USC leaving Pac-12 for Big Ten in seismic move

USC and UCLA are leaving for the Big Ten in 2024, the University officially announced.

A photo of USC football wearing cardinal on gold against UCLA in blue on yellow. The photo is of the linemen just after the snap.

In a move that will make a gargantuan impact on the college sports landscape and the University itself, USC will be leaving the Pac-12 Conference for the Big Ten in 2024. Longtime crosstown rival UCLA will be making the move as well.

The Big Ten accepted the schools’ application into the conference on Thursday — the same day the plan was initially reported — per ESPN’s Pete Thamel, corroborated by several other sources and, shortly thereafter, confirmed in a USC Athletics press release.

The switch, which was first reported by Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News, comes in the wake of — and largely in response to — relatively slow Pac-12 annual revenue growth and significantly greater economic upside in the Big Ten. Wilner reported that USC and UCLA could each stand to gain upward of $100 million annually in the Big Ten off of media deals, nearly triple the $34 million mark each Pac-12 school received in the 2019-20 academic year (the last with available revenue information).

The Big Ten’s current TV deal with ESPN and FOX is set to expire after the 2022-23 academic year, and the conference’s next deal was expected to be finalized and announced in late May or early June 2022. It ultimately wasn’t, and it’s unclear whether talks of a potential swoop of the two L.A. schools contributed to that delay. In any case, the addition obviously makes any new deal notably more lucrative for the Big Ten.

USC and UCLA initiated the discussions with the Big Ten, according to Bruce Feldman of FOX Sports. The schools had been quietly looking into the possibility for months, per Thamel, before the universities approached the conference. The switch will inevitably have a dramatic impact on scheduling and travel — especially for the L.A. schools now moving to a conference based primarily in the Midwest but reaching as far as the East Coast — but the financial ramifications proved too appetizing to pass up.

“In analyzing a move to the Big Ten, we thoughtfully considered the prospect of additional travel for our student-athletes,” USC president Carol Folt wrote in the USC press release announcing the move. “We know the Big Ten shares our commitment to prioritizing student-athletes’ well-being and academic demands, and we are fortunate we can spend the next two years working with the conference on travel and scheduling plans.”

USC also announced that beginning this year, all student-athletes can receive up to $5,980 in academic achievement awards, in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that overturned caps on academic benefits for student-athletes.

Natural inclination may be to assume that USC’s move to the Big Ten will, at least from a football standpoint, harm the program’s ability to compete on a national scale and for the College Football Playoff down the line, given the greater competition than it currently faces in the Pac-12. It’s not quite that simple. The economic benefit of moving to the Big Ten — coupled with the recruiting appeal of a greater audience and stronger competition — figures to allow USC to remain competitive all the same.

That’s just speaking from a football perspective, and the move is far more sweeping — though the increased revenue (driven primarily by football) will impact the University’s other programs as well. Every sport except for men’s volleyball, men’s and women’s water polo, and beach volleyball (sports the Big Ten lacks, formally) will be included, per Ryan Kartje of the Los Angeles Times. Beach volleyball will remain in the Pac-12, and the three others will stay in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.

“This is the most volatile and uncertain era in the history of American collegiate athletics,” athletic director Mike Bohn wrote in the press release. “USC must ensure it is best positioned and prepared for whatever happens next, and it is our responsibility to always evaluate potential opportunities and be willing to make changes when needed.

“Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports. We are excited that our values align with the league’s member institutions. We also will benefit from the stability and strength of the conference; the athletic caliber of Big Ten institutions; the increased visibility, exposure, and resources the conference will bring our student-athletes and programs; and the ability to expand engagement with our passionate alumni nationwide.”

As for the Pac-12, the outlook is dire. The conference was already suffering even with its biggest brand (USC) and another preeminent program in a key market (UCLA) as members. The conference’s current media deal is set to expire in 2024, the year the schools will depart. Before Thursday, its new deal was projected to fall somewhere around $500 million annually, a substantial increase from the current $250 million annual deal but still well short of the $1 billion figure projected for the Big Ten’s next contract.

To put it lightly, Thursday’s news of USC and UCLA’s departure certainly does not bode well for the Pac-12′s upcoming negotiations.

“We look forward to competing these next two years in the Pac-12 and want to express our sincerest gratitude to the conference and its member institutions for decades of wonderful experiences,” Bohn wrote. “The Trojans’ outstanding athletics heritage will always be synonymous with the Pac-12, and there are so many iconic moments and memories we will cherish forever. We hold the Pac-12 and our respected colleagues in the highest regard.”

Still, even without the latest development, it was exceedingly unlikely the Pac-12 would keep up with the Big Ten or SEC anyway, in terms of revenue, audience, competitiveness, national relevance in the NCAA’s most lucrative sport — the list goes on.

The writing was on the wall. USC and UCLA saw it. And in two years, they’re leaving the room entirely.

This article was updated on Thursday, June 30 at 4:55 p.m. with statements from USC president Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn.