To be upfront and concise, college football isn’t doomed. The sky isn’t falling (yet).
Saturdays aren’t spoiled; they will continue to be brilliant and vibrant. You can (and should) continue to enjoy them.
The sport you know and love won’t immediately mutate into some foreign, unwatchable product. That is not where we are headed (yet), no matter how uncharted the waters might be. But after USC and UCLA bolted the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in a matter of hours before many checked out for the holiday weekend, one can’t help but question what the sport will look like in 10 years.
More specifically, whether the interest of the fan—the greatest commodity in college football no matter the conference, team or time zone—is even being considered at all.
Mercury News writer Jon Wilner broke the story Thursday. The very concept was denied at first by many, only because it felt too abnormal to be true.
By Thursday night, the move for the 2024-2025 season was finalized and confirmed by all parties involved. The Big Ten Conference Council of Presidents and Chancellors voted on expansion, and it was quickly (and unanimously) approved.
"The unanimous vote today signifies the deep respect and welcoming culture our entire conference has for the University of Southern California, under the leadership of President Carol Folt, and the University of California, Los Angeles, under the leadership of Chancellor Gene Block," Big Ten Conference Commissioner Kevin Warren said in a statement. "I am thankful for the collaborative efforts of our campus leadership, athletics directors and Council of Presidents and Chancellors who recognize the changing landscape of college athletics, methodically reviewed each request, and took appropriate action based on our consensus."
Remember "The Alliance"?
Less than a year earlier, the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 formed a pact that sounded splendid on a press release.
Although it was unclear exactly what this meant outside a few unifying quotes on the press release, a bond was constructed. The three conferences would work together moving forward, so they said.
Despite the lack of clarity, the timing was noteworthy. Following the addition of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC, nervous emotions erupted around the sport. We assumed the next wave of realignment was imminent.
One could tell back then that this union was nothing more than a way to temporarily ease nerves that needed easing. It was a surface-level attempt to round up some unity at a sensitive time. On Thursday, as the Big Ten quickly opened its doors for two valuable Pac-12 members, we saw how much it meant.
It’s difficult to drum up an appropriate parallel, although let’s try.
Imagine if the New England Patriots were suddenly yanked from the AFC East and thrust into the NFC West on a random offseason afternoon? That is essentially what is happening in the world of college football.
Geography? It is no longer a consideration. Football programs in New Jersey and California will suddenly be conference foes.
The business of college football is booming. Make no mistake about what is happening; this is a business decision made by multiple parties looking after their own future financial safety.
USC and UCLA clearly had concerns about the prospects of playing in the Pac-12 long-term. The Big Ten, which is in the process of negotiating new television and distribution contracts in the years to come, would like to increase its value along the way by adding new markets to its collection of teams.
Oh, and it’s a massive market.
The end result is a few awkward marriages that will become less awkward in time. It won’t make that first early-morning matchup between UCLA and Illinois any less strange, but it will eventually become normal. It will simply be the new normal.
The sport is changing and evolving, and one can’t help but view many of these changes as a detriment.
One of college football’s greatest assets has been its ability to regionalize competition. Rivalries, conference bragging rights and general fluctuations between time zones always separated it from other sports—specifically professional sports.
It was clunky and uneven, and that’s what we appreciated. The fact that different parts of the map could assume and appreciate the sport differently was never a negative; this was always one of its greatest assets.
That strength, of course, is being lost. It did not begin with USC and UCLA. It started years before when expansion fever started to kick in. Texas and Oklahoma elevated it to another threshold. USC and UCLA have now forced teams and conferences to abandon team and regional alignment for financial gain.
And what do we get out of this? That, more than anything, is the question that becomes increasingly difficult to answer as the business of college football blinds the future.
Sure, seeing USC and UCLA head to the Midwest will produce a flurry of uncommon matchups. This will certainly add a new element that many, especially in those conferences, will appreciate.
But is college football better for this decision? And if so, how? Are you, the fan, in a better position to consume college football than you were a few days ago?
That depends on what team and conference you root for, although regardless of the answer to that question, it’s hard to find a wealth of reasons why that would be the case.
The negative impacts on teams in the Pac-12 and beyond will be sizable. As intriguing as some unique geographical matchups might be, the teams left behind will certainly feel the long-term impact of two of the conference’s biggest draws saying goodbye.
And that is where this gains steam. The moves will only persist. Maybe it’ll take a few months or a few years.
Regardless, expansion is not done. In some ways, it feels like it’s just beginning again as the desperation will grow.
A sport that was once about regional dominance is morphing into something, well, different.
That doesn’t make it bad, and this is not an attempt to limit the joy. There is still nothing like a full Saturday of college football, and there will be nothing like a full Saturday of college football.
It is and will always be the sport’s greatest commodity.
But the pieces are no longer where they once were, and the financial security surrounding teams and conferences has become the driving force behind change.
That is the future. That is the reality.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of all of this realization—outside of the direct impact on so many—is the simple truth surrounding the movement.
The sport as you knew it, while imperfect, will no longer exist as it once did. The sport you grew to love is growing up, for better or worse depending on your perspective.
No matter that perspective, however, one thing is certain: These changes no longer have your best interests in mind.