With little choice left, Cal needs to accept whatever reduced Big Ten offer they get
After a tumultuous week, the California Golden Bears must do whatever they can to prioritize their survival in college athletics.
After the Pac-12 ceased to exist on Friday, Cal fans spent much of it mourning. But it’s time to start thinking about what’s next.
There have been rumors that what remains of the Pac-12 has been in discussion with the Mountain West about a potential merger to consolidate before the 2024 season. Cal, Oregon State and Washington State are interested. Stanford will participate but is rumored too be actively opposed.
That being said, this is a fool’s errand. At least for the foreseeable future, Cal needs to be in a major college conference. Relegation is not an option.
If California were to move back to the Mountain West, the Golden Bears could not sustain the level of excellence and financial support required to support 30 sports. Projected plunges in ticket sales and ESP (Memorial Stadium premium donor seating) sales would effectively bury Cal in red ink. Major cuts of our most successful sports and eliminations of entire programs would be on the menu. Hundreds of athletes, many from disadvantaged programs, would no longer have the chance to earn a life-changing degree from the best university on the planet.
And we haven’t even gotten to the $200+ million albatross of the Memorial Stadium debt, with service repayments set to balloon by 2033. Cal moving down a conference will make it impossible for that debt to be re-serviced on time from the athletic department. If the university can’t handle repaying that debt nearly all of that burden would then have to be passed back to either the state of California. And if the state declines, it’ll likely be passed onto the students in escalating fee service.
UC Berkeley, already struggling with rising costs and rounds of budget cuts, would become even more unaffordable for the common student. It is a reality no one wants.
There are many alternatives for survival that can help us avoid these worst-case scenarios. A MountainPac is not it.
Three realistic options exist for finding a new home.
There’s the Big Ten, which remains the North Star for the university for a myriad of reasons. Although the Big Ten did seem to consider Cal and Stanford earlier this week, the rate at which they accepted Oregon and Washington was unpalatable to the TV networks.
There’s the Big 12, which still has some interest in accepting two more members. There is a lot of cultural and academic baggage though, and it seems as if Cal and Stanford aren’t particularly interested in the overall fit, despite four other Pac-12 programs already joining. The Big 12 also seems ready to move onto basketball-only/basketball-first programs like Gonzaga or UConn, or maybe looking at saving Oregon State and Washington State.
There’s the ACC, which feels like a better fit culturally. However, this will be harder to justify.
There are too many investments Cal has made in the past decades to attempt any sort of relegation. Obviously, from the three cases above, the Big Ten is the most palatable, with the Big 12 an option Cal might have to swallow their pride and accept if there is no other opportunity.
I’m not going to go over the case of why Cal should accept a Big Ten offer. The case for why is pretty obvious at this point, but I also basically wrote the piece about why it works for all parties last year:
I still think that in the long run, Cal and Stanford will get Big Ten invites. Big Ten university presidents are very excited at the prospect of having the two best academic football programs in the land in their conference. It’d also greatly reduce the stress of travel that only four west coast programs would face having to trek midwest, as half the schedule for these six teams would then be set in the West.
However, the media companies (particularly Fox) aren't in a giving mood, and they hold the purse strings. Since Cal and Stanford are at their lowest possible negotiation point, Fox will likely set much harsher terms that both programs will have to be willing to accept to stay alive.
Because Cal has zero leverage, they will be very reduced deals compared to what Oregon and Washington received. I’d estimate around $25 million to start, with slight escalators to match Big 12 numbers, and possibly will not get a full share even at the next Big Ten renegotiation in 2029.
This would be a grave embarrassment for Cal, who should have at least come in at the same level as Oregon & Washington if they'd been proactive in negotiations and fought for themselves. They unfortunately hamstrung themselves at every turn and will now have to just eat whatever terms are given. It is the price the Bears will pay for not taking realignment seriously enough, as they assumed time and time again their academic prestige would save them. There is likely to be some payout from UCLA, but it will still be a significant revenue gap.
I know there are many Cal fans and alum who want to give up the game. That is not a practical reality. Giving up Cal sports will significantly reduce donations at a time where UC Berkeley needs every dollar to offset state budget cuts, plus hundreds of millions in stadium debt.
Is Cal further away from dreams of success as a second-tier B1G member? Yes. But I've had mediocre Cal football my entire college alum life, so it’s not like anything is changing in that regard.
Things don't have to be great to justify their existence. They deserve to exist because people care about them.
Even a reduced share in the Big Ten is enough to keep Cal alive, and more importantly fulfill the dreams of hundreds of athletes to get a degree from the best public university on the planet.
I'd like for us to keep fulfilling our mission, even if competing will be much harder.