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UCLA, USC’s Departure Cost Pac-12 ‘Hundreds of Millions of Dollars’ in Media Rights Fees

Stephen Silver

The economic model of big-time college sports is changing very, very quickly. Players — due to new “name, image, and likeness” (NIL) rules — are able to be paid legally, albeit not directly by their colleges, and transferring between schools is much easier than it used to be.

Additionally, college conferences are raking in rights money like never before, thanks to massive TV deals, with several conferences having their own TV networks, like Big Ten Network, SEC Network, and Pac-12 Network. Some have even jumped into director-to-consumer streaming, like the Big Ten Network’s BTN+.

This has led to increased competition amongst the major conferences not only on the field, but also when it comes to expansion. Last summer, longtime blue-blood Big 12 members Oklahoma and Texas announced that they would be leading for the SEC and, on Thursday, the Pac-12’s most iconic programs UCLA and USC officially jumped to the Big Ten beginning in 2024. The two Los Angeles-based schools have long been stalwarts of the Pac-12, and its predecessor the Pac-10, and their addition represents an expansion to the West Coast by the traditionally Midwestern Big Ten.

Athletic conferences have traditionally been regional, using names like Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference, and have sometimes featured the number of schools in their name, like Big Ten and Pac-12. As demonstrated by the USC/UCLA move, both of those distinctions are on their way to obsolescence, with the Big Ten’s ranks jumping to 16.

The move has also had a major effect on the broadcast streaming landscape. The football rights to the Big Ten just became more valuable, with Apple TV expected to “re-engage” in bidding for that package. Apple recently entered the live sports realm with deals for Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer and is reportedly among the final bidders for the NFL Sunday Ticket package.

As for the Pac-12? The UCLA/USC news is expected to have the opposite effect.

According to a report by Front Office Sports, the Pac-12 is entering media rights talks later this year, and the timing of the departure of two of its most prominent members — both located in a massive media market — represents something of a nightmare, with “hundreds in millions” in potential rights fees suddenly evaporating.

“Call FEMA. Because this is a disaster,” one executive told the outlet. The Pac-12 had hoped to massively increase its TV money, but that’s now much less likely. That disaster could get even worse if other schools leave the conference. Another scenario is that some potential bidders, whether cable networks or streamers, could sit out the Pac-10 bidding and refocus their efforts on the more valuable Big Ten.

However, per Front Office Sports, the Pac-12 will have an opportunity to get creative when it comes to shoring up the conference’s value, possibly by adding more schools from the Group of 5 ranks or potentially merging with the Big 12. Since its two premier legacy brands are no longer a part of the equation, the Pac-12 could also look outside the box when it comes to broadcast rights.

With multiple schools around Silicon Valley, perhaps the conference could become the first to move all of its rights to a streaming service. No matter what the league decides to do when its current rights deal expires following the 2023 football season, it is now operating from a significant financial than where it thought it would be earlier this week.

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