football Sports?

 Warren Grimes

When the decision was made that UCLA and USC would bolt the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten, imagine a candid telephone conversation between the two women’s basketball coaches: Cori Close (UCLA) and Lindsay Gottlieb (USC).  It’s hard to see how either coach was ecstatic about this realignment.

The tradeoffs for the two women’s programs are largely negative.  The LA schools were already part of the top women’s basketball conference in the country.   Although the Pac 12 didn’t do so well in the most recent NCAA tournament (Stanford did make the final four), the case for the conference’s elite status is compelling.  Look at national rankings, look at the previous year’s Final Four (Arizona and Stanford played for the championship) and look at the list of incoming recruits (the Pac-12 was easily the favored conference for players in the McDonald’s High School All America game).

So leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten cannot improve the competition.  And there are other downsides.  Travel time and expenses become bigger factors.  Yes, the Big Ten will place the LA schools in the western division, but travelling from LA to Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin is a major undertaking.  And basketball teams play at least double the number of games that football teams play, so the travel burden is substantial.  If schools are serious about players’ ability to attend classes and study, these are non-trivial matters.

There are lots of stresses on a student athlete’s life.  For the LA schools, the realignment just made all of these worse.  And the impact is not limited to women’s hoops.  Think of all the other non-football sports where hundreds of athletes compete in the Pac-12 because the conference is either the best, or one of the two or three best, in the country.  Among others, these sports include men’s and women’s soccer, men’s and women’s swimming, men’s and women’s track and field, men’s and women’s tennis, and women’s volleyball. 

Coaches and athletes in the non-football sports will have varied reactions to realignment.  Some may welcome the additional television revenues that flow to the athletics programs, but one thing is clear.  They were all secondary actors.  The controlling factor was television revenues – mostly from football.    No matter your sport, you must pay homage to the money flow.

The Pac-12 and its remaining members cannot ignore the revenue issue, but they are still in a position to do something to protect the interests of their non-football programs.   There are options. 

A key feature should be divorcing football league alignments from the rest of the athletic programs.  The conference can keep the integrity of non-football programs while allowing flexibility for football-only scheduling that enhances revenues.  For example, the Pac-12 could consider a merger with another conference only for football, leaving the rest of the conference sports unaffected.  Or, in a more extreme option, the conference could cut loose its restless members to make separate arrangements for football scheduling.   Either of these approaches has costs and will require working around existing or possible future television contracts, but they should allow enhanced television revenues for the schools with leverage without the same deleterious effects on non-football programs.  

In addressing the current challenge, athletic directors should be made aware that loyal fans of the non-football programs do not want to see football-generated television revenues dictate how their favorite sport is played.  At least before the Southern California schools departure, the Pac-12 could accurately market itself as the premier non-football conference in the country.  That now is at risk.  The options confronting the conference all have downsides.  But doing nothing will likely be worse, perhaps resulting in a total disintegration of the conference that further degrades both football and the non-football sports. 

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