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Christon Chronicles: Pac-12 alliance with Big Ten, ACC may prevent SEC expansion, ESPN monopoly

The Pac-12 announced Tuesday it was teaming up with the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference in an alliance. The move bands together 41 member schools in the wake of the new-look, 16-team Southeastern Conference. (Courtesy of John McGillen/Pac-12)

By Jon Christon

Aug. 25, 2021 2:55 p.m.

On Friday, it was reported that the Pac-12, Big Ten and Atlantic Coast Conference had agreed to an “alliance.”

When asked what that meant for the Bruins going forward, UCLA football coach Chip Kelly said the following.

“I don’t even know what it is.”

I’m right there with you, Chip.

After reports trickled in Friday of the potential alliance, I, like many, had no idea what that meant. And after the conferences jointly announced it Tuesday, I still don’t really know.

One thing I have gathered is that the hype around the announcement is likely overblown, especially amid talks of actual conference expansion. No teams are changing conferences, the College Football Playoff will remain at four teams for the foreseeable future and current television contracts will still be used.

An official contract wasn’t even signed among the conferences.

The conferences put a lot of buzzwords in the official press release such as “strong academic experience and support,” but really there is no substance at the moment. Scheduling is one area of focus for the three conferences, although it doesn’t change much at all, at least in the short term.

Football nonconference schedules are officialized well in advance, and UCLA doesn’t have an open spot on its schedule until 2027. As Kelly added, UCLA is already playing big-name Power Five schools with LSU and Georgia on the docket in the coming years.

The alliance may add a few big-market games for men’s and women’s basketball, but early-season basketball matters much less than early-season football, and the Pac-12 already has a strong nonconference schedule planned for its bigger basketball schools.

UCLA men’s basketball plays Gonzaga, North Carolina and Villanova this upcoming season, and although UCLA women’s basketball hasn’t released any of its 2021 to 2022 matchups yet, they will surely play some powerhouses as they usually do.

So what’s the point? Did the conference commissioners really make a big deal over the scheduling of the 2028 football games?

The short answer is no. There are many reasons behind this alliance, though none of which the commissioners could publicly say Tuesday.

Voting bloc

In the coming years, major conferences will have plenty of decisions to make.

Conference realignment will garner most of the attention, especially in the wake of Texas’ and Oklahoma’s decision to ditch the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.

However, an even larger decision is looming in the coming years.

This summer has seen the first significant talks to expand the College Football Playoff since its inception in 2015. For a trio of conferences that have struggled to rack up CFP appearances compared to their SEC counterpart, the implications of an expanded CFP are significant for a number of reasons.

The summer proposal has the CFP sitting at 12 teams, a positive on the surface for conferences that want more exposure. However, according to The Athletic, this potential expansion could be a case of too much too soon for the newly-allied trio.

If the CFP committee voted to institute the 12-team model before 2026, it would be put in place with ESPN as the exclusive rights holder to the event, meaning the new CFP format would not be marketed to more companies, giving ESPN a monopoly over the coverage of the 10-plus game CFP.

For the Pac-12 and Big Ten – which both have current television contracts with Fox – it’s understandable that the two conferences would rather not have ESPN have full control over the college football media landscape. Another motivation comes from the fact that the SEC has an exclusive television rights deal with ESPN, but more on that later.

This is where the alliance comes in.

While only one conference is needed to delay the CFP expansion voting process, a voting bloc among the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC only makes their voices stronger and does not alienate any single conference. All three conferences want the CFP expanded, no one is arguing that. But it would be beneficial for each if that doesn’t happen until at least 2027.

So should the alliance be successful in delaying voting for expansion, it could drive up the bidding, giving way to a multi-network expanded playoff structure after 2026, a structure that will surely net each conference significantly more revenue than if it was instituted prior to 2026.

This sort of voting bloc isn’t reserved for just CFP expansion and could be used in future interconference votes in the coming years.

SEC counterbalancing

If this move is any indication, we may be on the brink of competing superpowers in the college athletics landscape.

Texas and Oklahoma agreed to join the SEC earlier in the summer, giving the SEC 16 member schools – the most of any conference. More teams equal more money, and more money gives way to more power, especially with the SEC being partnered with ESPN.

If conferences sit by and let the SEC continue to expand, they could be aiding the rise of a superconference that destroys the current NCAA structure. While the current structure isn’t perfect, it is better for the Pac-12 to not have superconferences taking money and resources away from them.

Aside from delaying CFP expansion and the potential ESPN monopoly, the most obvious route to counter the SEC would be an arms race-like rush to expand. According to Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, that is a very real possibility, and the Pac-12 presidents have had preliminary conversations about conference expansion.

I’m skeptical about potential Pac-12 expansion for a number of reasons. Taking a big picture approach, it really doesn’t make much sense. What would Texas Tech add to the conference? A 1,000-mile road trip for UCLA each year to play a lower-ranked school in nearly every sport?

With an alliance, it bands together 41 member schools – more than the SEC’s 16 – without the formal rigidity of official expansion. While it’s not as sexy as traditional expansion, it opens the door for flexibility down the line, and for an NCAA landscape that is teetering on a Cold War-like power structure, flexibility is good.

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Jon Christon | Sports editor
Christon is currently the Sports editor and a reporter on the men's basketball and football beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a reporter on the women's basketball and softball beats.
Christon is currently the Sports editor and a reporter on the men's basketball and football beats. He was previously an assistant Sports editor on the women's basketball, softball, men's tennis and women's tennis beats and a reporter on the women's basketball and softball beats.
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