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Big Ten commissioner leaves open possibility for more expansion

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren spoke publicly for the first time about the conference adding Southern California and UCLA in 2024. (Darron Cummings/AP)

INDIANAPOLIS — Less than a month after his conference sparked a seismic shift in college sports, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren pledged to continue to be “bold” and “aggressive” in how the league navigates a rapidly changing landscape. Warren’s most significant and stunning move in that effort came in late June when he welcomed UCLA and Southern California to the conference, beginning with the 2024 season — a decision that proved financial gains trump geography in this era of realignment. And Warren didn’t discount the possibility of future expansion.

Warren, speaking publicly for the first time since the Big Ten announced its newest members, now leads a Midwest-rooted conference that extended to the East Coast with the additions of Rutgers and Maryland in 2014 and will stretch across four time zones to Los Angeles. He wants the Big Ten to stay relevant and embrace change, and he’s poised to have a 16-team league that can rival the mighty SEC. The other conferences, meanwhile, are left wondering what’s next as these two powers separate themselves from the rest.

“The Big Ten Conference will not languish in bureaucracy,” Warren said at the league’s media days Tuesday. “We will be innovative, we will be creative, we’ll be bold, we’ll be strong, we’ll be powerful, and we’ll be direct to make sure we can prioritize what’s important to our student-athletes, what’s important to our fans, what’s important to our member institutions, what’s important to our partners as we help shape and direct the future of college athletics.”

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The massive market of Los Angeles is poised to make the Big Ten’s upcoming media rights deal even more lucrative than the $1 billion annual price tag the conference had been reportedly set to attract before the announcement of its newest members. Warren acknowledged Tuesday that the additions of UCLA and USC “will allow us to be even bolder when it comes to corporate partnership and activation.”

Conference leaders unveiled last year an alliance among the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12, touting trust and a shared vision for the future of college sports. That forged bond — not held together by a contract, the need for which was shrugged off by administrators at the time — came in the wake of Oklahoma and Texas announcing their intention to jump from the Big 12 to the SEC. The Big Ten followed suit a year later by adding two major programs — doing so before the conference had finished finalizing that media rights deal. Warren said the new agreement is expected to be complete soon, but he would not disclose specific figures.

The Big Ten’s future, Warren said, “may include future expansion, but it will be done for the right reasons at the right time.”

He added: “We will not expand just to expand. It will be strategic, it will add additional value to our conference, and it will provide a platform to even have our student-athletes be put on a larger platform so they can build their careers.”

UCLA and USC will join the conference as full members, Warren said. Those schools will receive a full share of revenue from the start — unlike other recent additions Maryland, Rutgers and Nebraska, which initially received only a partial share after joining the conference.

Warren lauded the value of UCLA and USC, referencing media partners and a large Big Ten alumni base in Los Angeles. With late kickoffs on the West Coast, the conference’s television programming will last all day and into the night.

“You’re going to wake up watching Big Ten football and go to bed watching Big Ten football,” Northwestern Coach Pat Fitzgerald said.

As Warren, whose tenure as commissioner began in 2020, interviewed for the job, he said he had already begun considering expansion and studied schools across the country. Two years in as the leader of the Big Ten, he said, “We had to be forward-thinking as far as what we needed to do.”

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The Big Ten’s expansion will send teams on long trips to Los Angeles, and UCLA and USC will have frequent flights to the Midwest and East Coast. The SEC’s expansion, on the other hand, kept the conference’s schools confined to contiguous states. The Big Ten’s huge footprint could be particularly cumbersome for sports programs that compete multiple times per week, but Warren downplayed concerns about how that could affect athletes academically, focusing on what he called the “opportunities” of a conference that stretches across the country and how the conference has two years to work through scheduling challenges.

“It is what it is,” said Maryland Coach Michael Locksley, whose team will travel more than 2,600 miles to Los Angeles. “For us, we’ll play the games that end up on our schedule. We’ll manage it and come up with a way to hopefully allow us and get out there to play our best. But [it’s] great to have those two storied programs come to the Big Ten.”

The jarring new footprint of the Big Ten came as a byproduct of what should be a massive financial windfall for the conference and its schools. And that ensures they can weather a changing environment.

When Warren attended law school at Notre Dame, he said, he would drive from Chicago to South Bend, Ind., and see a Sears Roebuck building alongside the highway. He remembers as a child picking out birthday gifts from the department store’s catalogues — now a relic of the past.

“I don’t want to be Sears and Roebuck,” Warren said. “… I want to make decisions that, when we look back 30 years from now, people will say that the Big Ten Conference was ahead of the curve in making these decisions.”