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The College Sports Superconference Era is Closer Than Ever

UCLA and USC are reportedly in negotiations to join the Big Ten. If that happens, it would set off a superconference chain reaction with major repercussions. And there won’t be any turning back.

I hope you enjoyed college sports as you’ve known them for the past half-century, because everything is about to change.

UCLA and USC are in negotiations to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten, Pac-12 Hotline’s Jon Wilner first reported on Thursday. And as that bombshell set the internet ablaze with speculation, doom-posting, and hot takes, ESPN’s Pete Thamel both confirmed the report and said that a formal announcement could happen in the next 24 hours.

Life comes at you fast.

If this does, in fact, happen, it would put the Big Ten at 16 teams with a geographic footprint stretching from New Brunswick to Los Angeles. It would have a stake in each of the four largest TV markets in the country in New York (Rutgers), Los Angeles (UCLA and USC), Chicago (Northwestern), and Philadelphia (Penn State). In terms of football — the only sport that matters in college sports decision-making — the Trojans would give them another massive brand in the conference. UCLA holistically offers similar clout.

You can see where this is going. The SEC, the mightiest of the mighty college football conferences, will be forced to respond. The conference is already adding Texas and Oklahoma in a few years, but with still-more Power 5 schools inevitably keen to jump ship one way or another, they won’t have the luxury of thinking in any terms other than ruthless expansion.

Don’t believe me? I’m not the only one who sees the writing on the wall:

There are, however, a few steps in between “UCLA and USC to the Big Ten” and “two superconferences to rule them all.”

For one, no matter how weak it looks right now, the Pac-12 still has skin in the game. The league still has a conference TV network and massive brands in Oregon, Stanford, and Arizona. It will try to salvage itself, likely looking to remnants of the Big 12 — Texas Tech and Oklahoma State in particular seem like reasonable targets.

On the other coast, will the ACC try to make moves itself? It could try to make one last play at getting Notre Dame to join in football (the Irish are already members in every other sport, and if they relinquish their independence between now and 2036, they are contractually obligated to the ACC). The problem is that the Fighting Irish already make $15 million a year on their dedicated TV deal with NBC in addition to their partial ACC membership payout, and have already proven that they don’t need conference membership to qualify for the College Football Playoff. Perhaps the ACC targets West Virginia, Cincinnati, or other likely leftovers instead.

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All told, something like this was always going to happen, and the timing is no surprise. The Big Ten’s TV contract expires in 2023 and the league is angling for the best position to land a higher payout — adding two LA schools certainly does that. Even before Thursday’s news, speculation was the league could command $1 billion per season. The SEC was already set to begin a 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN in 2024 before it brought on Texas and Oklahoma and will now be able to command even more.

Even if it needs to be split 20 ways, no institution is going to feel like it’s going home shortchanged.

You can play with different scenarios all day, but it’s always going to come down to one thing: How can schools make the most money off of college athletics? That’s it. If the easternmost school decides it could make more money playing in the westernmost conference and that conference agrees to extend an invite, that’s where it will go.

It doesn’t have to make sense. That’s no longer a consideration. Looking ahead, the superconference era is inevitable; the only thing still up in the air is the fine print.