The Big Ten and Pac-12 have announced a new partnership in which they will start a conference to compete with the ACC. This is a huge deal for college sports, but how will it impact the future of college football?
3:10 p.m. Eastern
Hale, David M.
- Reporter for the ACC.
- In 2012, he joined ESPN.
- The University of Delaware has awarded me a bachelor’s degree.
Adam Rittenberg is a writer who lives in New York.
Senior Writer for ESPN
- Reporter for college football.
- In 2008, he joined ESPN.com.
- Northwestern University graduate.
The move of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 to the SEC sent shockwaves across the sport, sparking a slew of speculation about what might happen next.
Is there going to be a full-fledged realignment? Which teams and leagues could be targeted for poaching? What effect would the changes have on the next round of media rights talks? The acquisition of Texas/OU bolstered the SEC while weakening the Big 12, but what would the other three Power 5 conferences do in response?
The Athletic initially reported and ESPN verified on Aug. 13 that the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 have been considering forming an alliance over major sports issues. While the long-term consequences may be enormous, the immediate issue seems to be finding common ground in a growing power struggle between the SEC and the rest of the world.
One AD told ESPN, “This is about determining whether there’s a philosophical agreement.” “There is no financial component at this time.”
“At this time, no one is ripping up scheduling contracts,” said another AD.
The 41 institutions in the three leagues (including Notre Dame, which is an ACC member in all sports but football) have certain similar characteristics and have collaborated in the past, but large-scale agreements are far from a foregone conclusion. Even among conference members, views may vary, as many Big Ten schools voiced dissatisfaction this summer when the league opted not to play the 2020 season due to COVID-19 issues.
However, with the NCAA’s role as a governing body in doubt in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in NCAA v. Alston, in which Justice Brett Kavanaugh opened the door to future antitrust litigation against the NCAA, there’s an unspoken understanding that the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 must find common ground or cede significant political clout to the SEC as major issues such as plausibility are addressed.
The ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 commissioners, as well as several ADs from each league, began exploring options for a countermove to the SEC’s addition of Texas and Oklahoma last month, according to sources. This led to the formation of a formal committee to analyze an alliance, which includes the commissioners from the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, as well as several ADs from each league. According to several officials with direct knowledge of the discussions, members of that committee are scheduled to have a phone conversation in the coming days to decide the exact wording of a formal statement.
For many weeks, the presidents and athletic directors of the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, as well as the conference commissioners, have been discussing “philosophical concerns” of alignment. ESPN talked with insiders from the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 conferences to learn more about the alliance, get answers to critical issues, and predict what will happen in the next weeks and months.
Why are these three leagues talking about forming a pact?
Around the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have long been allies. Getty Images/Sean M. Haffey
The reasoning is two-fold, addressing both practical issues like scheduling as well as broader, philosophical issues. An alliance, according to sources in the three leagues, is a viable option to expansion. Rather of possibly harming one another by poaching members, they would work together.
Although the SEC’s actions started and expedited discussions about forming an alliance, the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 realize that the sport is undergoing significant changes, particularly in terms of NCAA governance and whether a governing body would exist in the near future.
“With all the discussion about the new NCAA organization and governance,” an experienced athletic director in one of the conferences remarked, “having 41 schools with comparable principles would be very significant.”
“It allows for the concentrating of points of view to the aim that there may be greater efficacy for the 41, to the degree that they have a vision of what college athletics should be,” a person involved with the alliance discussions said.
There are some similarities between the three leagues as well. Around the Rose Bowl, the Big Ten and Pac-12 have long been allies, while the ACC and Big Ten have had a basketball challenge since 1999. The schools are also very similar: 27 of them are members of the Association of American Universities, a consortium of top research universities. According to US News’ rankings of finest national colleges, many non-AAU members, including as Notre Dame, Wake Forest, and Boston College, are among the top 40 institutions.
While the ACC and the SEC have certain geographical similarities and natural rivalries, the conference as a whole is more like the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
“Where the NCAA is weak and the SEC has been aggressive, structure among like positioned schools makes some sense,” one insider said. “This is a reasonable course of action. What are the drawbacks?”
Several sources have said that the partnership has no financial component at this time, but the political component is crucial. There’s a significant power vacuum in the sport now that the NCAA’s role in supervision has all but vanished, and the three younger commissioners — Jim Phillips of the ACC, Kevin Warren of the Big Ten, and George Kliavkoff of the Pac-12 — don’t want to surrender all of that territory to Greg Sankey and the SEC. This is their method of retaliating.
Is there a drawback?
What concerns me the most about the partnership is what it does not contain, namely, money. The SEC could more than quadruple the yearly income of the ACC or Pac-12 with the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, and this alliance seems unlikely to solve that problem in any meaningful manner.
A source stated, “I don’t view it as a revenue play.” “However, it will be useful in the future when you want to enhance the quality of your games. That will be recognized by the market.”
It’s also unclear what the SEC’s reaction would be if the other conferences aligned. If the ultimate goal is to create super conferences with 24 or more teams, this kind of coalition may pressure the SEC to take even more steps in that direction. Even inside his own league, as one AD put it, it’s doubtful that everyone would agree on everything, and leagues should “be prepared for a lot more 8-6 votes.” So, if this partnership creates a schism between Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten, or Clemson and the rest of the ACC, does it pave the way for the SEC to make another major move?
It’s just conjecture at this moment, however. The first discussions are aimed at determining if an alliance can work, and if any of the league’s commissioners feel a substantial reaction among their membership, the dangers are likely to outweigh the possible benefits.
What would the alliance’s main focus be?
Football scheduling would undoubtedly play a role. Adding appealing nonleague games would benefit the Big Ten and Pac-12 in a variety of ways, particularly because their television rights deals expire in 2023 and 2024, respectively. Teams in an extended playoff format may benefit from marquee schedule additions. However, since schedules are set so far in advance, there is only so much flexibility. While a few additional games between the conferences are expected to be added, major changes are doubtful, and current matches with the SEC (Clemson-South Carolina, Florida State-Florida, Georgia Tech-Georgia, Louisville-Kentucky) and the Big 12 (Iowa-Iowa State) are unlikely to alter. “This isn’t a boycott,” one administrator said emphatically.
The most pressing problem to be addressed is the expansion of the College Football Playoff, which will be voted on in September. The 12-team proposal was developed in large part by Sankey and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick. Almost every person ESPN talked with on the subject expressed concern about going ahead, and although the proposal may still pass, there is a desire to “tap the brakes” and better understand how the plan would affect conferences in the wake of Oklahoma and Texas entering the SEC.
“You go back to all the great reasons why eight didn’t work, why ten didn’t work, and all these other things, and you really have to relook at it and say, ‘All right, well, we’re just going to let this settle down a little bit, see where we are, and maybe come back and look at it in a year,’” one veteran AD in one of the conferences said.
The three leagues may potentially band together to create an open bidding procedure for an enlarged postseason that would be split among several media partners, similar to professional league playoffs.
The alliance’s biggest problem, though, may be a philosophical one. The introduction of new name, image, and likeness regulations, as well as the forceful Supreme Court decision in the Alston case, have many institutions worried about the future of athlete pay, according to several administrators personally engaged in discussions. The SEC appears to have made its future plans known by adding Texas and Oklahoma in a “money grab,” as one AD put it, and the immediate conversations among alliance members will revolve around whether there is another way forward that is more true to the historic view of amateurism — both in the short and long term.
What does this imply for the Big 12 as a whole?
According to one AD, the Big 12 is being kept out of the discussion because of its involvement in the 12-team playoff expansion plans. AP Photographer LM Otero
The Big 12 is still stuck in limbo. According to one source, the remaining teams in the league clearly align with the SEC philosophically, but the SEC has little incentive to extend an olive branch because of the now-fractured relationship between Oklahoma, Texas, and the remaining eight schools, as well as the relatively limited revenue potential of those schools. Currently, the alliance is about ideology, and the truth is that the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12, which place a premium on academics and a diverse range of Olympic sports, don’t have much in common with institutions like West Virginia and TCU.
A experienced administrator said, “The connecting tissue was between the Big 12 and the SEC.” “They’re the ones who will be competing in the Sugar Bowl. However, the SEC’s and Big 12’s relationship must be strained.”
According to one AD, the Big 12 is being left out of the discussion in the most immediate sense because of its involvement in arranging the 12-team playoff expansion. The idea was worked on by Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Sankey, Swarbrick, and others, but the Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 did not have representation in the meeting. Given that playoff expansion is the first item on the agenda, there’s a feeling that Bowlsby has already spoken.
What is the benefit of forming an alliance between these three leagues?
The inclusion of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC is generally seen as the first step toward a much larger power play, whether it’s further expansion or the creation of a super league. Sankey, who drafted the expanded playoff plan, is already generally regarded as college football’s most influential figure. When required, a three-league coalition could push back against the SEC on critical issues like the enlarged postseason.
“We can’t have all of college football operated out of the Southeast,” one of the three conferences’ commissioners stated.
At the end of the day, the most important question will be about money. The Big Ten already earns more than the ACC and Pac-12, and with a new television contract set to begin in 2023, those disparities may widen even more. Is the Big Ten prepared to share part of that money in order to keep a power structure in place to fight the SEC? There is genuine skepticism among ACC and Pac-12 officials, which means the partnership will likely deliver gradual gains for all parties involved rather than dramatic changes.
All bets are off if this is the first step toward a super league, in which all three teams operate as a single entity with shared income.
What part in the alliance does Notre Dame play?
The Irish are adamant about their freedom. Getty Images/Joe Robbins
It doesn’t right now, and Notre Dame is OK with it. Despite their involvement with the ACC in sports other than football, the Irish have maintained their independence. However, if this coalition becomes stronger over time, it may push Notre Dame’s hand on many fronts.
For one thing, the three leagues include nearly all of Notre Dame’s regular rivals — USC, Stanford, Michigan, and the Irish’s five annual ACC games — so the alliance could either allow Notre Dame to continue playing all of those teams as a full alliance member or it could squeeze the Irish’s schedule to the point where they can no longer remain independent.
The second major problem is that living as an independent becomes unsustainable if the two major sources of political power and, perhaps, playoff placement in college football are inside an SEC and a Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC alliance. At this moment, neither league has enough clout to force Notre Dame to do anything it doesn’t want to do, but that might change if the alliance put pressure on the Irish on playoff placement, scheduling, or TV money.
For the time being, Notre Dame is one of the most vocal supporters of the proposed 12-team playoff, which Swarbrick and Sankey worked on together. If the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 opt to oppose the plan, this may create an intriguing dynamic in late September.
Andrea Adelson of ESPN contributed to this story.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Big Ten Pac-12 ACC Alliance?
The Big Ten Pac-12 ACC Alliance is a partnership between the Big Ten Conference, the Pacific 12 Conference, and the Atlantic Coast Conference.
What conference will Iowa State end up in?
The Big 12 conference.
Is the Pac-12 expansion?
I am not sure what you mean by the Pac-12 expansion.