A little more than a year ago, it would have been hard to imagine that the Pac-12 as generations of Cal fans and athletes have known it would end in 2024.
But that’s where we are after a string of shocking departures cleared out the conference, breaking up a league of universities that, in some cases, had been aligned for over a century, and leaving UC Berkeley scrambling to figure out its athletic future.
At stake is everything from the opponents Cal fans will see on the field, to the travel schedules of athletes, to tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue for an athletic department that already relies heavily on support from the university.
If your head is spinning at the idea of an 18-team conference called the Big Ten, or the potential for the Atlantic Coast Conference to scoop up UC Berkeley and its Golden Gate vistas, here’s a breakdown of how we got to this tumultuous moment in college sports — and what could happen next.
Why did the Pac-12 fall apart?
The short answer is that it fell far behind the other top-tier conferences in the multi-billion dollar college sports industry.
The rights to broadcast college football, and a lesser extent basketball, are hugely valuable to ESPN, Fox and other networks. Each conference negotiates its own TV contracts, and those agreements play a central role in shaping college athletics — they’re why so many Cal football games kick off at 7:30 p.m. even if fans don’t like staying up late, and they can drive programs to shed long-standing conference allegiances in search of better deals.
In 2011, the Pac-12 struck a 12-year media rights agreement that looked pretty good at first, said Emeryville-based sports economist Andy Schwarz.
But as the years went on, other major conferences inked bigger and bigger deals, while Pac-12 schools were stuck in a contract that paid them less than their peers across the country. Meanwhile, Schwarz said, conference leaders launched the Pac-12 Networks to broadcast lower-profile games nationwide — however unlike other conferences that started networks around the same time, the Pac-12’s struggled to get onto cable and satellite packages, making it less lucrative and putting western programs further behind their competitors.
Eventually, Schwarz said, “USC got tired of it.”
In June of 2022, the Trojans and cross-town rival UCLA shocked college sports when they announced plans to leave the Pac-12 in 2024 and join the Big Ten, where longtime members get the highest TV payout of any conference.
“That really started the present-day dominoes that we have,” Schwarz said.
Pac-12 officials hoped to negotiate a big new TV deal this year, allowing its schools to cash in like other conferences had. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, Schwarz said, the Pac-12 was selling a conference that had just lost two of its most storied programs and the massive Los Angeles media market — after lengthy negotiations, Commissioner George Kliavkoff finally presented schools with a potential rights agreement last week that would likely continue paying them far less than their peer institutions.
“The deal didn’t get better, it got worse,” Schwarz said. “At that point, it became every school for itself.”
Colorado had already announced July 27 that it was leaving the Pac-12 for its former home in the Big 12.
Washington and Oregon joined the exodus to the Big Ten on Friday, and hours later Arizona, Arizona State and Utah bolted for the Big 12.
That left four programs in what remains of the Pac-12: Cal, Stanford, Oregon State and Washington State.
What are Cal’s conference options now?
It’s hard to overstate just how uncertain the Golden Bears’ future is.
They might join another major conference: The Big Ten could continue its westward expansion by adding Cal and Stanford, and ESPN reported Monday that the Atlantic Coast Conference was also considering the two schools. (That Cal could conceivably end up in the traditionally Midwestern Big Ten or even the ACC, where every member campus is in the Eastern Time Zone, underscores how the regional boundaries that once shaped college conferences have been obliterated.)
Cal could also wind up in the Mountain West Conference, which includes San José State and the University of Nevada, a move that would represent a demotion to a lower-tier conference. Or the Golden Bears could turn the tables and join the remaining Pac-12 members to form a new conference by picking off schools from the Mountain West.
Cal is likely to move in tandem with regional rival Stanford, but then again might not: One or both schools could decide to go independent for football, and perhaps move other sports into the West Coast Conference.
UC Berkeley officials declined requests from Berkeleyside for comment, referring a reporter back to a Friday statement from Chancellor Carol Christ and Athletic Director Jim Knowlton that read in part, “We are not watching and waiting from the sidelines. Together, the Chancellor and Athletic Director are evaluating a variety of options that will ensure our student-athletes can continue to thrive, and that our intercollegiate athletics program can continue to excel in a manner consistent with our institutional values.”
The University of California Board of Regents met in closed session Tuesday to discuss the flagship campus’ conference membership, but the day ended with no resolution to the uncertainty.
Cal has only limited control over where it lands — to join another conference, it’ll need to convince its current member universities that adding the Golden Bears will bring enough value to justify cutting another slice from its revenue pie.
Cal and Stanford’s location in the large Bay Area media market, as well as their academic prestige, could make them appealing to the Big Ten, said Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist. But it’s unclear whether the conference will want to add two more programs, bringing its membership to 20 schools. And while lots of people live in the Bay Area, Zimbalist noted that neither Cal nor Stanford is the kind of football powerhouse that draws legions of fans and viewers.
“The schools haven’t gotten the same kind of attention that the University of Alabama gets in Alabama, or the University of Georgia gets in Georgia,” he said. “There is some appeal in potentially being able to reach the Bay Area market, but that market hasn’t really been ignited yet by college sports, so there’s certainly a lot of risk involved there.”
How much money is at stake?
“You’re talking about differences in the neighborhood of anywhere from $20 to $40 or $50 million per year, depending on the conference you’re in,” Zimbalist said.
Cal reported receiving $24.2 million from media rights in the 2022 fiscal year.
Meanwhile, most teams in the Big Ten got $58.8 million from the conference, according to data tracked by USA Today, while ACC payouts hovered around $40 million per year.
Newer Big Ten additions such as Oregon and USC are set to get smaller shares of the league’s massive TV contract. But they’re still poised to make more than the Pac-12 offered — the deal presented last week was expected to generate payouts in the “low-$20 million” range, according to reporter Brett McMurphy.
If Cal drops down to the Mountain West, meanwhile, it would take a big pay cut: Member Fresno State received about $5 million last year from the conference, according to the Fresno Bee.
What will conference realignment mean for Cal fans?
During the final year of the current Pac-12, Cal fans can attend home football games against USC and Arizona State, and take road trips to face Oregon in Eugene or UCLA at the Rose Bowl. As it stands now, there’s no telling when Cal would face those opponents again.
Wherever Cal lands, the breakup of the Pac-12 means that starting next year every sport will have a new crop of rivals — perhaps Iowa and Purdue from the Big Ten, or Boise State and New Mexico from the Mountain West.
That could raise a tough question for fans in future seasons, Schwarz said: “Are you interested in the teams that are playing?”
The realignment upheaval could also knock Cal further down college football’s pecking order.
While the Golden Bears had stretches of national relevance over the past 20 years, and claim five national championships between 1920 and 1937, Cal was regarded as a small fish in modern college football even before the Pac-12’s breakup. Joining the Mountain West would give the team less money to compete in the arms race of facilities and coach salaries that drive status in the sport; accepting membership in the Big Ten at a vastly reduced revenue share could put Cal at a disadvantage compared to its conference rivals.
“Those fans are used to a life of frustration, and now they’re going to have more of that,” Zimbalist predicted.
How will realignment affect athletes?
While many of Cal’s 29 other sports have fared better than its football program, they are all more or less in the passenger seat.
And the realignment decision that looks best for Cal’s bottom line might not be what athletes want.
University administrators would probably jump at an invitation to join the lucrative Big Ten or ACC, but doing so could also entail grueling travel demands for hundreds of athletes, who might wind up playing road games in Miami or State College, Pennsylvania. Some athletes at Big Ten-bound schools have already begun raising concerns about the toll of that extra travel.
On the flip side, if Cal winds up in a conference with lower payouts, the university might look to slash the Cal Athletics budget by cutting some of its sports. It has tried to do so in the past — during the Great Recession, Cal moved to eliminate its baseball team and four other varsity sports, before a fundraising effort saved the programs.
What impact will realignment have on Cal Athletics’ financial health?
In 2021, after Cal Athletics received $25 million in assistance from the university, campus officials told the Mercury News that they planned to bring the department closer to self-sufficiency by raising more money from four revenue streams: the Pac-12’s forthcoming media deal, ticket sales, naming rights to Memorial Stadium or its field, and philanthropy.
Today, three of those sources are in doubt. Cal could wind up making less money from media rights, not more; unfamiliar or unexciting new conference opponents could dampen ticket sales.
Meanwhile, Cal suspended a 10-year deal that saw its football field christened “FTX Field” after the cryptocurrency exchange filed for bankruptcy last fall. Spokesman Jonathan Okanes wrote in an email that Cal Athletics received $1.2 million from that agreement in the 2022 fiscal year.
“We don’t have a new naming rights partner at this time,” Okanes wrote.
The athletic department received about $30 million from the university in the 2022 fiscal year. The university has also absorbed some of the debt load from the renovation and expansion of Memorial Stadium, which costs $18 million per year in debt service payments, the Mercury News reported.
The outcome of this chaotic realignment process, therefore, could have a significant impact on the financial shape of Cal Athletics and UC Berkeley as a whole.
If Cal’s dreams of a lucrative new conference membership don’t come true, Schwarz and Zimbalist both had ideas for what the university could try instead.
Perhaps it’s time for Cal to “get out of the rat race,” Zimbalist said, and give up trying to compete in modern college football.
“The University of Chicago certainly didn’t suffer as an academic institution when they got rid of football,” he said.
Schwarz suggested a different strategy.
“This could be an opportunity for Stanford and Cal to start professional college football — pay their athletes a real, competitive wage, get all the best players and change the script completely,” said Schwarz, a leading voice against college sports’ amateur model that bars athletes from receiving a share of the money they generate for schools and conferences.
Sound far-fetched? Sure, but after the past 14 months, anything seems possible.