On Tuesday, the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC announced an inter-conference alliance.
But beyond dubbing it “historic,” specifics were scarce.
This collaboration on “the future evolution of college athletics and scheduling” — to quote a performative news release — was unanimously supported by the presidents, chancellors and athletic directors at all 41 institutions, obviously including Washington and Washington State.
But scrape away the confetti, and there’s nothing concrete. Nothing scheduled. Nothing signed. Nothing to stop anyone from bolting, like Texas and Oklahoma, for the ever-expanding SEC.
With the future of college athletics increasingly clouded, this alliance is held together by handshakes, eye contact and words supposedly stronger than oak.
“It’s about trust,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said in a 45-minute joint news conference. “It’s about, we’ve looked each other in the eye. We’ve made an agreement. We have great confidence and faith. Our board chairs have looked each other in the eye and committed to the same level of support and connection to one another. Our athletic directors have done that. If (a legally binding contract) is what it takes to get something considerable done, then we’ve lost our way.”
Added Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff: “There is no signed contract. There is an agreement among three gentlemen and there is a commitment from 41 presidents and chancellors and 41 athletic directors to do what we say we’re going to do.”
So what do they say they’re going to do?
For UW, the most intriguing piece is an inter-conference scheduling partnership for football as well as men’s and women’s basketball. A news release stated that “the football scheduling alliance will feature additional attractive matchups across the three conferences while continuing to honor historic rivalries and the best traditions of college football.”
Washington, if you were wondering, is fully stocked with three nonconference opponents for the next five seasons, through 2025. Its nonconference schedules currently include home-and-home series with Big Ten opponents Michigan (2021 and 2028), Michigan State (2022 and 2023) and Ohio State (2024 and 2025). As for previously scheduled Group of Five or FCS opponents, the conference commissioners emphasized the intention to honor “current contractual obligations.”
Which means Washington won’t have space to add additional Big Ten or ACC opponents until 2026 at the earliest … unless, of course, the Pac-12 moves to eliminate a conference game.
“We have a contractual commitment through the end of our media rights (deal with ESPN and FOX in 2023) to play nine conference games,” Kliavkoff said. “So to move to fewer games sooner than three years, we’d need to have a partnership with ESPN and Fox to do that.
“Although I think there’s a compelling argument that the games that we could replace those (ninth conference games) with — if they were in the alliance — would be very compelling and worth making that move sooner.”
Of course, a consistently stronger nonconference schedule would both make Pac-12 powers more nationally legitimate and its expiring media rights more attractive in 2023. As for the former, Kliavkoff repeated that “the Pac-12 is 100% in favor of expansion of the College Football Playoff,” but added that “there are issues at the margins.” Specifically, all three commissioners would likely prefer an expanded playoff be pushed to 2026 — when FOX, CBS, NBC, etc. can negotiate for CFP broadcast rights. ESPN — the exclusive home of the SEC, starting in 2024 — also owns CFP rights through 2025, and an ongoing ESPN-SEC monopoly could do considerable harm to outside conferences.
But the inter-conference scheduling alliance would boost more than the Pac-12’s playoff odds. With its media rights deal set to expire in 2023, Kliavkoff conceded that “there may be residual benefits from this alliance related to increased revenue opportunities, but that wasn’t the focus of why we did the alliance. We did the alliance to protect the collegiate model, to work together on these important issues, and to create unique, new opportunities for our next generation of student-athletes and our fans and alumni who want to see these great games that we’ll be able to create.”
UW head coach Jimmy Lake has long stated a desire to coach in such games.
So it comes as little surprise that he supported the alliance on Tuesday.
“This is a really exciting time for all three of our conferences,” Lake said. “Down in Los Angeles (for Pac-12 Media Days), all the coaches in the Pac-12 had a chance to meet with GK (George Kliavkoff), our new commissioner. We were extremely pleased with his ideas. You can see, some of those ideas are coming to fruition right now.
“To be aligned with two great conferences like the Big Ten and the ACC is going to be very beneficial for the Pac-12 for years to come.”
If, and only if, those handshakes hold up.
If, and only if, the “three gentlemen” and 41 chancellors and presidents and athletic directors do what they say they’re going to do.
“Today is a news release, but it’s also a commitment,” Kliavkoff said. “It’s a commitment among 41 institutions. I would say what my parents taught me, which is, ‘Don’t measure us by what we say. Measure us by what we do over the coming months and years and decades.’
“I couldn’t be happier about the alliance. I’m OK with there not being a signed contract. We didn’t even focus on that. We didn’t even talk about that.”
The time for talking is over, anyway.
Sooner or later, this “alliance” will have to act.