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4 Things We Need to Know About the Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC Alliance

Last Updated: September 2, 2021
The three conferences vowed to work together amid uncertainty in college football. But what does it really mean for them moving forward?

On Aug. 24, as realignment continues to take hold around college football and beyond, three conferences formed an alliance. They announced that they did, anyway; on paper, some kind of consortium consisting of the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 doesn’t actually exist yet.

(At least not as far as we can tell.)

The commissioners of the three leagues all got together in mid-August to discuss an agreement that purported to be historic in nature, but the particulars of the pact aren’t entirely clear, and it hasn’t been confirmed that any actual contract had been signed.

The element that grabbed the most headlines concerns scheduling — the three conferences plan to come to an agreement meant to maximize the quality of non-conference games primarily in football, and eventually men’s and women’s basketball.

Per an official joint release, the alliance also pledged its intentions for “collaborating and providing thought leadership” around the following issues:

  • Student-athlete mental and physical health, safety, wellness, and support
  • Strong academic experience and support
  • Diversity, equity and inclusion
  • Social justice
  • Gender equity
  • Future structure of the NCAA
  • Federal legislative efforts
  • Postseason championships and future formats

But how many games will this college football alliance impact? We don’t know.

How will it affect media rights negotiations in the coming years? TBD.

Does this mean the Big 12 gets washed away entirely in a wave of realignment? Not a clue.

Ironically, the one thing we really know for sure is something Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren denied: that this is a direct response to the SEC scooping up Texas and Oklahoma.

The intention here, as Warren also said, is to create some stability amid a changing conference landscape. These three conferences would, in theory, create more value for each other by cobbling together some marquee non-conference football games on more than just a one-off basis.

The Big Ten’s media deal expires in 2023, while the Pac-12’s is up in 2024. The ACC’s deal with ESPN runs through 2036, so unless something triggers a clause in the contract that allows the conference to renegotiate, it will not benefit from an increase in value beyond ticket sales and marketing until then.

1. What’s the Alliance’s Overall Timeline?

Yes, this is a response to the Sooners and Longhorns committing to leave the Big 12 for the SEC. But this is also convenient timing for other reasons. The announcement comes after the NCAA’s NIL rules went into effect in July and before the NCAA’s announced constitutional convention in the fall.

On the NIL side, there seems to be no uniformity yet in the rules surrounding what athletes can and cannot do; the regulations lie at the discretion of the schools and states. The alliance, which may have to involve state legislatures to accommodate public universities, may be able to create some sort of consistent set of rules so that none of the 41 universities can claim an unfair advantage.

The constitutional convention will take place in November with a 23-member committee chaired by former defense secretary Robert Gates. The goal will be to propose drastic changes to the NCAA’s overall structure.

The allied conferences will have two representatives at the convention: ACC commissioner Jim Phillips and Penn State vice president for intercollegiate athletics Sandy Barbour. Former president of the Association of American Universities Mary Sue Coleman is also on the committee — notably, almost every member of the Big Ten is in the AAU, as is more than half the Pac-12 and a handful of ACC schools.

If the goal of this alliance is to present a united front in the face of an ever-changing collegiate landscape, it will certainly have a voice during what may be the most important convention the NCAA could conceivably hold.

But that united front is just a stated goal. There is no contract. No guarantees.

And still plenty of additional unanswered questions.

2. How Does the Alliance Affect College Football Realignment?

It wasn’t explicitly stated, but it can be presumed that any real alliance between these three leagues would keep them from poaching schools from one another, but aside from USC making a shock move away from the Pac-12, it’s unclear how much danger there was of such a thing actually happening.

For what it’s worth, one could have made arguments for ACC schools like Virginia and North Carolina as good fits in the Big Ten.

As of today, however, the Pac-12 is the only conference of the three to come out and say that expansion is not on the horizon.

For now.

If the history of college sports realignment and consolidation has taught us anything, it’s that plans can change quickly given all the TV rights money involved.

The ripples of realignment tend not to travel upward, so if the Big 12 decides to back-fill itself to replace the imminent losses of OU and Texas, it’s not likely to affect whether the Pac-12, Big Ten, or ACC expand, as they are all much more stable.

If the SEC decides to go beyond 16 and begins talking to Florida State or Clemson — don’t put it past them, as it’s already been rumored — then we’ll again see movement that forces every other conference to consider how to react.

With the ACC unable to renegotiate its media rights for now, the alliance probably wouldn’t be able to keep the Seminoles or Tigers if the SEC went all-in for them.

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3. College Football Playoff Expansion: What Happens Now?

It was only a few weeks ago that College Football Playoff expansion appeared to have serious momentum — even potentially up to 12 teams from the current four. The CFP Board of Managers approved a feasibility study in June to weigh its options, and CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reported that the media rights around a 12-team playoff could reach $1 billion per year.

West Virginia University president Gordon Gee has said publicly that he does not plan to vote for expansion, however, and does not expect the Pac-12 or Big Ten to do so either.

Gee cited instability in the game with Oklahoma and the Horns on the move, but once the dust settles, expansion will inevitably be brought up again given how much money stands to be generated.

As of now, the ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 all have representatives on the Board of Managers. If they vote as a bloc, they would be able to obstruct expansion moving forward, or, if they wanted, could exert their influence to get the other eight members on board.

4. When Will Alliance Teams Play Each Other?

The three conferences in question insisted that they will not disrupt any current football contracts with teams in non-allied leagues. Given that teams play 12 regular season games, eight or nine are conference games, many teams have standing rivalries outside the alliance, and other non-conference games are agreed to years in advance…where does that leave this alliance? Maybe we get one or two games scheduled between the 41 teams in the next few years?

The alliance attempted to clarify its intentions last week when Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff told reporters that the conferences would want to negotiate their own league slates down to eight games and play one non-conference home and away game a year with the other leagues. But that is still years away.

There are a host of made-for-TV matchups that could come into play in basketball as well, which could add value. Think about Duke and Maryland reigniting their rivalry in a men’s-women’s doubleheader. Or how much FOX would love a Pac-12 vs. Big Ten showcase to run in January against a watered-down Big 12-SEC Challenge on ESPN.

There are plenty of possibilities. There’s just not nearly enough clarity yet.

With that in mind, it’s not wrong for college sports fans to wonder whether what we’re looking at today really qualifies as an alliance at all.