Big Ten, Pac-12 get it all together
The rich and powerful leagues announced on Wednesday a plan to start regularly competing against one another in the hope that together they can increase their national exposure.
While the partnership is for all sports, the most noticeable changes will be seen in football.
The two 12-team leagues are aiming to create a 12-game inter-conference schedule by the 2017 season that would have each school play an opponent from the other conference every season.
That could mean a steady diet of matchups between heavyweight programs such as Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin from the Big Ten against Pac-12 powers such as Southern California and Oregon—and less games against lower-level Division I programs.
Increased competition between the leagues in sports other than football could start as early as next year.
"From my perspective this improves the scheduling and creates more high-profile matchups," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said in a brief phone interview. "It gets us exposure into the Midwest and East Coast on the Big Ten media platforms, the Big Ten Network and ESPN. And we hope it brings some rivalries that are rooted in a 100-year tradition of the Rose Bowl.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 have been Rose Bowl partners for decades.
"For me it's a creative way to accomplish a lot of things the conferences seek through expansion without having to expand," Scott said.
Scott said the idea bloomed after the Pac-12 presidents rejected the idea of further expansion back in October.
Scott's league added Utah and Colorado this year to increase to 12 members and the Big Ten added Nebraska as its 12th member. Both leagues played conference championship games in football for the first time earlier this month.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said his league came to the conclusion that getting bigger didn't translate into getting better.
"When we looked at models for 14 or 16 teams we couldn't see how we weren't diluted," Delany said in a phone interview. "But we continued to look at ways to make ourselves more interesting, increase our reach, make ourselves more national."
And it does so without having to disturb—or potentially destroy—another conference.
"To be honest with you there has been collateral damage," Delany said of expansion.
The Big Ten has members in nine states, spanning from Pennsylvania west to Nebraska. The Pac-12 has members in six states, from the West Coast east to Colorado.
"Because there is no overlap, it really helps," Delany said.
Both conferences will continue to operate autonomously and many details of the agreement are still to be worked out.
Scott said he could see the 12 football games being played over three weeks in September, four each week—the football equivalent of the conference challenges that have become common in men's basketball.
"Whether it's branded that way or not, people will keep count," Delany said.
Michigan Athletic Director David Brandon said: "It'll be good for fans, TV viewers and our kids, who will get a chance to play in new places. It will also let us take our brands on the road to new locations to expand in ways we haven't on a consistent basis before."
The extra marquee matchups could also provide more quality programming for the conferences' own networks.
The Big Ten Network is five years old and has become a cash cow for the conference. The league also has a television deal with ESPN. The Pac-12 will launch national and regional conference television networks next year, in addition to starting its new $3 billion television deal with ESPN and Fox.
"Any network … is about distributing content," Delany said. "The more quality content the network has access to the more it's able to serve consumers. We'll be able to create games that have more meaning."
The Big Ten had planned to move from an eight-game conference schedule to a nine-game schedule, but Delany says that is now unlikely.
The Pac-12 is already playing a nine-game conference schedule, but Scott said that could change.
"That's the plan for the moment but we will have a fresh discussion about it," he said.
The Rose Bowl is the only contracted meeting between the Pac-12 and Big Ten in the postseason, but that could change with this agreement. The commissioners said there have been preliminary discussions about the conferences creating postseason games.
"It's absolutely a conversation we will have," Scott said.
There has been some concern from college football leaders that conference expansion has been leading toward the power football conferences such as the Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference isolating themselves from the other schools that compete in the Bowl Subdivision of Division I or ever breaking away from the NCAA.
Scott said this is not a step in that direction.
"There's no political statement that we're making as part of this," he said. "This just makes sense for our schools strategically."
As Delany put it: "It's two conferences liking what they have but also being open to change. It's quite a bit of growth potential with little downside."