The Big Ten is the oldest college athletic conference in the United States, having been founded in 1896. It existed for more than a century as a competitive structure for athletes at geographically convenient, like-minded member schools. Nine of the 10 institutions that comprised its membership until the 1990s were state schools with massive student bodies. Seven of the 10 were located in states that border Lake Michigan. Dozens of other conferences popped up around the country that followed the Big Ten’s blueprint: They were regionally based, like the self-explanatory Southeastern Conference; many featured conceptually similar schools, like the predominantly Catholic Big East.
Thursday, news broke that the Big Ten is working on a move that thoroughly shatters whatever remained of the old regional conference model. USC and UCLA—that’s the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles—are set to join the conference after spending about 100 years in the league now known as the Pac-12. As with last year’s news that Texas and Oklahoma are headed to the SEC, this bombshell is at once totally unexpected and on the verge of completion. The Big Ten member presidents have unanimously voted to accept their Californian brethren.
Once a Midwestern league, the Big Ten is now primed to stretch from coast to coast. It expanded east with additions of Penn State in 1990 and then Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. By adding two schools in Los Angeles, the conference will span the entire continental U.S. The longest distance between two opponents in the supersized Big Ten will be roughly 2,800 miles, from L.A. to Piscataway. The closest Big Ten member institution to the two L.A. schools is Nebraska, which is 1,500 miles and two time zones away. The move is clearly an attempt to keep up with the Joneses. When the SEC announced in 2021 its plans to add Texas and Oklahoma, it signified the dawn of the superconference era. Leagues long had cultural identities that their fans could rally around; now every conference’s culture is “let’s add the schools that can bring in the most money.” If you can think of a prominent cultural connection linking Los Angeles and Iowa City, please let me know.
The idea is that TV networks will pay gargantuan sums of money to conferences to broadcast football games featuring two name-brand schools—the quality of the teams and the Q rating of the schools matter more in this respect than whether the game is a longstanding regional rivalry. And for UCLA and USC, it’s noteworthy that the Big Ten’s media rights contracts are colossal compared to the Pac-12’s. In 2021, each Big Ten member school received over $40 million from this alone; each Pac-12 school got less than $20 million. The Big Ten numbers are expected to soar higher after 2023, when its next TV contract will be settled. The figures will soar especially high with two new marquee members.
There are funny, football-specific quirks to this arrangement. The Big Ten’s championship game, recently a fixture in Indianapolis, could reportedly be played at the Rams’ new arena; the Rose Bowl, long a showcase for the Big Ten and Pac-12 champions, could possibly feature a matchup between USC and Oregon. It’s hysterical to imagine these L.A. schools trading their 10 p.m. ET kickoffs and games featuring 90 points in 80-degree weather for nooners played in 40-degree downpours in West Lafayette, Indiana, with final scores in the teens. The Big Ten is now set to have 16 teams, although it gave up on numerical accuracy years ago.
But the true absurdity of this news only becomes clear when looking past football and considering the dozens of other sports played at the NCAA level. These sports are a big deal at USC and UCLA, two of the three college athletic departments to have amassed more than 100 NCAA championships. (USC’s back-to-back national champion beach volleyball team will reportedly have to find a new conference, since the Big Ten does not have a beach volleyball league … yet. I bet all those lakes in Minnesota have beaches somewhere!) While a college football team only plays in a handful of games each year, UCLA’s four-time national champion women’s volleyball team played 10 conference games on the road last season. In the Pac-12, that meant trips to the Bay Area and Arizona. In the Big Ten, it will mean trips to Nebraska, Pennsylvania, and the Washington, D.C., metro area. Athletes in these sports will have to spend months taking five-hour-plus flights. This will force amateur athletes in overlooked sports (many of them without full scholarships) to adopt travel schedules on par with pro teams. College is hard enough without 10 hours of guaranteed travel per week, on top of all the practices and games.
This is unsustainable, and that’s probably because it’s not intended to be sustained. Things in college sports are changing at an impossibly rapid pace. Less than three years ago, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced his state would allow college athletes to make money off their name, image, and likeness rights starting on January 1, 2023. We didn’t have to wait that long, because dozens of other states (and Congress!) implemented rules that accelerated that timeline. Just last year, the Big Ten formed an alliance (literally called “The Alliance”) with the Pac-12 and ACC to strengthen its position as the industry moved forward; now, the Big Ten is stealing two of the most profitable member schools from one of its supposed allies. You shouldn’t assume that anything about the structure of college sports will remain intact by the time today’s freshmen are seniors, or by the time the green bananas on your counter turn yellow.
Some fairly predictable short-term moves could follow. The Pac-12 will likely try to annex a few Mountain West schools in a bid to retain relevance. The Big 12, still on the ropes from the departures of Oklahoma and Texas, is also in the market to add. But the Big Ten could have first dibs, as it feels unlikely to stay at 16. Maybe it’ll poach from the ACC to facilitate expansion into another region of the country, or maybe it’ll dig deeper into the Pac-12 to build out a legitimate West Coast wing. Maybe it will finally make out with Notre Dame after roughly 75 years of will-they-won’t-they tension that you could cut with a butter knife. As The Athletic’s Nicole Auerbach reported, we could be headed for a world where the Big Ten and SEC each have 20 teams and all but blot out the sun. But even that isn’t likely the endgame.
The college sports system was built on a foundation that prioritized different rules and different goals. Conferences were built on culture and geography, and benefited from the framework and cash provided by the NCAA, which governs all schools from the elites to the minnows in Division III. Now, the biggest conferences have enough brand-name member schools to thrive without having to split money with the NCAA’s smaller schools. A break with far-reaching implications is coming … and UCLA and USC are set to secure a spot in one of the burgeoning superconferences that will shape the future of college sports.
There are absurd elements to the L.A. wing of the Big Sixteen, but try not to laugh too hard about the potential for a Stanford-UCLA Rose Bowl, or fret too much about the travel itinerary for USC’s soccer team. The Bigger Ten may seem strange, but it’s part of a larger chain of massive upheaval. The dominoes stretch farther than any of us can see.