College Football Is Cannibalizing Itself

In pursuit of money, universities and conferences are uprooting traditional rivalries and regional loyalties.

Two football teams squat, facing each other.
Keith Birmingham / Pasadena Star-News / Getty

About the author: Jemele Hill is a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

College-sports traditionalists were appalled last week when the Big Ten athletic conference announced that it will add UCLA and the University of Southern California to its membership in 2024—creating a seismic shift in the college-sports landscape that will generate millions of dollars in revenue for the two California powerhouse programs.

This reorganization is the strongest indicator yet that college sports is cannibalizing itself. In pursuit of greater revenue from broadcast rights, schools and conferences are more and more willing to ignore traditional rivalries, customs, and regional loyalties.

For now, USC and UCLA are members of the Pac-12, long the premier conference in the West. Athletes at the two schools are about to spend a lot more time traveling to play faraway new rivals in the Midwest, where the Big Ten is based. But many college football programs are going to be facing new realities. CBS Sports reported that another major conference, the Big 12, may soon peel as many as six more members away from the now-beleaguered Pac-12.

Plain and simple, these moves are about money—and about universities and conferences exploiting their own advantages in a fluid marketplace. The Big Ten’s current television deals with Fox and ESPN pay the conference $430 million a year—nearly $200 million more than the Pac-12 receives per season. Both conferences’ television deals expire next year, and the Big Ten, at least, is expected to land a record-setting payday.

Especially with the addition of USC and UCLA—and amid rabid interest from other media entities such as Amazon, CBS, and NBC—the Big Ten is in an enviable negotiating position and is expected to be the first college conference to be paid $1 billion annually in rights fees.

To quote Marlo from The Wire, the price of the brick is going up. Substantially.

Inequity has always existed in college athletics, particularly in football, the highest-profile sport. But this latest transfer of power widens the divide between the haves and have-nots. The Big Ten and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) already stand apart as the two most lucrative leagues in college sports. They will continue their not-so-secret arms race. Eventually, the rest of the college conferences—even the once-mighty Pac-12—may either go extinct or just end up competing for scraps.

When Texas and Oklahoma, now with the Big 12, join the SEC in either 2024 or 2025, the SEC and the Big Ten will each have 16 universities. Nine of the 10 schools with the highest athletic revenue in the 2019–20 fiscal year will be members of either the SEC or the Big Ten. The two conferences include the most dominant brands in college football: Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, and Georgia, to name a few.

In college sports, just like in the real world, capitalism can’t thrive without a clear underclass. Every conference in football but the SEC and the Big Ten is on the outside looking in. Last month, the Big 12, until recently one of the most powerful leagues, announced that it will add Houston, Cincinnati, and the University of Central Florida—schools that have devoted fans, to be sure, but that lack the national prominence of Texas and Oklahoma.

The only surprising thing about these developments is their swiftness. Maintaining football programs continues to get more expensive. And now that college athletes are allowed to monetize their name, image, and likeness—which NCAA rules prohibited until a year ago—universities are under greater pressure than ever to make themselves look appealing to the country’s top recruits.

Conference realignment certainly isn’t new. A lot of shuffling has occurred over the years. But UCLA and USC moving to the Big Ten signals something different and far more volatile for college sports. Some schools simply won’t be able to keep pace and won’t make attractive acquisitions for the Big Ten or the SEC.

You can hardly blame USC and UCLA for joining the Big Ten when the future of the Pac-12 seems so uncertain. According to a recent USA Today report, the Big Ten distributed $48.9 million to each of its member schools in 2021. Pac-12 schools received about $19.8 million. During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Pac-12 revenues dropped by 36 percent.

When the Pac-12 signed a 12-year, $3 billion rights deal with ESPN and Fox in 2011, it was the most lucrative media-rights deal in college sports. Now, as two high-profile teams from the coveted Los Angeles market get ready to exit the conference, the Pac-12 looks irrelevant. Just as it prepares to negotiate a new rights deal, the conference has lost its biggest leverage—two major schools with a fierce, long-established rivalry.

Luckily for two top conferences and a small number of universities, television fans’ appetite for college football has been insatiable enough, at least for now, to sustain the unabashed money chase in college sports. But the signs of trouble are evident, and it won’t be long before the system devours itself.