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A seismic shakeup in college sports as UCLA and USC join Big Ten

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Another seismic shakeup has once again changed the look of big-time college sports. Yesterday, the Big Ten gave the OK for UCLA and the University of Southern California to join that conference. So starting in 2024, the two PAC-12 schools will be a part of a conference that's grounded in the Midwest and stretches to the East Coast.

Joining me now is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hey, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So I guess the first question I have for you here is why would these two PAC-12 stalwarts bolt for the Big Ten?

GOLDMAN: I assume you won't be surprised if I tell you money.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMAN: Pat Forde of Sports Illustrated said it well - and I'm quoting here - "added revenue drives every decision in modern college sports now, regardless of the damage done to things like tradition, geographic sense, the student-athlete experience and any semblance of collegiality."

Now, UCLA and USC are leaving a PAC-12 conference that's lost some relevance in recent years, and they're joining a true power conference in the Big Ten, which is negotiating what's expected to be a huge new TV contract. And now UCLA and USC can partake in the riches. We also should point out money is particularly important after sizable losses to universities and athletic departments because of the pandemic.

SUMMERS: I assume, then, that this move also brings some benefit to the Big Ten, right?

GOLDMAN: Oh, it sure does. The Big Ten now can take advantage of the country's second-largest TV market in Los Angeles. Recruiting athletes from that region will be easier. There are lots of rich Southern California boosters and donors and business owners, which can make for a very fertile ground for name, image and likeness deals for athletes now in the Big Ten. And beyond football and basketball, the California schools bring excellence in so-called minor sports, including Olympic sports, to the Big Ten. It also keeps the Big Ten right up there with the Southeastern Conference, the other superconference that last year added Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12. In fact, the UCLA/USC move really is an answer to that.

SUMMERS: OK, so what about the PAC-12? What does this do to the conference that's kind of being left behind here?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. You know, you hear some talking about a death knell for the conference. It weakens it. It makes it less attractive to TV networks, which is where the big money comes from. And the PAC-12 may continue to splinter. Some of the schools left behind may be absorbed by the Big Ten or some other conference. Also, suddenly, the Rose Bowl, called the granddaddy of them all, what will happen to that famous football bowl game, the traditional New Year's Day matchup in Pasadena of the Big Ten and PAC-12? With the PAC-12 now devalued, will the Rose Bowl's reputation take a major hit?

SUMMERS: All right, Tom, let's go back to that quote you read about how this defection by UCLA and USC damages regional rivalries as well as the student-athlete experience. How does it do that?

GOLDMAN: Well, UCLA and USC develop those regional conference rivalries over decades. USC first played Stanford in football in 1905. UCLA first met Cal Berkeley in 1933. Now, no more, or at least it's going to happen rarely. And the Southern California schools will be flying cross-country and back for conference games, which gets to the impact on athletes. Don't underestimate the toll from lots of jet lag, the potential impact on scholastics - remember, Juana, the NCAA likes to call them student athletes. Also, with so much more money in play now in these two superconferences, the SCC and Big Ten, athletes in revenue-generating sports might demand more than the name, image and likeness deals that began a year ago. Certainly seems they have the right to do that, which could inch us closer to professionalizing college sport.

SUMMERS: NPR's sports correspondent Tom Goldman, thank you.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.