The End of the Power 5 Era
The rapidly changing face of college sports.
After more than a century, the Pac-12 is dead as a major athletic conference. The writing was on the wall last June, when UCLA and USC announced that they would be leaving for the more lucrative pastures of the Big Ten. Incompetent leadership failed to respond in a timely fashion, allowing the Big 12 to get ahead of them in line for a decent television deal, opening the floodgates. The Big 12 agreed to take Colorado back last week and all hell broke loose yesterday, with Washington and Oregon joining the Big Ten (which will have 18 members in 2024) and Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah joining Colorado in the Big 12 (which will have 16 members come 2024).
The storied Cal and Stanford teams are left behind, along with lowly Oregon State and Washington State. Presumably, they’ll unite in some fashion with the Mountain West. Regardless, they won’t be a major conference anymore and the four schools that got used to major television deals bolstering elite athletic programs (Stanford is the most successful athletic program in the country, albeit not so much in the revenue-producing sports of football and basketball) will have to radically downsize.
The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) only continues to live as a major conference because its members foolishly signed away their broadcast rights through 2036. But they’re stuck in television deal that pays them considerably less than the Big 12 schools and radically less than the Big Ten and Southeastern Conferences (SEC). Their members, especially Florida State and Clemson, are frustrated and working feverishly to figure a way out. If the grant of rights can be broken, look for the Big Ten and SEC to go after the handful of top teams in the ACC, leaving behind a carcass similar to that of the Pac-12.
Assuming that doesn’t happen before then, the 2024 season will feature two superconferences in the SEC and Big Ten, two lesser major conferences in the Big 12 and ACC, and a plethora of minor leagues. (We’re talking football here; the so-called “Mid-Majors” are much more competitive in basketball.) Stanford and Cal are the biggest brands left on the outside looking in—while, strangely, upstarts like Central Florida or former minor players like Cincinnati are now inside the tent.
College athletic conferences have been realigning forever. But the rounds of the last decade or so have radically changed the nature of college sports. Gone are the old regional rivalries in favor of grabbing new television markets and big brands. Sooner or later, that will kill the interest of fans of all but the biggest schools.
And, of course, none of this makes any sense outside of college football. It’s next to impossible for teams in other sports, which both play a lot more games and produce no revenue, to travel to play each other while also, you know, going to class.