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I Never Thought Conference Realignment Would Happen To ME
The world is changing for Cal fans forever.
I always thought that history and geography would protect the Pac. By extension, I always thought that history and geography would protect Cal.
UCLA joined the Pacific Coast Conference in 1928, just nine years after the university was founded. That put Cal, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington, and Washington State all in the same conference. And other than a five year gap from 1959 through 1964 following multiple pay-for-play scandals that led to the dissolution of the PCC, those eight schools have been in the same conference the entire time.
We’ve all watched endless rounds of conference re-alignment over the years turn other conferences into a revolving door of arrivals and departures, with no thought to anything but the bottom line. Blissfully, the Pac had essentially been immune.
When UCLA and USC leave the Pac-12 at the end of the 2023-24 season, they will end 96 years of continual history between eight schools that I honestly didn’t think would ever split up. Sure, the Pac has changed via expansion over time, adding Arizona, ASU, Colorado, and Utah. But for Cal, the spine of the original PCC established in the 20s was always there for you to schedule your fall around. Excepting the COVID season, Cal has played every member of the original Pac-12 from 2005 onward.
It’s not necessarily the case that I thought this shared history would insulate the Pac (though I thought it would help). Nebraska blew up their rivalry with Oklahoma for B1G $$$. Texas A&M blew up their rivalry with Texas for SEC $$$. Everybody and their brother left the Big Each or the AAC when a power conference slot was offered. If all things were equal, Pac schools weren’t going to be any different.
But I’m still wrapping my head around the geography of UCLA and USC’s departure, the logistics of it all.
Let’s set aside football for a second, where USC and UCLA will be making at least 3-4 trips between 1,500 to 3,000 miles away each season. Football is at least in a class of its own, with games always on Saturday and chartered flights everywhere.
Last year Big-10 basketball teams played 20 conference games, meaning UCLA men’s and women’s basketball will have to play 9 road games that are each individually further away than the longest Pac-12 road trip possible, to say nothing of a conference tournament.
It’s the same story for every sport that UCLA and USC currently sponsor save M/W water polo and men’s volleyball (MPSF) and women’s beach volleyball. Every baseball, soccer, field hockey and lacrosse road game will require a flight that is 3 to 4 times longer than a typical flight for a Pac-12 road trip.
You may have seen UCLA’s statement* when asked about this new reality:
Although this move increases travel distances for teams, the resources offered by Big Ten membership may allow for more efficient transportation options. We would also explore scheduling accommodations with the Big Ten that best support our student-athletes' academic pursuits.
Maybe the Big 10 will allow UCLA and USC to stack road games on weekends, but I’m guessing this mostly means that the LA schools think they’re going to make so much more money that they can charter flights for more sports than before.
I’ll be thinking about what-ifs for a long time. What if Larry Scott hadn’t royally screwed up the conference’s media rights? What if the pandemic hadn’t happened and UCLA’s debt issues hadn’t gone from bad to catastrophic? What if the UC regents were willing to do anything to prevent this from happening?
But it won’t do anything useful. Cal’s 2nd and 3rd most important rivalries will die.
*You might note that I’m focusing much more on UCLA rather than USC. That’s because there was never any doubt that USC would immediately abandon 100+ years of history for any amount of additional money.
The financial disaster of this shift is obvious; Cal has been struggling to pay the bills without support from campus for decades WITH the LA schools as part of the Pac-12 media deal. Unless Cal somehow gets a B1G invite, it’s hard to envision how Cal can balance the books unless either 1) Olympic sports are cut or 2) campus agrees to perpetually finance a chunk of athletics spending.
But rather than agonize over an existential threat to the athletic department (prove me wrong, Jim Knowlton) I want to instead pour one out for the Pac-12, and particularly the Pac-8.
Speaking only for myself, not competing with UCLA and USC in the same conference, and not playing them annually, is going to greatly impact my interest as a fan.
I’ve travelled down to LA to watch Cal play UCLA or USC four times, and recently started factoring the annual trip into our plans. Each year I look forward to mocking Tribute to Troy and Sons of Westwood, and dreaming about the long sought after California sweep. That’s all gone.
One could argue that I can’t know for sure that my interest will diminish. I haven’t yet experienced this brave new world. But based on how other fans have dealt with conference realignment, I doubt I’ll feel any different.
My step-dad grew up a passionate Nebraska fan, and still mourns the loss of their rivalry with Oklahoma. West Virginia fans aren’t thrilled about having to deal with an ever-changing list of geographically random opponents. Fans of schools that get a B1G or SEC golden ticket can dry their tears on dollar bills, but I think the sport as a whole is diminished as regional rivalries die.
College football has always been an oligarchy at the top, and I’ve come to terms a long time ago that there is a ceiling on what Cal can reasonably achieve in the revenue sports. If you take away games against our rivals, what exactly is left for us to root for each year? Rooting for UCLA and USC to get pantsed by their B1G schedule will get hollow very quickly.
I guess I’m supposed to root for Cal to get a B1G invite of our own, so that we can re-join the rivals who abandoned us, and so that Cal can get the opportunity to abandon Wazzu and OSU in turn? In short, there are no good outcomes, merely less worse outcomes.
There have been plenty of changes to college sports that have turned off some percentage of fans. I’ve largely argued that those changes were good and necessary, that change isn’t necessarily bad. But we’ve found the bridge I’m unwilling to cross.