The commissioners of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC made it official Tuesday, announcing an alliance between the three leagues. But they offered little else in the way of concrete plans for the future.
Kevin Warren, George Kliavkoff and Jim Phillips talked extensively about trust, stability and protecting the future of college athletics, but Tuesday’s announcement didn’t offer a clear path forward on scheduling, realignment or College Football Playoff expansion.
Instead the group announced the alliance as a handshake agreement with unanimous support from its membership, born from a mutual appreciation for academics, sponsoring a broad variety of Olympic sports, and the general pursuit of social justice, gender equity and diversity and inclusion.
In other words, it’s a start. Where things go from here is anyone’s guess.
“There’s an air of cooperation,” one AD said afterward. “We don’t know what opportunities might come from it.”
What are the goals of the alliance?
The buzzword that defined the entirety of this announcement was “stability,” and while the announcement included a hefty dose of lofty rhetoric — from nebulous scheduling plans to big-picture aims of plotting the fate of the collegiate model — the real goal of this group is to stabilize a listing ship.
While Phillips talked about his desire to stave off another round of conference realignment, Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 is still considering expansion and will announce a decision on whether to add teams by the end of the week.
The bigger issue is the stability of the collegiate model. The lack of national guidelines on name, image and likeness, the Alston case, the NCAA’s constitutional convention, realignment, new TV deals — it’s all part of a larger feeling of tumult within the college landscape, and the hope is that this alliance can tap the brakes on how quickly change comes.
“Building for the future had to start somewhere,” Warren said. “The [Power 5] was in a state of flux. There was severe turbulence. There are three new commissioners. The NCAA has taken a step back and has said it has to evaluate everything from a constitutional convention. You have CFP expansion that was not composed of any of us, in the group involved with it. You have name, image and likeness, the Alston case, gender equity issues, social justice issues we have to deal with. We will look back 10, 20, even 50 years from now, they will study what happened in 2020 and 2021, from the murder of George Floyd to COVID and the issues we’re talking about right now. Someone had to take the first step, and personally, for me in the Big Ten, I did not want to sit around and let those decisions be made by others.”
Is this really just a handshake agreement?
It’s not a coincidence that trust became a key talking point among these three commissioners. The lack of trust that followed Texas and Oklahoma’s decision to join the SEC was the springboard for creating this alliance, and it’s the underlying reason why other leagues are not currently involved. Kliavkoff even joked that the information surrounding the the 12-team playoff expansion hasn’t changed since the idea was first floated, but “who knows about it has changed” — a not-so-subtle dig at SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, who helped design the format while also negotiating with Oklahoma and Texas.
But the bigger reason for the “gentleman’s agreement” is that no one really wants this to be formal. For one, the Alston case is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, and three conferences colluding on the future of the NCAA in any official capacity would be a big red flag with antitrust litigation looming. Moreover, there are 41 schools involved here, and putting any formal language together would likely create some dissent. If there’s no concrete language beyond a general agreement to keep talking, the support is unanimous. Once specific language is on a page and signatures get attached, the potential for blowback ratchets up a lot.
What about marquee cross-conference scheduling?
That is clearly the ultimate goal. As Phillips said, “We are bullish on scheduling, as it will elevate the national profile of all of our teams by playing from coast to coast, with college fans across the country as the beneficiaries.” But as for a timeline … nobody was going there just yet. The truth is, we are going to have to potentially wait years for that to happen. First, all three commissioners were clear they are not going to tear up existing scheduling agreements. Because of the way nonconference scheduling is done, many schools are locked into games through at least the next five years.
“This is not about getting out of contracts and blowing anything up,” Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said. “This is about honoring those existing contracts, but also building relationships between these three like-minded conferences, as we look forward from a scheduling standpoint to see if there’s opportunity to build unique games that will come together.
“We’re really at the beginning stages of this.”
Secondly, there are still questions about conference scheduling involving the Pac-12 and Big Ten, which play nine conference games. The ACC currently plays eight. Warren and Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said the number of conference games they play would have to be addressed down the road.
The third factor here involves television. Though the commissioners said finances were not the sole focus of their alliance, marquee nonconference games between the three conferences’ teams can only enhance their existing and future television deals, and also allow them to venture into other areas to gain a foothold with other revenue streams. Elevating their national profile is great, but doing so by increasing revenue is even better — especially as the SEC prepares to pull further away in the money race.
Are the conferences aligned on playoff expansion?
They are aligned in being “methodical” in the discussions as they continue into September, when the CFP Board of Managers will meet again to discuss the proposed expanded 12-team format. Phillips said the ACC does not have a position yet on whether to approve the plan, while the Big Ten and Pac-12 remain in favor of expansion. But that does not necessarily mean they want a vote to approve next month.
All three commissioners spoke at length about the types of discussions that still need to happen, and the questions that have to be answered — especially since none of them were in the room when the plan was formulated.
The most telling comment about the playoff came in a Zoom call the three commissioners had with ESPN after their news conference. “I think that people are really focused on being thoughtful, and very methodical in this issue,” Warren said. “So I know from where the Big Ten stands from is we’re still gathering information. We will be prepared by the time we walk into that meeting on Sept. 28. But I don’t think where we are with the turbulence that exists in college athletics. You know, anything as we go forward will be a rubber stamp, I think everyone is going to look through their decision-making process through critical eyes.”
“There still are some unanswered questions there,” Phillips said. “And that’s why I don’t think anybody could definitively say, ‘Hey, we’re ready to vote yes or no on it.'”
What does this mean for conference realignment and expansion?
Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 will have a decision on whether to pursue expansion by the end of the week, but it seems pretty clear that none of these conferences will be poaching league members from each other. At least not right now. Though a lot has been made of the “gentleman’s agreement” between the three, Phillips was pointed in his remarks about wanting the expansion process to proceed differently across the landscape this time around.
“The history of college athletics, one expansion of a conference has usually led to another to another into another,” Phillips said. “To the three of us, we felt the stabilization of the current environment across Division I and FBS and Power 5 in particular, this was a chance for a new direction, a new initiative that I don’t think has ever been done before, and felt that that was the most appropriate step at this current time. I think you have to have a group that really understands that expansion doesn’t mean you end up changing membership across multiple conferences in a significant, shortened period of time.”
And what about the remainder of the Big 12?
On the one hand, Phillips said this about the Big 12: “We want and need the Big 12 to do well. The Big 12 matters in college athletics. The Big 12 matters in Power 5 athletics, and our FBS group. And so I can just tell you that we’ll be watching what occurs here.”
So why not include the Big 12 as part of this new alliance?
“At the time that we got together, there was great instability,” Phillips said. “Is the Big 12 going to be together? Are they going to join another conference? Are they going to lose members? What is the end game? And I think the three of us felt like we had stability in our leagues. And that is what the enterprise, I think, would benefit most [from].”
So what does it all mean? Beyond the platitudes and comments that Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby will figure things out, the future of the Big 12 remains precarious. Nobody from the alliance is going to leave to join the Big 12. That leaves trying to convince other Group of 5 schools to come onboard when their long-term future seems murky at best.