The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It’s not clear what the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 are doing, but they’re doing it together

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren speaks during Big Ten media days last month in Indianapolis. (Doug McSchooler/AP)

In front of three matching blue backgrounds bearing their three logos, three conference commissioners appeared in the three bubbles of a video news conference Tuesday, formally announcing fresh ties between the 41 schools of the Pac-12, the Big Ten and the ACC.

New ACC commissioner Jim Phillips called it a “groundbreaking alliance.” Relatively new Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren said it was “really special” and “a proud moment.” New Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff spoke of “once-in-a-generation opportunities.”

From their world so steeped in vying entities, they spoke with vagueness about an inclination to collaborate within their three conferences for “thrilling new matchups which will create more rivalries and excitement” (Phillips), “some epic matchups” (Warren), “the creation of these inter-conference games, across all time zones, with interesting new matchups” (Kliavkoff).

Their language attempted to soar above the grubby capitalism of the moment in college sports and especially in college football: the envelopment this summer of Oklahoma and Texas into the SEC, a reality scheduled to begin sometime between now and 2025 and set to lend even bigger muscles to the T-Rex of conferences.

While bringing up other issues gone amok in college sports — name, image and licensing opportunities for athletes, new state and federal laws, reassessments of NCAA power and College Football Playoff expansion, among others — the commissioners kept bringing up a need to counter tumult.

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Phillips told of striving for “a degree of certainty in an environment that has been increasingly unstable,” and “a responsibility to stabilize a volatile environment, to focus in strictly on the things we have to do if we want to see college athletics survive.” Warren used the verb “stabilize,” the noun “turbulence” and the phrase “a year of seismic shifts.” Kliavkoff went for “turmoil.”

Of that SEC expansion, Warren said: “I think what that did is allowed all of us in college athletics to take a step back, maybe take a step forward,” and, “I wouldn’t say this is a reaction to Texas and Oklahoma going to the SEC, but to be totally candid, you have to evaluate what’s going on in the landscape of college athletics.” Phillips said: “In the history of college athletics, one expansion of a conference has usually led to another and another and another,” and reasoned, “We’re better together than we are separate.”

Kliavkoff, fielding a question about whether this might spark the Pac-12 and Big Ten to reduce their number of conference games from nine to eight, allowing for more inter-conference games, noted his league’s media agreement binding until 2024, but said that even in the interim, media partners might find new inter-conference games more attractive. He spoke as one with considerable media experience that includes MGM Resorts, NBCUniversal, Hulu and Hearst.

All parties will turn in late September to the latest wrinkle in the bid to expand the College Football Playoff from four teams to 12, a bid whose committee included SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. There have been concerns about whether a 12-team playoff might tilt SEC-heavy, as has the four-team version.

“Clearly from an ACC standpoint, we haven’t made a football decision about where we will fall,” Phillips said. “We want to take the whole entire period to really vet it.” Said Warren: “I’m a big believer in expanding the College Football Playoff, but also I’m a big believer in being methodical in doing our homework.” And said Kliavkoff, “I’ll just briefly add that the Pac-12 is 100 percent in favor of the expansion of the playoff, that there are issues at the margins.” He said he has been touring to consult his schools, from Boulder, Colo., on Monday, to Pullman, Wash., on Tuesday.

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The alliance, formed and honed across roughly the past month, remains unwritten.

“There’s no signed contract,” Kliavkoff said. “There’s an agreement among three gentlemen. There’s a commitment from forty-one presidents and forty-one chancellors and athletic directors to do what we say we’re going to do.”

“It’s about trust,” Phillips said. “It’s about, we’ve looked each other in the eye. We’ve made an agreement. … If [a contract is] what it takes to get something considerable done, we’ve lost our way.” Warren said that “even though I’m a lawyer,” (as is Kliavkoff) one of his law professors at Notre Dame used to say, “If you have to go back and look at a contract that you signed, you’re probably dealing with the wrong party.”

He spoke of “doing something that is right [in college athletics], for once.”

“Today is a press release,” Kliavkoff said, “but it’s also a commitment, and it’s a commitment among 41 universities.”

Each expressed respect for each other, for Sankey and for Bowlsby, whose league stands to lose its two biggest attractions to Sankey’s, and whose league is not a part of the alliance. “Let me put it directly: We want and need the Big 12 to do well,” Phillips said. “The Big 12 matters in college athletics. The Big 12 matters in Power Five athletics.” He spoke of the need to “do anything we can to make sure college athletics looks similar to what it does today.”

Today, it looks like it has new wallpaper.