College football’s latest realignment is prelude to inevitable ‘Super League’

Pac-12 logo on the field during the NCAAF game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Pac-12 logo on the field during the NCAAF game at Sun Devil Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Tempe, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images/TNS)

The Big Ten already poached USC and UCLA from the Pac-12. Now the Midwest-based league is set to steal Oregon and Washington from the only major conference on the West Coast. Not that geography matters in college football. The allure of money long ago superseded the logic of location.

The SEC was getting the biggest chunk of the revenue even before it decided to add Oklahoma and Texas. The Big Ten had to do something to increase its share. Its solution was to raid the Pac-12 for teams that can make its inventory of games more valuable for media-rights deals. It’s weird to talk about games like they are products on store shelves, but here we are.

The latest round of conference realignment is a prelude to the inevitable formation of a college football “Super League.” Two recent developments with Florida State add to the evidence that the best programs eventually will break away from conferences and earn more money together.

FSU is unhappy with the revenue split it receives from the ACC. FSU and six other ACC programs have sought a way to break the league’s media-rights deal, set to expire in 2036, without paying a hefty exit fee and owing future TV revenue to the ACC. The so-called “Magnificent Seven” also includes Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, N.C. State, Virginia and Virginia Tech.

ACC leaders responded with an announcement that they are working on a new revenue plan that will include “success incentives” for postseason performance. FSU responded (indirectly) with an announcement that it won’t be enough. FSU president Richard McCollough told school trustees Wednesday that FSU faces “major challenges to compete in football” without increasing revenue.

McCollough said FSU would have to consider leaving the ACC if there’s not a “radical change” to the distribution model. It seems that whatever revenue model the ACC is working on won’t be enough to appease FSU. The other implication of McCollough’s comments is that FSU is willing to break off from the “Magnificent Seven” and go it alone in the search for more money.

The big obstacle for FSU or any school leaving the ACC is the exit fee of $120 million and the obligation to pay future TV revenue through 2036. That may not even matter in the end. FSU board chair Peter Collins told Warchant TV that the exit fee and forfeited revenue wouldn’t prevent FSU from “taking action.” Maybe FSU is just trying to gain leverage to squeeze more money from the ACC, but it doesn’t seem that way.

FSU may have a plan to make up for the revenue shortfall should it leave the ACC. Sportico reported Friday that FSU is working with JPMorgan Chase “to explore how the school’s athletic department could raise capital from institutional funds, such as private equity.” Some professional sports franchises already have such arrangements, but FSU would be a trailblazer among college programs.

It once was unheard of for university leaders to openly talk about money driving decisions. The same goes for the idea of supposedly education-focused institutions allowing their athletics departments to become investment instruments for private profiteers. FSU breaking those norms is a signal that college sports leaders are ready to stop with the pretense and maximize revenue for sports programs (but not for the unsalaried athletes who are both labor and product, obviously).

The Pac-12 will be a casualty of the escalation. Colorado announced last week it was bolting for the Big 12. Soon, the Pac-12 will be down to seven teams. Arizona is looking to leave for the Big 12, with Arizona State expected to follow. The new Big 12 won’t make as much money without Texas and Oklahoma, so does anyone doubt that its most valuable programs eventually will look elsewhere?

The SEC and Big Ten appear stable, for now. There’s a big gap in revenue between those leagues and the rest of college football. The SEC and Big Ten keep adding members while the other Power Five leagues scramble to deal with the fallout. The Big Ten quickly abandoned the “alliance” it formed with the Pac-12 and ACC in August 2021.

That was their response to the SEC announcing that it was adding Big 12 schools Oklahoma and Texas. The AD’s and school presidents pretended the proposal was meant to help college athletes. Everybody knew it was about preventing the SEC from getting an even bigger piece of the revenue pie.

The Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten said then that they would create a scheduling agreement for football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball. The leagues offered no details about what they wanted the new scheduling format to look like. The “alliance” never even had a written agreement, and predictably fell apart in less than a year later.

In July 2022 the Big Ten announced it was poaching USC and UCLA from the Pac-12. Now the Big Ten is taking Oregon and Washington, too. There will be all kinds of logistical issues for a 16-team Big Ten spread across three time zones, including game times. None of those challenges will prevent Big Ten teams from making even more money.

There will come a time when the top moneymaking programs in the Big Ten and SEC realize there’s more cash available by abandoning those conference mates less obsessed with football and join up to form a Super League. Maybe they’ll get private equity to fund it. All the major networks and streaming services would line up to pay for a league with marquee games each week featuring college football’s biggest names.

I predicted college football was headed in that direction two years ago, after Europe’s top soccer clubs proposed creating a Super League outside of the sport’s traditional structure. Those clubs abandoned the plan after intense public backlash from fans accustomed to soccer’s relatively egalitarian structure. There would be no such resistance to a college football Super League unless federal antitrust regulators went after sports leagues for once.

There is no countervailing force to the unbridled greed in college football. That’s why the Pac-12, founded in 1959, is near its end. Sooner or later, college football’s Super League will be born. I used to think it would be later, but sooner is gaining ground.