USC and UCLA to the Big Ten is the wrong move for college sports

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As a lifelong fan, Ben Rappaport dawned USC Trojan garb throughout his childhood.
As a lifelong fan, Ben Rappaport dawned USC Trojan garb throughout his childhood.
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Last Friday, the University of Southern California and the University of California-Los Angeles made a historic switch in their athletics programs from the Pac-12 Conference — a conference they’ve been part of since the 1920s — to the Big Ten Conference beginning in 2024. It’s a decision based on greed that further harms the cultural greatness of college sports.

My father was an alumnus of USC and I grew up going to many football games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Some of the first songs I ever knew were the So-Cal callout and the USC fight song. I used to show up to the games with my hair spiked in a mohawk and sprayed red while decked out in trojan armor to look like the mascot, Tommy Trojan.

I am and always will be a USC fan. That’s part of what makes this move so disheartening to me.

Each school released lengthy statements explaining their logic behind the decision to move from the conference based on the Pacific Coast to one historically centered in the Midwest. Both touted name, image, likeness opportunities for incoming players. The schools said it would make them more competitive in recruitment. But it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the real driver of the decision: money.

Big Ten football alone currently has a $2.65 billion TV deal; meanwhile, Pac-12 has seen declining ratings for the past decade.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Pac-12 distributed only $33.6 million to each of its member institutions in 2019-20. The Big Ten offered, on average, $49.2 million that year to its 14 members, with the 12 longest-tenured institutions receiving on average $54.3 million.

USC and UCLA see an opportunity to reap some of those benefits with each school estimated to make upward of $80 million per year. After all, who doesn’t want to watch a USC vs. Ohio State football game every year? Or UCLA vs. Indiana in basketball? The conference switch sets up historic programs against one another every year, which means big ticket sales and TV deals.

But that’s exactly the problem. The whole decision rides on the namesakes of these schools attempting to use that weight to make themselves richer.

The move is also entirely driven by the sports that generate the most revenue — basketball and football. There’s been little discussion of what this sudden switch does to other sports. For example, USC has elite water polo and beach volleyball programs, but few if any schools in the Big Ten even compete in these sports. Not to mention the travel necessitated when sports other than football and men’s basketball have to go to the Midwest or all the way to New Jersey for every road game.

The magic of college sports lies in the divisional rivalries and the geographic cultures of each conference — this move adds to the crumbling of that magic.

Earlier this year, Texas and Oklahoma announced a similar money-based move to leave the Big 12 Conference and join the Southeastern Conference (SEC) in 2025. These four teams leaving their respective conferences accounts for millions of dollars lost in the Big 12 and Pac-12, and harms the concept of the Power Five.

The Power Five conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — are considered to be the elite contenders of Division I athletics. But with these moves, other divisions will likely struggle to stay in contention. It creates an unjust balance of power wherein rich universities pool their resources to compete against one another and become wealthier, leaving geographic and historic rivals in the dust.

Perhaps a better way to illustrate my disdain for this decision is through something more familiar to Chathamites — Duke and UNC.

I would argue there isn’t a more perfect parallel for USC and UCLA than UNC and Duke. One private school, one public in a historic crosstown rivalry dating back centuries. It’s a similar storyline of two evenly matched schools battling year after year in every sport by some of the best college athletes in the country.

Now imagine, UNC and Duke suddenly decided to leave the Atlantic Coast Conference and join the Big Ten. Sure, at least they are moving together so the fiercest rivalry is preserved, but what about every other game on the calendar?

UNC would never play Virginia or Wake Forest; Duke wouldn’t play Syracuse or N.C. State. Those games are fun to watch because of the history and culture behind each rivalry. UNC and Duke leaving the ACC would also crush the credibility of the conference. They are the blueblood programs that have seismic impact when measuring the ability of the conference in any sport.

USC and UCLA carried the exact same weight in the Pac-12. They are the bluebloods that the rest of the conference was measured against, without them the conference will likely struggle to stay financially and culturally afloat.

I will mourn the slow, impending downfall of the Pac-12 and I’m ashamed the university I loved has fallen prey to a money grab that does nothing but harm the integrity, beauty and culture of college sports.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or on Twitter @b_rappaport.

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