The word “alliance” does not have the most esteemed history in the college sports world — we all remember the meager “Bowl Alliance” from the 1990s — so perhaps by the time the Big Ten, Pacific-12 and Atlantic Coast Conference make formal their arrangement to align their leagues, they’ll assign it a more stately name.
Whatever they choose to call it, though, it is a direct response to the Southeastern Conference’s decision to add athletic powers Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 in 2025 (or sooner).
The discussions about an agreement between the three conferences first was reported by ESPN. According to a highly placed source at a member school, the alliance of the three leagues is to involve scheduling, the collective emphasis on broad-based athletic programs beyond football and, quite likely, a unified voice in governance.
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The three leagues, along with the SEC and Big 12 Conference, make up the “Autonomy 5” that own the freedom to write their own rules at the NCAA level. With three of the five votes aligned, it would be impossible for the SEC to control the process even with so many of the most powerful football programs under its roof.
This also could impact the expansion of the College Football Playoff. In June, the board of the CFP recommended moving from including four teams annually to 12 teams, with six positions guaranteed to the six highest-ranked conferences. There was concern among followers of other leagues that the SEC could push for an amendment to that plan that would eliminate the automatic bids so its members could gain more playoff berths, but an alliance between the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC could prevent that.
“The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 all sponsor a lot of sports. We all celebrated our Olympians,” the administrator said. “The SEC is so football-dominant. Their philosophy is not on the same page.”
The difference is apparent in the number of sports sponsored by the most powerful SEC schools. Alabama offers seven men’s sports and 10 women’s; LSU offers eight sports for men and 10 for women. Ohio State has 16 men’s sports and 16 women’s; UCLA has 10 men’s sports and 13 women’s.
This never was going to involve shared media rights among the three leagues. That makes no sense for the Big Ten, whose television contracts have been considerably more valuable than the other two. But there is a hope that agreeing to schedule one another will add value to the media rights for all the leagues when they are next in position to negotiate. For the Big Ten, that’s in 2023, and the Pac-12 is 2024. The ACC’s contract runs well into the next decade, an agreement reached so that ESPN would launch the ACC Network.
The commissioners of the three leagues all are relatively new to their positions: George Kliavkoff was hired by the Pac-12 in May; Jim Phillips took over the ACC leadership in December and Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren has been in charge since January 2020. All of them have had to deal with substantial challenges related to the pandemic since taking charge, and the SEC’s move to take in Oklahoma and Texas last month made it clear that the landscape of college athletics again could change substantially.