According to industry insiders, the Big Ten has began exploratory talks about expanding membership to 18 or possibly 20 teams.
If the league adds two institutions, Oregon and Washington are being considered, while Cal and Stanford are being considered if the league expands to 20. All four colleges are now Pac-12 members.
Sources warn that the conversations are still in their early stages. No decision, including whether to expand or remain at 16 teams, has been made or is expected to be made soon.
Before acting, the Big Ten may also wait to see what happens with other Pac-12 institutions and their potential migration to the Big Ten.
However, expanding the league to 20 clubs by adding a six-team West Coast wing — including USC and UCLA in 2024 — is a serious possibility. This is especially true if the Pac-12, which was founded in 1915, disintegrates in the near future.
On Wednesday, a group of four Big Ten university presidents began the preparatory procedure.
The day before, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff presented his membership with a media rights package that was heavy on games appearing on an Apple TV+ subscription streaming service. Revenue predictions for each institution were as low as $20 million per year.
In comparison, Big Ten schools will receive at least $50 million each year, with games primarily shown on linear television — CBS, Fox, and NBC. This figure is likely to rise year after year. Meanwhile, the Big 12 offers colleges a $31.7 million per year package.
Colorado chose last week to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big 12 beginning in 2024, without ever hearing Kliavkoff’s long-delayed offer. Following the presentation, anticipation grew that Arizona might follow, with Arizona State and Utah also being considered as potential flip alternatives.
With the Pac-12 on the verge of disbanding, Oregon, Washington, California, and Stanford revived their effort to join the Big Ten, looking for a safe and significantly richer harbor for their athletic programs beginning in 2024.
The Big Ten has been hesitant to expand to 20 teams, even though many in college athletics believe such large superconferences are unavoidable. One reason has been a reluctance to deal the final destabilizing blow to the Pac-12, despite the fact that the poaching of UCLA and USC produced significant upheaval.
For centuries, the Big Ten was a Midwestern organization with a like-minded membership. However, the modern reality of college athletics is to go bigger in search of marquee games involving huge branded teams that may draw millions of viewers.
The Big Ten believes that if the Pac-12 is going to be decimated anyway with the departures of Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah, and 20-team national conferences are the future, why not act now, while the conference is already in transition? It could simply include Oregon and Washington, but why not also include Cal and Stanford?
The Big Ten committed to a seven-year, $8 billion media rights agreement with Fox, CBS, and NBC in 2022. Part of the decision will hinge on whether those broadcast partners are willing to offer a pro rata share — or something near — in exchange for the admission of four more institutions.
The change would give the Big Ten control of the West Coast, particularly California, while also opening up a new broadcast window with games aired in prime time in the West and late night in the East.
Oregon and Washington have always had great football programs, as well as large fan bases and markets in Portland and Seattle.
Cal and Stanford have had less recent success, but they bring the enormous Bay Area not only for football viewing, but also for luring new students and interacting with corporate partners and alumni. The four universities are all members of the distinguished Association of American Universities.
The disadvantage is just growing too big, too quickly. The addition of new members would decrease the amount of time that current members play one other and endanger regional rivalries.
Then there’s the logistical challenge of a league that runs from Southern California to the Pacific Northwest, via farmlands and Midwestern cities, all the way to the outskirts of Washington, D.C. and New York.
According to one source, the Big Ten championship game could be played in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, rather than Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, some years. A more regionally based arrangement for so-called Olympic sport travel is also an option.
If the Big Ten is willing to iron out the technicalities, this deal will be completed. A membership offer will be welcomed by the Pac-12’s four colleges.
If that happens, the remaining four-corner schools — Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah — will almost probably join the Big 12, giving the conference a total of 16 teams. They could accomplish it before the Big Ten.
That would be a heartbreaking development for the Pac-12’s remaining members, Oregon State and Washington State. They would most likely join the Mountain West Conference or keep the Pac-12 brand while combining with any number of MWC schools.
Both schools have devoted fan following, but due to geography and other circumstances, they have a small market share.
Unknown is if the SEC, which will expand to 16 teams in 2024 with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, will explore a counter-move to its Midwestern foe and expand to 20 institutions. A number of ACC colleges are attractive, but they are considered to be bound by a grant-of-rights agreement that expires in 2037.
Then there’s Notre Dame, a staunch independent that may be forced to join a conference full-time.