U.C.L.A. and Southern California on Thursday appeared ready to jump from the Pac-12 Conference to the Big Ten in the coming years, a move that would trigger another seismic remaking of the competitive and economic landscapes of college sports.
The maneuvering came as the Big Ten, whose membership currently includes 14 universities in a predominantly Midwestern footprint running from Nebraska to New Jersey, closed in on a new television contract that was expected to be among the richest in college sports history. The Big Ten expected to receive formal applications from the California universities as soon as Thursday, with a vote of university presidents and chancellors likely to follow soon after.
A Big Ten stampede into the Southern California media market would indisputably establish it as the most powerful counterweight to the Southeastern Conference and further concentrate influence in an industry bombarded by political and legal pressures over athletes’ rights. The exodus of U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. would also imperil the Pac-12 Conference, which has counted the schools within its ranks since the 1920s but has struggled in recent years to keep pace financially and on the field with the Big Ten and the SEC.
It was not even a year ago that Oklahoma and Texas decided to depart the Big 12 Conference for the SEC, which has lately been the country’s premier college football league. Their moves sparked a round of realignment around the country.
The membership rolls of the Big Ten and the Pac-12, though, remained unchanged through the tumult. The leagues, searching for a check on the SEC’s swelling might, even joined forces with the Atlantic Coast Conference, another Power 5 league, on some issues.
Then came Thursday’s threat of defections, discussed in secret for months and first reported by The Mercury News.
A person familiar with the deliberations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private, said that U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. had approached the Big Ten about the possibility of joining the league. Especially in an industry governed by contracts and bylaws, with millions of dollars a year at stake for schools in Power 5 conferences, the sequence of events can be crucial for legal reasons.
If both the Big Ten and SEC expand as expected, each will have at least 16 universities within the next few years, including some of the most popular brands in college sports. The Big Ten’s membership already includes Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.
The additions of U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. would assuredly add to the Big Ten’s stature, and probably its television ratings, too. The two Los Angeles universities have been the anchors of the Pac-12 in its various forms over the decades, with long histories of attracting attention for athletic excellence.
U.S.C. has long been the marquee college football franchise on the West Coast with its lengthy list of national championship teams, Heisman Trophy winners and its distinctive white horse, Traveler, carrying a Trojan mascot up and down the sideline at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Across town in Westwood, U.C.L.A. projects a similar standing in men’s basketball, with the Bruins playing under 11 national championship banners at Pauley Pavilion and boasting a rich catalog of alumni who have starred in the N.B.A.
U.S.C., which is planning for the debut of Lincoln Riley, a former coach at Oklahoma, is a diminished football power compared with the early 2000s when it won a share of two national titles and perennially competed for others under Coach Pete Carroll. U.C.L.A.’s football team has struggled for relevance locally in recent years. But the schools dangle plenty of benefits for the Big Ten, including a robust presence in the nation’s second-largest television market and even smoother access to one of its richest recruiting bases.
In recent years, as the Pac-12’s fortunes have waned in football — and as the league was hamstrung by a television deal that pays its schools tens of millions of dollars less per year than the Big Ten’s contract — schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson have regularly mined Southern California for elite talent.
Beyond football and men’s basketball, U.C.L.A. and U.S.C. are forces in the so-called Olympic sports. U.S.C., for instance, has won national championships in beach volleyball, women’s outdoor track and field and men’s tennis in the last decade. For its part, U.C.L.A. has won recent titles in baseball, beach volleyball, women’s gymnastics, women’s soccer, softball and women’s tennis. Both schools have also won titles in water polo, which is not a Pac-12-sponsored sport for men or women.
Overshadowed by the potential financial windfall is the increased burden placed on athletes, be they football players or distance runners, who will regularly travel to make round trips from Los Angeles to far-flung campuses in State College, Pa.; New Brunswick, N.J.; and College Park, Md., for competition.
Any deal luring U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. would most likely lift a shadow from Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner, who drew criticism in 2020 when his league initially decided not to play the fall football season because of the pandemic. Although the conference ultimately reversed its decision and staged a fraction of the games it had planned, the episode has shadowed Warren’s tenure. (The Pac-12, under Larry Scott, also canceled and revived its 2020 football season.)
At the same time, the potential departures of U.S.C. and U.C.L.A. pose a sharp test for George Kliavkoff, who became the Pac-12 commissioner a year ago. Last August, in the wake of the decisions by Oklahoma and Texas, the league said it did not plan to expand “at this time,” in part because of “the current competitive strength and cohesiveness of our 12 universities.”
Kevin Draper contributed reporting.