Big Ten’s USC-UCLA Coup Sweetens Pot for New TV Rights

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In filching UCLA and USC from the Pac-12, the Big Ten Conference has detonated an aerosol bomb in the heart of the Power Five superstructure, an act of gleeful destruction that leaves it and the SEC towering over the ruins while the schools unaffiliated with either body scramble for shelter. The shock waves from the SoCal heist have introduced a frenzied element to an already overstimulated media market, and the Big Ten is about to pack even more cash into a new rights package that originally had been projected to rake in more than $1 billion per year.

In what should have been the first sign that something tectonic was about to go down, the Big Ten recently stopped making any noise about the negotiations for its rights package. Back in May, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said the deal was on pace to close by Memorial Day. As the home of the must-see noon football package and a majority owner of the Big Ten Network, Fox Sports has already booked its renewal, but the other media groups that have been circling around a smaller piece of the pie are heading back to the table.

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Among the parties said to be recasting their bids are ESPN, CBS, NBC and Amazon. If CBS lays claim to the secondary 3:30 p.m. TV window—the network hopes to replace its marquee SEC broadcast before ESPN’s $3 billion blockbuster deal with the conference officially kicks off in 2024—that will leave the rest of the field to duke it out over a third package. And in bolstering its roster with UCLA and USC, the Big Ten may start to get offers from outlets that heretofore were noncommittal.

The current Big Ten pact, which expires next summer, is valued at $440 million per year, or $2.64 billion overall. Whatever sum the conference lands on this time around should be well north of that projected $1 billion mark, although the suspicion that the Big Ten has only just embarked upon its raiding party makes it nearly impossible to speculate on a revised figure. If the conference manages to win over Notre Dame, for example, you may as well throw the adding machine out the window.

In the unlikely event the Big Ten’s acquisitional fervor is satisfied by its L.A. pickups, the conference’s revised footprint presents an opportunity to schedule four national windows on fall Saturdays. The Big Ten has achieved what amounts to Manifest Destiny, stretching its domain from sea to shining sea in a land grab that not only gives it a home base in the three largest media markets, but also extends its reach to all four time zones.

That unparalleled reach should translate to a regular slate of games kicking off at noon, 3:30 p.m., 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. ET.

At the same time the Big Ten and the Oklahoma- and Texas-enhanced SEC prepare to divide the spoils of war—a power grab that’s being recapitulated by network rivals Fox and ESPN—the depleted Pac-12 is about to go to market with its own rights auction. The timing is less than ideal. With the two Los Angeles programs set to defect, the Pac-12 can only watch as its stronghold in the nation’s second-largest TV market gets overrun by Badgers and Buckeyes.

Entropy being what it is, things may only get worse from here. Oregon and Washington may not receive an invitation to join their L.A. counterparts, but both schools are likely to look for new lodgings before the Pac-12 secures its next rights package. (The current $3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox expires in August 2024.) Upon the finalization of a new contract, any program that remains affiliated with the Pac-12 at the time effectively will be locked in for the life of the deal.

Fortunately for Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who today marks his one-year anniversary as the head the conference, there’s ample time to recruit replacement schools before getting down to the business of hashing out the new rights deal. Of course, there’s no telling how many stand-ins the Pac-12 will have to line up if the Big 12 eyes an Arizona or Arizona State to continue the expansion efforts it made last fall while attempting to stabilize itself ahead of the impending departures of the Longhorns and Sooners. (The Big 12 signed BYU, Cincinnati, Houston and UCF, bringing its future membership to 16 schools.)

That’s the glass-half-full scenario. You can probably guess the scenario where the glass has shattered and Kliavkoff is left picking up the shards. If not eventually depleted altogether, the Pac-12 may be forced to merge with the Big 12 if it hopes to be around to celebrate some semblance of its 110th anniversary in 2025. As it happens, that date coincides with the projected start of a 12-team College Football Playoff format; the Pac-12 champion has been shut out of the postseason for the last five years running.

Before the California quake, the Pac-12 seemed likely to hammer out a new rights scheme worth around $500 million per year. And while that would double the value of its existing contract, it still represents a sort of second-class benchmark when compared to the ever-expanding titans that are the Big Ten and SEC. Even under the best of circumstances, the Pac-12 seemed destined to have to contend with a $50 million revenue gap separating itself from the Big Ten and SEC.

These are hardly the best of circumstances.

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