UCLA and USC are expected to leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten

On Thursday, UCLA and Southern California were poised to jump from the Pac-12 Conference to the Big Ten for the next few years, a move that will lead to another seismic reshaping of the competitive and economic landscapes of college sports.

The maneuvering comes after the Big Ten, whose membership currently includes 14 universities in a mostly Midwestern footprint that runs from Nebraska to New Jersey, struck a new television contract that was expected to be the richest in college sports history. The Big Ten is expected to receive official applications from California universities on Thursday, and the vote for university presidents and chancellors is expected to follow soon after.

The Big Ten’s foray into Southern California’s media market will undoubtedly establish it as the Southeastern Conference’s most powerful counterweight and further concentrate influence in an industry bombarded by political and legal pressures on athletes’ rights. The exits of UCLA and USC would also threaten the Pac-12 Conference, which has counted the schools among its ranks since the 1920s but has struggled financially and on the field with the Big Ten and SEC in recent years.

It wasn’t even a year ago that Oklahoma and Texas decided to leave the Big 12 Conference for the SEC, which was recently the nation’s premier college football league. Their moves led to a round of coups across the country.

However, the Big Ten and Pac-12 membership rolls remained unchanged during the turmoil. Leagues looking to check SEC bloat could join forces with the Atlantic Coast Conference, another Power 5 league, on some issues.

Then came the threat of Thursday schedules, discussed in secret for months and first reported by The Mercury News.

A person familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks were private, said UCLA and USC have approached the Big Ten about the possibility of joining the league. Especially in an industry governed by contracts and bylaws, with millions of dollars a year at stake for Power 5 conference schools, the sequence of events can be critical for legal reasons.

If both the Big Ten and the SEC expand as expected, each will have at least 16 universities in the next few years, including some of the most popular brands in college sports. Big Ten membership already includes Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.

The additions of USC and UCLA would certainly add to the Big Ten and probably its television ratings as well. The two Los Angeles universities have been leaders of the Pac-12 for decades in its various forms, with a long history of attracting attention for decades.

USC has long been a West Coast college football franchise with a long list of national championship teams, Heisman Trophy winners and the iconic white horse traveling as the Trojan mascot at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

In the city of Westwood, UCLA projects a similar position in men’s basketball, with the Bruins playing for 11 national championship banners at Pauley Pavilion and boasting a rich catalog of alumni who have played in the NBA.

USC, which is slated to debut Lincoln Riley, a former Oklahoma coach, is a downsized football power compared to the early 2000s, when it won two national titles and consistently contended for others under coach Pete Carroll. UCLA’s football team has struggled for local relevance in recent years. But the schools bring plenty of benefits to the Big Ten, including a strong presence in the nation’s second-largest television market and even softer access to one of its richest recruiting bases.

In recent years, as the Pac-12’s fortunes in football have declined — and as the league has been hamstrung by a television deal that pays its schools tens of millions of dollars less per year than the Big Ten’s — schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson have regularly courted Southern California. For elite talent.

In addition to football and men’s basketball, UCLA and USC are powers in so-called Olympic sports. For example, USC has won national championships in beach volleyball, women’s outdoor and men’s tennis over the past decade. For its part, UCLA has won recent titles in baseball, beach volleyball, women’s gymnastics, women’s soccer, softball and women’s tennis. Both schools won titles in water polo, which is not a Pac-12-sponsored sport for men or women.

Overshadowed by the potential financial gain are the increased burdens on athletes, whether football players or distance runners, who regularly make round trips from Los Angeles to distant campuses at state colleges, retirees; New Brunswick, NJ; and College Park, Md., for the competition.

Any deal that attracts USC and UCLA is likely to cast a shadow over Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner who drew criticism in 2020 when his league initially decided not to play a fall football season because of the pandemic. Although the conference eventually reversed its decision and held part of its scheduled games, the episode overshadowed Warren’s tenure. (The Pac-12, under Larry Scott, also canceled and reinstated the 2020 football season.)

Meanwhile, the potential departures of USC and UCLA present a stiff test for George Kliavkow, who became Pac-12 commissioner a year ago. Last August, in the wake of the Oklahoma and Texas decisions, the league said it would not expand “at this time,” in part because of “the current competitive strength and consistency of our 12 universities.”

Kevin Draper Contributed to the report.

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