Up until 1990, the Big Ten was a conference parked comfortably in the Midwest, with college campuses from Columbus, Ohio, in the East to Minneapolis in the North and West.
Then came the surge of conference expansion throughout the country, ignited by the Big Ten’s addition of Penn State in 1990. Nebraska joined the league in 2011, and Maryland and Rutgers in 2014, giving the conference a bigger footprint in the college athletics landscape.
On Thursday night, that footprint suddenly stretched across the country from Piscataway, NJ, to Los Angeles. The Big Ten on its network announced that the University of Southern California and UCLA have been approved by the league to be the conference’s 15th and 16th members.
“USC and UCLA are two of the best and most competitive athletic departments in the nation and their presence will bolster the entire conference.”
This seismic shift, first reported Thursday by the San Jose Mercury News, will see USC and UCLA leaving the Pacific-12 Conference to become official Big Ten members on Aug. 2, 2024, and start Big Ten play in the 2024-25 season. Big Ten presidents unanimously approved the move on Thursday night. Both schools issued news releases confirming the moves.
“Ultimately, the Big Ten is the best home for USC and Trojan athletics as we move into the new world of collegiate sports,” USC athletic director Mike Bohn said in a statement. “We are excited that our values align with the league’s member institutions.”
“We recognize these are big changes,” UCLA’s statement read. “… The best way to respect that is to protect our program from the great uncertainty it would face if we did not make this transition.”
The move comes nearly a year after news broke that Oklahoma and Texas are leaving the Big 12 Conference to join the Southeastern Conference no later than 2025. The Big Ten responded to the SEC’s maneuver, with both leagues angling to be the nation’s most powerful conference.
Sports Illustrated reported that USC and UCLA expressed interest in changing conferences several months ago and approached the Big Ten. Both schools are members of the Association of American Universities, a designation that has been historically important for Big Ten membership.
The news comes while the Big Ten is in negotiations for its next media rights contract, with the current one expiring after the 2022-23 school year. A new deal is expected to command $1 billion or more per season. The current media rights deal, which started in 2017, was for $2.65 billion over six years. Adding the Los Angeles market would enhance the Big Ten’s appeal for TV ratings, and estimates are that each school could receive $100 million annually from the new rights deal.
Reports say the move will include all sports except beach volleyball. UCLA has varsity teams in 11 men’s sports and 14 women’s sports, while USC sponsors 10 men’s sports and 13 women’s sports.
The loss of USC and UCLA would leave the Pac-12 with 10 teams — and none in its major media center of Los Angeles. The long-term viability of the conference is in question, and further movement with Big 12 teams as potential partners is possible.
In a statement, the Pac-12 said it was “extremely surprised and disappointed” with the move.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel said in a statement that “the additions of USC and UCLA align perfectly with the Big Ten’s academic and athletic culture.” Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle added that “USC and UCLA are two of the best and most competitive athletic departments in the nation and their presence will bolster the entire conference. … This is an exciting day for Minnesota, USC, UCLA and the Big Ten.”
So, what does the addition of USC and UCLA mean for the Gophers?
First, the Gophers — and every other conference member — likely will get more money from the media rights contract than they would have without the additions. With USC and UCLA in the fold, the conference would have teams in five of the nation’s top seven TV markets — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC — and the power to drive a harder bargain.
Next, this move is driven by football, and the Gophers eventually will get to play conference games against two prominent teams. USC has won nine national championships that are recognized by the NCAA and has played in 34 Rose Bowls, the most of any team. UCLA has one national championship and 12 Rose Bowl appearances, including the Jan. 1, 1962, game in which the Gophers beat the Bruins 21-3.
Minnesota has faced USC nine times, going 6-1-1, with the most recent series being a 32-21 Gophers loss in Minneapolis in 2010 and a 19-17 Gophers loss in Los Angeles in 2011. Against UCLA, the Gophers are 2 -1 all time, with that Rose Bowl win and a 27-13 home win in 1977 along with a 17-3 road loss in 1978.
For Gophers men’s basketball, the addition of USC and UCLA will result in more access to the Southern California recruiting market, an area that coach Ben Johnson and his staff have targeted. And of course, UCLA, a team with a record 11 NCAA championships, will provide a marquee opponent. In addition, USC has been on the upswing, winning 20 or more games in six of the past seven seasons.
Both schools are all-sports powers, too, with the Bruins winning 119 NCAA team championships and the Trojans 111 in their history. Only Stanford has more, with 131.