USC & UCLA Prove All That Matters is Money; Time for An Academic League?

If there were any true believers out there who held that values like loyalty, tradition, rivalries, and academics still matter in college football and basketball, their faith was shattered Thursday when USC and UCLA bolted from the Pac-12 to join the Big Ten.


Fact is, the old values have become irrelevant. In the brave new world of college sports, the only thing that matters is money.


To wit, the two Los Angeles schools decided to leave a fading conference with declining revenues to join one that will command well over a billion dollars in media rights fees and likely triple their annual payout.


The Pac-12 has become something of a national punch line. The Big Ten is one of the two super leagues in the college sports universe.


Instead of playing before half-empty stadiums in late night kickoffs, and watching top West Coast recruits migrate to the SEC and Big Ten, the Trojans and Bruins will be showcased in highly-rated daytime network telecasts, play in sold out stadiums, and reap the recruiting benefits of prime exposure.


And they’ll have much more money to spend on coaching salaries, facilities, recruiting, strength and conditioning, and NIL compensation.


In today’s college sports landscape, where everything is money-driven, it all makes perfect sense.


But it also proves beyond a doubt that college sports has sold its soul to TV. College sports have become TV content. Amateurism is gone. Academics don’t matter. Tradition, loyalty, and regional rivalries don’t matter.


Like it or not, folks, this is pro sports.


Some other observations:


Unholy Alliance: One of the more ironic casualties here is the “Alliance” between the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC.


The Alliance was formed last year in response to the SEC's raid on the Big 12 that netted powerhouses Texas and Oklahoma, with the three conferences pledging to emphasize things like academics, health care, and student-athlete well-being, while collectively agreeing they wouldn’t raid each other’s members.


As recently as June 6, Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said the alliance was “very strong” and that he had “no concerns about our schools,” “absolutely no worries” that the Big Ten might poach any Pac-12 schools, and that “everyone who’s in the Pac-12 is committed to the Pac-12.”


Oops!


CFP Expansion: The USC/UCLA defection also totally blows up the expansion of the College Football Playoff. A few months ago Kliavkoff and ACC Commissioner Jim Phillips inexplicably voted against expansion to 12 teams, which would’ve essentially guaranteed their champions a playoff spot. You might say they shot themselves in the foot…or maybe the gut.


Going forward, the SEC and Big Ten have no reason to support an expansion, since they will dominate any four-team field. In fact, they might just set up their own playoff.


Get Out Free Pass: The timing of this deal was necessary for USC and UCLA to avoid financial penalties. The Pac-12’s current media deals expire at the end of the 2023-24 academic year, which means that the grant of rights from USC and UCLA expire at that time.


If the schools had waited long enough to be tied to the next media rights deal, they would have been subject to hefty exit fees.


First Among Equals: One of the under-reported factors at play here is the fact that when the Pac-10 became the Pac-12, USC and UCLA were persuaded to accept an equal share of revenues with the other 10 schools. Prior to that time, the LA schools got a bigger piece of the pie.


Having to share evenly with Washington State, Oregon State and others schools in small markets or with under-achieving teams definitely stuck in the craw of the higher-ups at USC and UCLA. Kliavkoff should’ve offered them more money in the next deal.


Trojan Wars: USC’s athletic fortunes had declined under the bumbling leadership of former football greats Mike Garrett, Pat Haden and Lynn Swann. Now, under business-type Mike Bohn, USC is operating like a ruthless corporate raider, luring Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma and decimating the Pac-12.


Of course, the Trojans had to continue their “we-care-about-education” charade, proclaiming in their news release that the move “positioned” the school’s “student-athletes for long-term success in both athletics and academics.”


Trust me, this had nothing at all to do with academics.


Carpetbagger ADs: Speaking of Bohn, neither he nor UCLA Athletic Director Martin Jarmond have strong ties to the Pac-12 or an appreciation for the conference's rivalries and tradition.


Both have been in their job for about two years. Jarmond went to University of North Carolina Wilmington and most recently worked at Boston College. Bohn went to the University of Kansas and most recently worked at Cincinnati.


Rose Bowl Blues: Another big loser in Thursday’s shocker was the Rose Bowl, with its traditional Big Ten vs. Pac-12 matchup. Just a few months ago, both conferences had insisted during the College Playoff expansion negotiations, that the Rose Bowl had to be protected.


Well, the departure of USC and UCLA significantly devalues the “Granddaddy of Them All.” As one Big Ten source noted, “We’re literally nuking the Rose Bowl.”


The Rose Bowl is the most obvious, but the losers in this equation also include the Pac-12's other bowl partners. Without USC and UCLA in the conference, an affiliation with the Pac-12 is much less valuable. I can’t imagine the folks at the Alamo, Holiday, Las Vegas and Sun Bowls are too happy right now or too keen on extending their relationship with the Pac-12 beyond the 2023 season.


What’s Next for the Pac-12. The silence from Kliavkoff has been deafening. He’s probably in a state of shock at this point.


He really has no good options. Adding members does nothing to enhance the Pac-12’s stature. Boise State, Fresno State, San Diego State, UNLV or San Jose State aren’t going to excite anyone, least of all the folks at ESPN and Fox.


Merging with the Big 12 would add teams like Oklahoma State, Baylor, and Cincinnati.


Yawn.


Moreover, Kliavkoff needs to watch his back. I suspect both Oregon and Washington have already been in touch with the Big Ten about joining. And the Big 12 might make a play for Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State.


Premier League: I’ve previously suggested in this space that college football is headed toward a Premier League type setup. With Thursday’s move, it’s getting closer.


Between them, the SEC and Big Ten will now have 32 teams. Add a few outliers—Notre Dame, Clemson, Miami, Florida State, Oregon, Washington and perhaps Utah—and you have your premier level group.


Stanford and Cal: Despite the fact that they play in one of the nation’s biggest TV markets, I don’t believe Stanford and Cal will be of strong interest to the Big Ten.


Stanford has more cache, given its academic standing and recent Rose Bowl appearances. But both schools have struggled lately and don't draw well at the gate or on TV. There is also a suspicion around the country—perhaps well founded—that football isn’t a priority at either school.


For example, will Stanford and Cal be willing to facilitate NIL compensation? At this point, neither school has formed collectives to raise dollars for NIL deals. In fact, neither school has even made the annual Alston payments to athletes ($5980) authorized by last year’s Supreme Court decision.


The Nerd League: My suggestion (noted previously in this space and in talks I’ve given over the last few years) would be to consider forming a league of programs that still value academics, perhaps including the likes of Stanford, Cal, Northwestern, Rice, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Syracuse, Duke, Virginia, Tulane, Army, Navy, Air Force, and others who feel that the current descent into professionalism has gotten out of hand.


Rather than try to keep up with the Joneses, wage a losing battle in the arms race, and piece together a league of also-rans and schools with which they have nothing in common, why not form a league that actually stands for something?


A league of schools who give priority to education. Whose players fill out the same applications and meet the same admissions standards as the rest of the campus. Whose players actually go to class.


A league where the term “student-athlete” would actually mean something.


Andrew Luck might call it “The Nerd League.”


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//gacavalli49@gmail.com