The Story Behind USC and UCLA’s Shift to the Big 10

The L.A. schools were encouraged by Fox Sports to be part of their TV deals. The decision was made within weeks and in total secrecy

When potential buyers from the old media guard of CBS, NBC, ESPN, and Turner, along with new kids on the block Apple and Amazon, met this spring with the Big 10 Conference—the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the country—to discuss future sports rights, some were surprised to also be faced with two executives from Fox Sports.

There they sat, beside the conference sellers, in place of the consultants who typically give advice to the powerful decision-makers. This was extremely rare.

“[Network] Executives say they’ve never encountered this type of situation before where they have had to make their pitch not only in front of a competitive network but actually to its executives,” John Ourand reported in Sports Business Journal in April.

What few realized at the time was that Fox Sports had gone from being not simply a buyer, but also a partner. In 2021, the network had extended a deal boosting its ownership of the Big 10 Network to 61 percent—ensuring the Murdoch Empire the broadcast rights to about half the conference’s college football games, including the first game pick (used to lock in Ohio State vs. Michigan) and the Big 10 Championship.

The influence of Fox in the Big 10 hen house seems to have also been a significant factor in the surprise July 1 announcement of the decision by the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles to leave their historic media home in the Pac-12 for the Big 10 in August 2024. That change, which was decided in mere weeks and under a veil of secrecy, is expected to enrich a multi-billion-dollar Big 10 rights deal and create college football’s second super-conference. The first was created when Texas and Oklahoma jumped to the ratings-dominant Southeastern Conference, of which ESPN controls the broadcast rights.

Ultimately, this deal is a sign of the rapidly changing world of big-time collegiate sports.

“If you’ve got schools in California now in the Big 10, as well as on the East Coast, you wind up with more viewers, and you can charge more,” says Dennis Deninger, professor of sports communications and media at Syracuse University and the author of Live Sports Media. “What it comes down to is that big-time college sports is very much a business and has very little these days to do with the quote-unquote student-athlete.”

Success not only brings riches and greater exposure but also better players and ways to reach alumni donors.

“If USC or UCLA are successful at all, then they get much better rankings, more eyes on them from the East Coast media, as well as the West Coast media, it just makes life a lot better in the chase for national championships,” says Daniel Durbin, a USC professor and the director of the Institute of Sports, Media and Society.  “And that makes Fox Sports’ life better because they’re presenting not just a team, but a star team….It’s a huge win for Fox Sports in terms of the product that they’re able to put forward.”

Meanwhile, every other collegiate conference is left to scramble for exposure, money, top players, publicity, and college player playoff berths.

A Fox Sports spokesman declined to comment when LAMag reached out for comment, citing pending Big 10 negotiations; both USC and UCLA would not go beyond their initial statements. But it is clear that there is a lot at stake for both universities, broadcasters, and the shape of college sports.

Durbin says one factor may be the Trojan connection at Fox Sports.

“I know for a fact, Fox is loaded with USC alumni…throughout their business,” he says. “They have taken swarms of USC interns. They have had a very positive relationship with USC for a very long time and a love affair with the USC football program.”

ESPN reporter Kyle Bonagura said that he does not have first-hand knowledge of how Fox Sports was involved but said that there were prior conversations makes sense.

“Before any of these moves are made it absolutely makes sense for the schools involved to have those discussions with their media partners, because these moves are ultimately made for financial reasons, right?” says Bonagura. “They had to look to see how much more they would be able to bring in on an annual basis if they moved to the Big 10.

William Mao, vice president of Global Media Rights for Octagon Consulting, points to the established inroads as well.

“It’s probably likely Fox had a greater voice in this realignment than maybe others because of the fact that they have this long-standing relationship with the Big 10,” Mao told LAMag. “Versus, if it were another conference where they aren’t a rights holder. Because of the macro relationship that these conferences and networks have, I imagine they wouldn’t make these types of moves without awareness on the part of both parties.”

The Big Ten logo on the field at Memorial Stadium (Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images)

According to a viewership analysis by Octagon’s global media rights team, between 2018 and 2021, USC represented 14 percent of TV viewing of Pac-12 football games while UCLA represented 10 percent. Oregon was the actual leader in the Pac, with 16 percent.

In 2022, a team in the Pac-12 will be paid $34.4 million for its TV sports rights, according to the data firm Navigate, while a Big 10 school receives $57.2 million and an SEC school $54.3 million. Navigate projects that by 2025, a Pac 10 school will receive $42.6 million while a Big 10 institution gets $75.2 million and an SEC college $74.9 million. By 2029, that should go up to $56.5 million for the Pac-12 and soar to $94.5 million for the Big 10 and $105.3 million for the SEC.

In the case of the Big 10, that estimate is probably conservative. Before the addition of USC and UCLA, the rights package was widely anticipated to soar to about $1 billion a year, compared to about $440 million (from Fox and ESPN combined) in the current six-year contract. With the addition of the Western schools, that’s likely to climb above a billion dollars a year for the schools to split.

Mao estimates USC and UCLA will each receive at least 15 percent to 20 percent more revenue per year in the Big 10 than they would have in the Pac-12, beginning in 2024-25.

UCLA has not been shy about admitting money motivated this shift, which it said will save it from cutting a number of sports beyond football and basketball that run a deficit annually, even with the added cost of cross-country travel to reach Midwestern and East Coast schools.

“Joining the Big 10 ensures that our student-athletes on all 25 teams have the best competition, the biggest exposure, and financial stability, now and in the future,” wrote UCLA’s Sr. Associate Athletic Director of Communications Scott Markley.

The landmark decision, made in only a few weeks and in total secrecy, isn’t getting rave reviews from everyone. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, also head of the state university Board of Regents, told Fox 11 Los Angeles that he was furious.

“The Regents were not consulted, never asked for an opinion, and not even the decency to provide a heads up,” the governor said. “We are looking into it.”

Sports Illustrated reported it appears to be legal, despite Newsom calling foul. That doesn’t mean there may not be other future threats to Fox Sports and ESPN’s cozy arrangements.

Recall that in the room this spring were deep-pocket streaming service representatives from Amazon and Apple, who could pose a new challenge. For now, streamers seem satisfied to grab selective high-profile opportunities, as Amazon has done with Thursday night NFL football.

“If I’m Fox, even as big as I am, I’ve got to look at these guys with their unlimited checkbook and technical ability and recognize they are coming,” says Professor Deninger. “That is why I think this is a maneuver by Fox that helps position them going forward. Nobody’s bulletproof. But I think that Fox has an edge—not only with the Big 10 but in remaining a force to be reckoned with.”

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