The decision by the Universities of Washington and Oregon to ditch the Pac-12 for the Big Ten has sent shockwaves through the world of college sports.
Earlier this month, both schools announced they applied and were subsequently accepted to join the Midwest-based Big Ten, meaning the Huskies and Ducks will become official Big Ten members at the start of the 2024-2025 college football season. The teams’ exits now leave the Pac-12 — which has been in existence for more than 100 years — on life support, especially given the recent departure of Colorado and the expected exit of Arizona.
Remaining member schools such as Stanford and California are also reportedly looking to jump ship, with ESPN reporting that both West Coast-based teams could be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. You read that correctly. Two schools based on the Pacific coast could potentially migrate to an Atlantic coast league to play in matchups that hold no historical meaning for them.
Washington and Oregon’s exit from the Pac-12 is hardly the only major conference switch to occur in recent years, however. In 2021, Texas and Oklahoma announced they will be leaving the Big 12 for the SEC starting in 2024. Similarly, USC and UCLA announced last year they will join the Big Ten in 2024.
History and Tradition Sacrificed for Money
The main reason for Oregon and Washington’s respective departures from the Pac-12 can be traced back to the league’s apparent failure to secure a lucrative media rights deal with major networks. According to The Sporting News, the league’s “current 12-year, $3 billion with Fox and ESPN will expire in 2024, meaning the conference had to get a deal in place to remain a cohesive whole.”
With the Pac-12’s current media contract expiring, league members — who receive an annual payout each year — would not be subjected to “an exit fee” upon their departure, giving them leeway to search for alternative conferences that offer them a better deal. In other words, the progression toward “megaconferences” boils down to one thing: money.
While I don’t fault universities for wanting to do what’s in their best financial interest, I take issue with the schools’ clear disregard for the negative effects conference-switching has on college sports fans’ enjoyment of the game. College sports have thrived off of school rivalries for decades, creating an atmosphere where jocks and bookworms alike come together to rally around the home team and defeat their arch-nemesis.
Yearly clashes such as Alabama v. Auburn and Michigan v. Ohio State have become religious-like holidays for these teams’ communities, prompting fans to paint their faces in school colors and tailgate for hours ahead of game time to show their unwavering support. It’s a beautiful sight to behold.
But conference-switching threatens to derail this great facet of American culture. Take Texas and Texas Tech, for example. Both schools’ football programs have been intense rivals for decades. The annual matchup has even been dubbed the “Battle for the Chancellor’s Spurs,” as the game’s winner is awarded a set of boot spurs.
Now, Texas’ move to the SEC next season puts this decades-long rivalry in jeopardy. While there have been talks between both schools to keep their annual meeting intact, there’s no guarantee a deal will ever be met; Sports Illustrated says the talks “have been slow at best.” All that history and tradition associated with the game could soon become a distant memory.
The overt commercialization of sports — while advantageous for universities’ bottom lines — has disrupted a once enjoyable pastime for millions of devoted fans. Rivalry games once cherished by millions could vanish, as more big-name schools look to jump conferences to get a bigger piece of the financial pie.
By prioritizing their financial interests over the tradition and heritage long associated with college sports, universities are threatening to disrupt one of America’s greatest pastimes. But like many of our nation’s renowned cultural venues, it’s slowly losing its shine.