It took centerstage the moment the drama began June 30, when the Pac-12’s former “alliance” partner voted to accept membership requests from USC and UCLA and steal the heart of a 107-year-old conference.
A month later, we have reached the ‘Et tu, Kevin?’ stage of the production.
On Tuesday at the Big Ten’s preseason media showcase, commissioner Kevin Warren announced, boldly and publicly, that the conference would continue to explore expansion options.
Not long after Warren’s declaration, CBS Sports and the Action Network reported (via unnamed sources) Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal were on the short list of candidates under evaluation.
The double-whammy heaped another layer of uncertainty onto the Pac-12’s future, making commissioner George Kliavkoff’s meatball surgery efforts that much more complicated.
It also underscored a point many fans have overlooked:
The greatest threat to the Pac-12’s survival is the Big Ten, not the Big 12. The former is a dream destination; the latter is a fallback option.
But for all the smoke billowing from Indianapolis, the Hotline does not believe the situation has materially changed.
Despite Warren’s declaration and the subsequent media reports that named names, the Big Ten isn’t any closer to poaching additional Pac-12 schools than it was a week ago.
Instead, the next step in this drama hinges on Notre Dame. And NBC.
In the interest of transparency — and because realignment is as fluid as it is complex — the following should be considered informed speculation on our part.
Here we go …
The most significant news of the week came not from Warren but from Mark Silverman, the president of Fox Sports.
Fox is the majority stakeholder in the Big Ten Network, which, in turn, controls the league’s broadcast rights. (As a source noted recently of the Big Ten, “You might as well call it Fox Inc.”)
On Wednesday, Silverman told The Athletic that the Big Ten’s media rights negotiations would be completed in “the next few weeks” and likely by Labor Day.
There is no indication additional schools will be invited at this late stage, thereby leaving Oregon, Washington and Stanford with limited short-term options and giving the Pac-12 a chance for survival.
(A point we have mentioned previously that’s worth repeating: USC does not want Oregon — or Washington, for that matter — in the Big Ten. The Trojans deftly undercut Oregon’s recruiting efforts and competitive prospects by leaving the Ducks behind in a depleted conference. Why toss them a lifeline to the gilded stage?)
Additionally, fans should pay particular attention to which media companies partner with the Big Ten for the contract currently being negotiated.
The Pac-12 is rooting for ESPN to take a small stake in the Big Ten’s inventory — even better: no stake whatsoever — because the network would have more money and broadcast windows available for West Coast content.
(If ESPN takes a significant stake, that’s bad news for the Pac-12. Very bad news.)
NBC also has an important role to play. Its contract with Notre Dame expires at the conclusion of the 2025 season, and all signs indicate the network plans to retain the rights to Irish home games.
The smaller the stake NBC carves out of the Big Ten’s inventory, the more cash on hand for Notre Dame.
And if Notre Dame gets paid, the chance of further disruption to the Power Five landscape diminishes.
Why? We believe the Irish would prefer to remain Independent in their next contract cycle, so long as the revenue numbers and College Football Playoff access meet the desired threshold.
That, too, would benefit the Pac-12.
Without Notre Dame as the 17th team, the Big Ten’s strategic calculation changes, and a second wave of realignment becomes less likely (although certainly not implausible).
A single Pac-12 school, or a combination of Pac-12 schools, seemingly packs more value to the Big Ten when combined with the mighty Irish to form an 18- or 20-team super-duper conference.
Without the Irish, no combination of Pac-12 schools creates an equivalent financial windfall for the existing Big Ten members, who are likely to collect more than $75 million annually in total media rights distributions.
As we see it, if NBC and Notre Dame tie the knot for another contract cycle …
The Big Ten stands on 16, prompting the SEC to do the same …
The sport enters the era of an expanded playoff with two 16-team behemoths at the controls, just as their media partners, Fox and ESPN, prefer …
The ACC remains locked into its grant-of-rights contract into the next decade …
And the Pac-12 and Big 12 move forward, perhaps independently, perhaps in some alliance with each other or the ACC …
The trick for Kliavkoff is securing a contractual commitment from Oregon, Washington and Stanford that provides enough security to put the Four Corner schools at ease while attracting the best possible offers from potential media partners.
The Pac-12’s exclusive 30-day negotiating window with ESPN and Fox ends on (or around) Aug. 4, and there is little reason to believe either network will make an offer the conference cannot refuse.
Barring a twist in tactics — a possibility that cannot be discounted — the Pac-12 will head to the open market with the full complement of its media rights available, including the 36 football games that have been sequestered on the Pac-12 Networks for the past decade.
Yes, the loss of the Los Angeles market is a massive blow to the conference’s valuation.
That said, the league’s rights are probably undervalued because the current deal was signed in 2011 and the price of live sports content has soared in the decade since.
How this all plays out is anyone’s guess. Be discerning about what you read and careful what you believe.
We should get the first important clue soon from the Big Ten office, currently located inside the Globe Theatre.
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