The ground beneath Folsom Field shifted Thursday afternoon with word that USC and UCLA were in discussions to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
The landscape-altering news, first reported by the San Jose Mercury-News’ Jon Wilner, would be devastating for the Pac-12 and, by extension, the University of Colorado athletics department.
USC and UCLA are flagship schools for the West Coast Power 5 conference, and call the second-largest media market in the country home. Without those two, the Pac-12’s future television rights package — which will be up for renegotiation next year — is certain to be adversely affected.
That means less revenue for a CU athletics department still reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. And it means the Buffs might soon find themselves no longer a part of major college football unless they find a new home.
So what are CU’s options?
1. Beg Big Ten to join: If it wasn’t clear before Thursday, it is now: College sports is now the Big Ten and SEC, and everyone else. Both conferences exceed everyone else in revenue by a significant margin, and the addition of UCLA and USC promises to only expand that gap.
One can assume CU athletic director Rick George has already called anyone and everyone he knows within the Big Ten to lobby for the Buffs’ inclusion.
Why would the Big Ten be interested? The Buffs offer a direct link to the Denver media market, as well as a reunion with one of the conference’s big brands in Nebraska that is a natural rival. CU also gives the B1G a chance to plant a flag in the Mountain Time Zone — the only time zone the Big Ten will not have a presence in once USC and UCLA join its ranks.
2. Beg USC, UCLA to stay: From all reports, it sounds like this move is already a done deal. But if there’s any way for CU and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff to convince the Bruins and Trojans to remain in the conference, it must be done.
Translation: If the two Los Angeles schools would be willing to stay for a larger slice of the conference revenue pie, the rest of the schools must accept it. In no world would any of the remaining 10 schools be able to match that revenue as a part of another conference (unless it’s the SEC or Big Ten). USC and UCLA are that important to the Pac-12.
The message from Klaivkoff to USC and UCLA should be simple: Whatever you want. you get.
3. Pac-12 expansion: Remember when the conference said no to all those Big 12 schools looking for a life raft when Texas and Oklahoma bolted for the SEC?
Well, maybe their feelings aren’t so hurt that they would reconsider the chance to join the remaining 10 Pac-12 schools in a newly formed Big 12. Kansas, Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU would all be attractive additions, as well as several other schools.
Than again, there’s little doubt this news has prompted other Pac-12 members such as Oregon, Washington, Stanford, Cal, Utah and the Arizona schools to also start looking around for options — and calling the Big Ten themselves. So, the Pac-12 wouldn’t exactly be negotiating from a position of power. Who’s to say the Big 12 isn’t also licking its chops, with four new schools already on the way in Cincinnati, UCF, Houston and BYU.
Which brings us to…
4. CU back to the Big 12: Well, maybe a decade away was long enough for the Buffs to roam back to the prairie? Let’s face it, they might not have a choice.
CU once had longstanding relationships with Kansas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kansas State dating back decades with the old Big Eight. Perhaps those schools would be interested in reuniting with their old pals in Boulder?
The Denver media market would be one of the largest in the conference, so there’s reason to believe the Big 12 would at least consider it. If the Buffs were to be part of a package that also included Utah and the Arizona schools, it would make even more sense.
5. Mountain West giant: There’s a reason why this is listed last. Given the comparatively smaller revenues the Mountain West brings to its coffers, this is likely to be the least appealing option on the table for the Buffs (outside of total conference independence).
There is the opportunity to join a conference with their in-state rival, Colorado State. But here’s guessing CU has little interest in being on the same level playing field as the Rams in Fort Collins.
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