Our vision for the future of Pac-12 football: It’s 2033, and the conference has reformed with the old guard

Changes across the sport will create a mini-NFL and four regional leagues, including the Pac-14

LAS VEGAS, DECEMBER 2, 2033 — Utah head coach Morgan Scalley emerged from an ecstatic locker room and made his way to his family, who was waiting nearby. After all, this was a victory for the new era: the Pac-14 championship in 2033, secured with a dominant performance against underdog Stanford.

Scalley would elaborate during his postgame press conference. But, for the time being, he paused his conversation with a small group of reporters.

“What a ride this has been,” he remarked.

In more than one way.

The victory established Utah as the premier program in the Pac-14’s inaugural season. After being written off as dead a decade ago, the conference reformed following the dissolution of the Power Four and now includes many former members, including Utah, Stanford, UCLA, and the Arizona schools, as well as a few new ones. (Greetings, Brigham Young!)

“This is what college sports are supposed to be about,” added Scalley. “They can have their money and their bargaining power.” “We are very pleased with how everything turned out.”

He was, of course, referring to the CFB SuperLeague, a group of 24 programs that broke away from the NCAA in the early 2030s to form their own entity. (Some have mockingly dubbed it NFL Lite or NFL 2.0.)

Scalley’s happiness was understandable. He was Utah’s defensive coordinator during the program’s transition from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 a decade ago. He accepted the change, but, like retired Utah legend Kyle Whittingham, he was concerned that the sport was destroying itself from within.

“I don’t know that I would have predicted the events that led us to this point,” he said, “but I’m thrilled it unfolded the way it did.”

The Pac-12’s slow death and stunning rebirth began on June 30, 2022, when USC and UCLA announced their departure for the Big Ten, sending the conference into an existential crisis.

After former commissioner George Kliavkoff failed to secure a satisfactory media rights agreement the following summer, eight more schools left the conference.

Only Colorado was overjoyed with the new arrangement, as the Buffaloes were returning to their long-standing home in the Big 12. For everyone else, switching conferences was a last-ditch effort motivated by frustration and desperation.

The fall of 2023 saw one of the most exciting seasons in conference history, with No. 3 Washington facing No. 5 Oregon for the championship. Off the field, the schools were locked in a legal battle over control of assets and revenues.

The universities left behind in the realignment game, Washington State and Oregon State, would eventually reach a mediated settlement with the ten departing members and take control of what was unofficially dubbed the ‘Pac-2’ conference.

The Cougars and Beavers scrambled to secure a two-season scheduling agreement with the Mountain West, then completed a full merger with the MW, albeit with a caveat: the new configuration retained the Pac-12’s name, allowing the schools to benefit from the historic conference’s intellectual property value.

The conference signed a media rights deal with Fox, CBS, and Apple under then-commissioner Gloria Nevarez that began in the fall of 2026 and lasted the rest of the decade.

The early 2020s realignment wave had passed, and the Football Bowl Subdivision structure was set — at least in the short term, because the foundation was anything but stable.

The NCAA’s economic model was blown to smithereens as the sport thrived under the 12-team playoff format. Grant House, a former Arizona State swimmer, has filed a class-action antitrust lawsuit.

House and his attorneys claimed that the NCAA owed thousands of college athletes in all sports years of backpay for the use of their name, image, and likeness (NIL).

Because penalties in antitrust suits are tripled, this would have been disastrous for the NCAA. However, House claimed that NIL accounted for 10% of the value of each conference’s TV deals, pushing the potential damages into the billions.

Days before the trial, in January 2025, the defendants — the NCAA and the Power Five — reached a settlement with far-reaching implications:

— Prior to NIL becoming legal in 2021, the schools were forced to pay the House plaintiffs $3 billion in compensation.

— Beginning with the fiscal year 2028, 8.5 percent of all media rights revenue distributed by TV networks to power conferences was set aside for athletes, with football and basketball players receiving a disproportionate share under a revenue-sharing agreement that changed everything.

The math was difficult. Big Ten schools, for example, were forced to distribute tens of millions of dollars in NIL backpay and share $90 million in media rights (from contracts with Fox, CBS, and NBC) with the athletes.

What happened next seemed unthinkable at the time, but by the mid-2020s, it was considered unavoidable: athletic departments across the country were forced to downsize, with Olympic sports taking the biggest hit.

Schools reduced the number of scholarships available and cut back on infrastructure. They even contracted out operations.

It was insufficient to offset the House’s impact. Why? Because the costs of sending soccer and softball teams across the country for conference play, which had previously been a detriment to the athletes’ well-being, became financially unsustainable for the schools.

As a result, there was a massive realignment at the Olympic level.

Regional leagues were formed, all modeled after the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation, which had sponsored sports such as water polo, fencing, and gymnastics for schools in the Mountain and Pacific Time Zones for many years.

The restructuring of Olympic sports helped reduce costs, but it was ultimately the equivalent of applying a Band-Aid to a severed limb.

Because the House case was not the only one putting a strain on the system.

In the mid-2020s, the National Labor Relations Board defied legal precedent and determined that college football and basketball players qualified for employment status.

Thought to have jurisdiction only over private universities, the NLRB filed a complaint against USC that cleverly named the NCAA as a joint employer, paving the way for jurisdiction over athletes at all public universities covered by the NCAA.

Athletes were granted legal protection to collectively bargain for better working conditions from the NCAA after a lengthy court process. The ultimate benefits would include a ground-breaking expansion of mental and physical health coverage.

With costs skyrocketing as a result of the House settlement and the NLRB ruling, and the market for coaching salaries steadily rising — Alabama’s Nick Saban became the first $20 million coach after winning his 11th national title in 2031 — athletic departments across the country were under enormous pressure to find new sources of revenue.

Naturally, they mentioned media rights contracts as a possibility. However, by the late 2020s, the media landscape had dramatically changed:

— During the decade, cord-cutting accelerated, with the cable bundle remaining in approximately 25% of all U.S. households. (By 2023, it will be 46%.)

— ESPN’s direct-to-consumer platform, which launched in 2026, had roughly 15% of all TV homes.

— Cable companies shifted their strategy, placing broadband access first and video delivery second.

Most importantly, technological advancement resulted in the development of a single, integrated platform through which viewers could seamlessly transition between linear and streaming video delivery. (Consumers were no longer required to close an app in order to switch from Apple to ESPN.)

However, the same viewership trends that dominated the early 2020s continued into the later years. Consumption was dominated by live sports and news, but media companies became more selective in their pursuit of college football inventory.

All of these forces were at work when the Big Ten met in early 2029 to begin negotiating a new media rights contract.

By this point, the Big Ten was about as stable as the ACC was in 2023 (not very). Under enormous financial pressure, Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and USC banded together and demanded that the conference abandon its equal-share revenue model.

The resulting agreement, negotiated by commissioner Jen Cohen, directed a sizable portion of media rights revenue to a small number of schools, making it difficult for others to compete.

(When the SEC media negotiations began a few years later, speculation on the social media platform Y was rampant that Alabama, Georgia, and Texas would take the same approach.)

The foundation for traditional media rights deals was eroding beneath the surface.

The Big Ten’s broadcast partners had grown tired of paying exorbitant fees for games like Minnesota-Illinois and Indiana-Rutgers. They no longer needed agreements with entire conferences; they needed agreements with specific schools — with the schools that drove the ratings.

After months of wrangling, a deal was struck that signaled the beginning of the end of the conference structure: Fox, which controlled the Big Ten’s inventory, collaborated with the conference’s bluebloods on a long-term contract that, crucially, included an out clause after Year 3 — in the summer of 2033.

The following year, Fox and ESPN inserted language similar to this into the Big 12’s media agreement. (The terms were unsettling for a conference that had enjoyed unprecedented security and alignment throughout the 2020s, but the schools had no choice: the networks were entrenched.)

Why were the exclusion clauses tied to the summer of 2033? Because the window coincided with the final year of the SEC’s media contract, which ESPN could void if it so desired at a reasonable but negotiated cost.

As the 2030s began, the contractual framework for top-tier programs to opt out of their media deals was in place. The escape clause made legal and political sense. It was far easier for the bluebloods to form a new entity than to kick low-level programs out of the existing leagues.

Former Fox Sports president and keen observer of the college football landscape Bob Thompson coined the phrase “up and out” in the fall of 2023 — and it stuck.

However, there was one more stumbling block to “up and out”: the mechanism for forming the CFB SuperLeague.

After all, Title IX concerns and antitrust laws combined to form a formidable collective opposition to any entity formed by breakaway schools and their media overlords.

However, consultants had been quietly working on the problem for years. Their solution: Establish a new college football entity, independent of the NCAA, owned and operated by a third party with the cash to fund operations in the early years.

Indeed, consultants approached executives at Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — the entity behind LIV Golf — about providing financial support at one point. University presidents eventually abandoned the plan, fearful of the backlash on campuses and in state and local governments.

But the broader concept remained: private equity could save the new entity and shield it from certain legal challenges. However, it required the right frontman — someone who could work behind the scenes with key presidents and understood the power of college football.

Mark Keenum, the former Mississippi State president, was chosen.

After the conference commissioners couldn’t agree on a format, Keenum was the driving force behind College Football Playoff expansion in 2022. After two decades on the job, the former small-college football player stepped down from his post in Starkville in 2029, but he didn’t hesitate to accept the new position. (His presence ensured the inclusion of Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the CFB SuperLeague.)

There were numerous logistical difficulties. However, thanks to private equity support and opt-out clauses in media contracts, most obstacles were overcome with relative ease:

— The CFB SuperLeague’s 24-team schedule began in late August, on what was formerly known as Week Zero. (This was an easy sell, as numerous studies revealed that traditional four-week training camps were the leading cause of head trauma in college football.)

— The league was split into four divisions of six teams, with no regard for geography. The schedules were based on the previous season’s standings, with two protected games for each team.

— The 12-team playoff was modeled after the NFL and began the second week of December with four rounds of play.

— All of the bluebloods were involved, including Florida State and Clemson, who bought their way out of the ACC’s grant-of-rights, as well as a handful of SEC and Big Ten second-tier programs.

— Three schools from what was once known as the Pac-12 were selected: USC, Oregon, and Washington.

(UCLA, which was part of the original West Coast exodus to the Big Ten, lacked the competitive success, financial resources, TV ratings, and brand clout to be admitted.)

The final piece — the political and legal pushback from schools left behind in the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, and Big 12 — was handled fairly smoothly, thanks to an unlikely source: elite academic institutions.

Their opposition to the idea of a super league began years ago, when the House case and NLRB ruling established a revenue-sharing model for college athletics while undermining the value and funding of Olympic sports.

Stanford and Cal initiated the chain of events in the late 2020s after realizing that life in the ACC was unsustainable for their athletes in all sports except football. Duke, Vanderbilt, and Northwestern were quick to follow after the Bay Area schools reset their mission.

(The formation of regional conferences for Olympic sports provided academic-oriented schools with enough cover to escape the football machinery that produced the CFB SuperLeague.)

Eventually, the schools barred from the CFB SuperLeague embraced a mission for higher education reimagined for the 2030s: a sustainable model that used college athletics as a vehicle to create community leaders and an empowered workforce.

The remaining 40-something football schools in what was once the Power Five reformed across regional, sensible lines as the bluebloods executed the out clauses in the media deals — and as private equity took over the CFB SuperLeague.

As everyone knows, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, and Brigham Young left the Big 12 to form the Pac-14 with UCLA, Stanford, Cal, Washington State, and Oregon State, as well as the top Mountain West football schools. (In terms of size and regionality, the Big 12, ACC, and Big Ten are comparable.

Despite the millions of dollars thrown at the CFB SuperLeague, the demand for high-quality college football with plenty of regional rivalries created a healthy media market.

The budgets were lower than those of the SuperLeague schools, and the number of sponsored sports was lower, but on-field competition thrived. (Everyone loves their alma mater, and everyone loves college football.)

Regional conference leaders wisely looked to the past for a postseason model. The Utes will play Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl after defeating Stanford in the Pac-14 championship game in 2033.

“We’ll take two weeks off for final exams and some rest,” Scalley explained, “and then we’ll get right back to it.” You are entitled to your SuperLeague. After all, these kids are still in college.”

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