Shocking news pulsated through the sporting world earlier this summer when USC and UCLA announced that the schools were in deep talks to join the Big Ten conference beginning in 2024. The next day, the current members of the Big Ten voted to accept the institutions as members, bringing the conference’s total to 16 teams that now stretch from New Jersey to Los Angeles.
The development — along with Texas’ and Oklahoma’s decision to leave the Big 12 for the SEC last summer — gives more fuel to the fire of an idea that has long been hypothesized by those in the college football media landscape. Many experts and fans alike believe that the sport is moving into a new age of “mega-conferences,” where the Big Ten and SEC both expand further and become the dominant forces in college football.
The reasoning behind this change all relates to the media deals signed by each conference for the television rights to its sporting events. Currently, the Big Ten and SEC already bring in more revenue per school than the other three Power Five conferences — the ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 — but according to a projection by Navigate, that gap is expected to explode by the end of the decade. In 2029, for instance, the SEC is predicted to bring in $117.8 million in revenue per school, nearly $60 million more than its ACC foes. With the Big Ten not far behind in the media arms race, it is certainly understandable why the two conferences seem to have disproportionate amounts of power.
But how is Virginia affected by all this? While the Cavaliers may not be receiving quite as much money in the ACC per year, the conference is still quite stable, especially compared to the Big 12 and Pac-12. In addition, Virginia has enjoyed national athletic success recently, winning two national championships in the past spring alone — the ACC provides strong levels of competition across nearly all sports, setting its member schools up for tremendous postseason success. Why would the Cavaliers want to leave?
For lack of a better term, Virginia should not want to miss the boat when it comes to having an opportunity to join one of the two major conferences. Especially with the UCLA and USC news, the tides seem to be turning in favor of the Big Ten and SEC simply operating at a different level than the rest, and should Virginia want to compete with the best of the best in college athletics, it would be ideal to be in one of the two conferences with the most financial benefits. Over time, the conferences with the most money will be able to sustain higher levels of competition year over year, and with a strong possibility of other ACC schools moving elsewhere, the ACC may be trending downwards.
A recent report suggested that Virginia was actually in deeper negotiations with the SEC, and although leaving the ACC for any conference is a step in the right direction, the Big Ten would actually be a better fit for the Cavaliers even with all the history that the school has with its ACC opponents — it is possible that a number of Virginia’s closest rivals would elect to join the SEC as opposed to the Big Ten.
First of all, one of the Big Ten’s unspoken requirements is that its member institutions also be a part of the Association of American Universities, a prestigious group of research schools of which Virginia is a member. While Nebraska — a current member of the Big Ten — is no longer a part of the AAU, the school was expelled from the group after its acceptance into the Big Ten, and it has been emphasized that being part of the AAU is an important criteria for any school looking to join the conference. The Big Ten takes its academics seriously, and Virginia would fit right in in that regard.
In addition, one of the major critiques of conference realignment is the fact that teams may lose their regional rivals, and while that may be true for most conference moves, the Cavaliers are actually uniquely situated to keep playing the teams they love to hate. Virginia and Virginia Tech being in the same conference was actually a recent development — the Hokies did not join the ACC until 2004 — and yet the two found a way to play football nearly every year. In addition, the Cavaliers would be reunited with Maryland, who is arguably the second most hated school in Charlottesville. The Terrapins themselves left the ACC for the Big Ten in 2014, and the two schools haven’t played football since. So while some colleges would indeed lose their rivals due to realignment, that may not be the case for Virginia with a move to the Big Ten.
The Cavaliers simply can’t request to join, though. For starters, the Big Ten would need to want Virginia to join, and after adding the two Los Angeles colleges, the conference seems to be content with its set of 16 members. In addition, the media rights deal the ACC signed with ESPN lasts until 2036 and would be very difficult and costly to get out of, an issue that Virginia and other ACC schools would run into in any scenario that involves leaving the conference. The odds are certainly stacked against the Cavaliers in this regard, but if the opportunity ever comes to join the Big Ten, the decision should be easy.