Who’s ready for an alliance?!

Before you answer, let’s acknowledge the cringy context. The last time the Pac-12 entered into such an alliance — in that case, a “gentlemen’s agreement” with the Big Ten and ACC to schedule intriguing nonconference matchups and, most important, not poach each other’s members — the Big Ten proceeded to poach each other’s members. With USC and UCLA (and Los Angeles’ all-important television market) headed to the Big Ten in 2024, Washington stands at the curve of a conference crossroads.

Its preferred path, of course, was to follow USC and UCLA to the Land of Money — where the 16 Big Ten members are set to each receive $71.4 million annually across the conference’s $1.143 billion deal with Fox. (The Pac-12, by the way, distributed just $19.8 million to each athletic department in 2021 — a disastrous dip in a pandemic year — after splitting $33.6 million in 2020.)

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But Big Ten interest in continued expansion likely hinged on Notre Dame first coming onboard. On Monday, Sports Illustrated’s Pat Forde reported through a source that “independence remains the preference and the leader in the clubhouse” for the Irish.

And without Notre Dame, it’s increasingly unlikely the Big Ten budges — for now. A source told San Jose Mercury News reporter Jon Wilner Wednesday that “I’d be stunned if Washington and Oregon go to the Big Ten. The Big Ten will sit back for two years, then try to get Notre Dame.”

So, where does Washington go from here?

There appear to be two primary options:

  • Remain in a battered but re-imagined Pac-12, which would agree to a partnership with the ACC or expand (or both) to create enough value to satisfy UW and Oregon, or
  • Go to the Big 12, which offers stability but little academic or cultural fit.

On Tuesday, the Pac-12 announced that it will immediately begin negotiations for its next media rights deal, set to commence in 2024. Considering Fox already owns Big Ten rights, the Pac-12’s most likely bidder is ESPN — who also holds the ACC’s rights through 2036. It’s possible ESPN could agree to a shared media rights deal with the Pac-12 and ACC, or present a more valuable Pac-12 bid considering the ACC partnership. A UW athletic department source Tuesday did not discount the possibility of ACC involvement.

That “partnership,” by the way, wouldn’t equate to a full-on merger. That’s likely because a merger would lift the ACC’s grant of rights that effectively binds its members together, allowing premier programs like Clemson, Miami, North Carolina, etc. to be poached by the Big Ten or SEC.

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John Canzano suggested in a story Tuesday that a Pac-12/ACC partnership could include a Pac-12 vs. ACC championship game in Las Vegas, and attractive regular season crossover games in football and men’s basketball. It’s conceivable that UW could play a full Pac-12 schedule, plus annually add one or two ACC opponents to bolster its nonconference slate. It would also allow UW to — momentarily, at least — maintain regional rivalries with Oregon, Washington State, Stanford and Oregon State.

Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger, meanwhile, reported Wednesday evening that the Pac-12 and ACC are indeed discussing a broadcasting partnership in which the ACC Network — or whatever its new name might be — would have exclusive rights to broadcast games to west coast households through ESPN cable providers, effectively replacing the pitiable Pac-12 Network.

According to Dellenger, the proposed partnership could indeed include marquee non-conference match ups between the Pac-12 and ACC, but the driving force would be the television property.

Such a marriage might make the Pac-12/ACC entity more valuable than the competing Big 12, and could even lead to the Pac-12 poaching Big 12 programs like Oklahoma State, TCU, Baylor, Kansas, etc. The Pac-12 could also consider more modest options like San Diego State, SMU, Boise State, or Gonzaga in basketball.

But for a Pac-12 expansion to make fiscal sense, a prospective member must add legitimate value in the upcoming media rights deal … or agree to accept a smaller slice of the revenue pie.  

Of course, for any of this to work, Washington and Oregon must be along for the ride. And it’s unlikely the Huskies and Ducks accept a long-term grant of rights agreement that prohibits them from eventually jumping to the Big Ten or SEC. The Pac-12’s premier programs may seek uneven revenue sharing as well.

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The other option, as mentioned earlier, is a move to the Big 12 that would potentially sink the Pac-12 altogether. CBS Sports’ Dennis Dodd reported Tuesday that the Big 12 was in deep discussions with six Pac-12 programs — UW, Oregon, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State — about joining the conference.

If Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Arizona State decide jointly to join the Big 12, UW and Oregon may be left with little choice but to follow as well — that, or man their violins while the Titanic swiftly sinks.

The Big 12 would provide Washington with a semblance of stability, as its media rights agreement expires following the 2024 football season. It would provide Washington with a competitive conference in both football and basketball that also includes Oregon, Utah, the Arizona schools, Oklahoma State, Kansas and four Texas programs (Baylor, TCU, Texas Tech and Houston), among others. It would provide Washington with the clear No. 3 conference in the country.

It would not provide a media rights deal or competition level on par with the Big Ten or SEC.

It would not provide television markets that rival the ACC’s.

It would not provide the academic prestige UW has long aligned itself with.

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It would not provide regional rivalries with Washington State, Oregon State, Stanford, etc.

And it might not provide an avenue to jump ship if/when the Big Ten becomes interested, either.

That last point is particularly important, considering the imminent future of the College Football Playoff. The playoff’s current contract ends in January 2026, at which point the Big Ten and SEC could theoretically initiate their own playoff — excluding outsiders.

Regardless of what the next playoff system ultimately looks like, Washington will want to be in position to play for a championship. Unless the Big Ten or SEC suddenly swoops in, its options currently include another conference … or another alliance.

The clock is ticking.

Choose wisely.