Breaking down the ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 alliance and what comes next

ByDavid Hale and Adam Rittenberg ESPN logo
Saturday, August 21, 2021

The SEC's additions of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 sent shock waves around the sport, and sparked plenty of theories about what would come next.

Would there be full-blown realignment? Which teams and leagues could be poached? How would the moves impact the next round of media rights negotiations? The Texas/OU addition undoubtedly strengthened the SEC and weakened the Big 12, but what would the other three Power 5 leagues do in response?

Some clues emerged Aug. 13, as The Athletic first reported and ESPN confirmed that the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 have been discussing an alliance around key topics in the sport. While the long-term implications could be immense, the immediate concerns appear to be about finding common ground in an emerging power battle between the SEC and everyone else.

"This is about seeing if there's a philosophical alignment," one AD told ESPN. "At this point, there's no financial component."

Added another AD: "No one is tearing up scheduling contracts at this point."

The 41 schools (including Notre Dame, an ACC member in all sports except football) in the three conferences have some common traits and have partnered in the past, but large-scale agreements are far from a slam dunk. Even among conference members, philosophies can differ, as was evidenced when several Big Ten schools expressed frustration when the league decided against playing the 2020 season amid COVID-19 concerns last summer.

But with the NCAA's role as a governing body in question in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's ruling in NCAA v. Alston -- in which Justice Brett Kavanaugh opened the door to future antitrust litigation against the NCAA -- there's at least a tacit understanding that the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 need to find common ground or cede significant political clout to the SEC as major issues including playoff expansion, name, image and likeness (NIL) and player compensation loom.

Sources said all three leagues began exploring options for a countermove to the SEC's addition of Texas and Oklahoma last month, which led to a formal committee to analyze an alliance that includes the commissioners from the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, along with several ADs from each league. Members of that committee are expected to hold a phone call in the coming days to determine the specific language of a formal announcement, according to multiple administrators with direct knowledge of the talks.

Presidents and athletic directors from the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, along with the league commissioners, have been in discussions for several weeks on "philosophical issues" of alignment. ESPN spoke to sources in and around the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 to find out more about the alliance, answer key questions and forecast what could unfold over the coming weeks and months.

Why are these three leagues discussing an alliance?

The rationale is two-pronged, and would address both practical areas such as scheduling and larger, philosophical ones. Sources in the three leagues view an alliance as an alternative to expansion. They would work together rather than potentially hurt one another by poaching members.

Although the SEC's moves sparked and accelerated conversations about an alliance, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 also recognize there are many major changes in the sport, especially related to NCAA governance and whether a governing body will even exist in the near future.

"All this banter and talk about the new NCAA structure and governance, having 41 institutions that have similar values would be really important," a veteran athletic director in one of the leagues said.

Added a source familiar with the alliance talks: "It allows for the focusing of points of view to the end that there may be more effectiveness for the 41, to the extent that they share a vision of what college sports should be."

There also are commonalities among the three leagues. The Big Ten and Pac-12 are longtime partners around the Rose Bowl, while the ACC and Big Ten have held a basketball challenge since 1999. The institutions are also quite similar: 27 are members of the Association of American Universities, a group of leading research schools. Several non-AAU members, such as Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Boston College, are top-40 universities, according to US News' rankings of best national universities.

While the ACC shares geography and some natural rivalries with the SEC, the league as a whole is more similar to the Pac-12 and Big Ten.

"Structure among similarly situated institutions makes some sense where the NCAA is shaky and where the SEC's been aggressive," one source said. "This is a pretty sensible way of proceeding. What's the downside?"

At this point, numerous sources have said there is no financial component to the alliance, but the political portion is important. With the NCAA's role in oversight all but evaporated, there's a serious power vacuum in the sport, and the three newer commissioners -- the ACC's Jim Phillips, the Big Ten's Kevin Warren and the Pac-12's George Kliavkoff -- don't want to cede the entirety of that ground to Greg Sankey and the SEC. This is their way of pushing back.

Is there a downside?

The biggest concern with the alliance might be in what it doesn't include -- namely, money. With the addition of Texas and Oklahoma, the SEC could be in position to more than double the annual revenue of the ACC or Pac-12, and this alliance appears unlikely to address that issue in any significant way.

"I don't see it as a revenue play," a source said. "But it's valuable down the road, any time you improve the quality of your games. The marketplace will recognize that."

It's also unclear what the SEC's response to an alignment by the other leagues might be. If the end game is the creation of super conferences that include 24 or more teams each, this type of alliance could push the SEC to make even more moves toward that outcome. And as one AD said, even within his own league, it's unlikely there will be uniform agreement on all issues, and leagues should "be prepared for a lot more 8-6 votes." So if this alliance drives a wedge between, say, Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten, or Clemson and the rest of the ACC, does that set the stage for the SEC to make another big move?

At this point, however, it's all speculation. The early conversations are about establishing whether an alliance can work, and if any of the league's commissioners sense a significant backlash within their membership, it's likely the risks would quickly exceed the potential rewards.

What would be the focus of the alliance?

Football scheduling certainly would be part. Adding attractive nonleague games will help in multiple ways, especially for the Big Ten and Pac-12, who have media rights agreements expiring in 2023 and 2024. Marquee schedule additions also could help teams in an expanded playoff system. But there's only so much flexibility since schedules are made so far in advance. While a few more games likely will be added between the leagues, dramatic changes are unlikely, and existing matchups against the SEC (Clemson-South Carolina, Florida State-Florida, Georgia Tech-Georgia, Louisville-Kentucky) and even the Big 12 (Iowa-Iowa State) are unlikely to change. "It's not a boycott," one administrator said.

The most immediate issue to be addressed, however, is the expansion of the College Football Playoff, with the 12-team plan designed in large part by Sankey and Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick up for a vote in September. Nearly every source ESPN spoke with on the issues said there is now significant trepidation about moving forward and that, while the plan could ultimately still pass, there's a desire to "tap the brakes" and better understand how the plan would impact leagues in the aftermath of Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC.

"You go back to all the great reasons that folks talked about why eight didn't work, why 10 didn't work and all these other things, you've really got to relook at it and say, 'All right, well, we're just gonna let this settle down a little bit, see where we are, and maybe come back and look at it in 12 months,'" one veteran AD in one of the conferences said.

The three leagues also could coalesce around creating an open bidding process for an expanded playoff, which could be divided between multiple media partners, similar to playoffs in professional leagues.

Perhaps the bigger question facing the alliance, however, is one of philosophy. According to multiple administrators directly involved in conversations, the advent of new name, image and likeness rules and the emphatic Supreme Court ruling in the Alston case have many schools concerned about the future of athlete compensation. As one AD noted, the SEC seems to have made its plans for the future known by adding Texas and Oklahoma in "a money grab," and the immediate conversations among alliance members will hinge on questions of whether there's another way forward that holds truer to the historic view of amateurism -- both in the short and long term.

What does this mean for the Big 12?

The Big 12 remains in purgatory. As one source noted, the remaining teams in the league clearly align better with the SEC philosophically, but because of the now-fractured relationship between Oklahoma, Texas and the remaining eight schools, as well as the relatively limited revenue potential of those schools, there's little incentive for the SEC to extend an olive branch. Right now, the alliance is about philosophy, and the reality is that the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12, which prioritize academic profile and an expansive set of Olympic sports, don't overlap much with universities like West Virginia and TCU.

"The connective tissue was between the Big 12 and the SEC," a veteran administrator said. "They're the ones that play in the Sugar Bowl. But the relationship between the SEC and the Big 12 must be strained."

In the most immediate sense, however, the Big 12 is being left out of the conversation because of its role in planning the 12-team playoff expansion, according to one AD. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby worked with Sankey, Swarbrick and others on the proposal, but the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 did not have representatives in the room. Given that playoff expansion is Issue No. 1 on the docket, there's a sense that Bowlsby already had his say.

How would an alliance help these three leagues?

The SEC's addition of Texas and Oklahoma is widely seen as the first step in an even bigger power play, whether it's additional expansion or the formation of a super league. Sankey, who crafted the expanded playoff proposal, already is widely viewed as the most powerful person in college athletics. A three-league alliance could, when necessary, push back against the SEC on key topics like the expanded playoff.

"We can't have college football all run out of the Southeast part of the country," an AD in one of the three leagues said.

In the end, the key question will be about money. Right now, the Big Ten makes a good bit more than either the ACC or Pac-12, and with a new TV deal looming in 2023, those differences could become even larger. Is the Big Ten willing to share some of that revenue to maintain a power structure to counter the SEC? There's some real doubt among ACC and Pac-12 administrators, which would ultimately mean the alliance offers incremental improvements for all concerned, but wouldn't likely provide dramatic changes.

But if this is the first step toward a super league, one in which all three work as a single entity with shared revenue, then all bets are off.

Where does Notre Dame fit in with the alliance?

At this point, it doesn't -- and that's fine by Notre Dame. Despite their association with the ACC in sports other than football, the Irish remain steadfast in maintaining their independence. But if this alliance becomes more firmly entrenched over time, it could force Notre Dame's hand on several fronts.

For one, the three leagues include virtually all of Notre Dame's regular rivals -- USC, Stanford, Michigan and its five annual ACC games -- so either the alliance could pave the way for Notre Dame to keep playing all those teams as a full alliance member or it could squeeze the Irish on scheduling to a point that it becomes impossible for them to remain independent.

The other big issue is, if the two big sources of political clout and, perhaps, playoff positioning, in college football are within an SEC and a Big Ten/Pac-12/ACC alliance, life as an independent becomes untenable. At this point, no league has enough leverage to make Notre Dame do something it doesn't want to do, but if the alliance squeezed the Irish on playoff positioning, scheduling or TV revenue, that outlook could change.

For now, Notre Dame is one of the strongest advocates for the proposed 12-team playoff, which Swarbrick helped craft alongside Sankey. This could set up an interesting dynamic in late September if the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 choose to push back against the proposal.

ESPN's Andrea Adelson contributed to this report.

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