The dust is anything but settled, and the college sports landscape we once knew is no more.
Gone will be the days of major regional leagues — where a short road trip connects all of the fiercest rivalries — and times when the NCAA was divided into a Power Five of (supposedly) even conferences.
We are now stepping into new territory, where money reigns supreme over time zones and each school is fighting for its life to not be left out of the next big thing.
On June 30, UCLA and USC were granted invitations to join the Big Ten, leaving their hallmark Pac-12 in a wholly unforeseen move. With the Big Ten on the cusp of a billion-dollar TV deal, the two schools got a head start on jumping ship, shocking many nationwide. The southern Californian giants will formally begin athletic action in their new conference in August 2024.
The change comes on the heels of Texas and Oklahoma accepting invites to the SEC as early as 2024, not to mention Cincinnati, Houston, and UCF incorporating into the Big 12 in July 2023. Little certainty remains about the stability of the Pac-12 and the ACC, let alone any other conference.
With the recent move, the Big Ten will expand from 14 to 16 schools, further expanding the irony with its own name. Of course, one of the foundational universities affected by the shift is Northwestern, which has been a conference member since its inaugural season in 1896.
UCLA and USC have been dominant out west prior to this point: both schools finished their 2021-22 athletic seasons with 13 teams ranked nationally in the Top 25. What exactly does their movement entail for this mid-sized university north of Chicago?
Let’s start with a purely athletic perspective: the revenue sports. For football, it means the Big Ten West will be a hell of a lot more difficult to win (assuming both newbies land there), and the title of “Doormat” to Ohio State/Michigan will no longer be awarded to the team that scrapes together a bunch of wins against strong defensive teams with abysmal offenses.
Especially when factoring in the star-studded lineup that Lincoln Riley has
emptied his pockets for recruited through the transfer portal, Pat Fitzgerald and Co. will likely have to step up their game to stay competitive. On a positive note, if Fitz’s brand new 2023 recruiting class is any indication, the ‘Cats do have the means to show out on the high school trail — several new recruits are Arizona natives, indicating how Fitz and his recruiting team are not afraid to enter the western market as well.
The Angelenos also add to what is already widely considered the most competitive men’s basketball conference in the country. USC and UCLA have combined for 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in the last decade, and the Bruins’ seven postseason bids over that timeframe rival Big Ten giants Michigan State (nine), Michigan (eight), Wisconsin (eight) and Purdue (seven). With the Wildcats having sat near the bottom of the conference the last few seasons, the move likely doesn’t change Northwestern’s chances drastically.
Regarding non-revenue sports, UCLA and USC bring plenty of top-notch teams to the table, including several that the Big Ten currently doesn’t have. Both schools sport nationally-ranked men’s and women’s water polo teams, men’s volleyball teams and beach volleyball teams, the latter of which the Trojans were national champions in 2022.
The major non-revenue addition that Northwestern would play is UCLA softball. The Bruins are far and away the greatest softball team in NCAA history with 13 national championships, and they eliminated the Wildcats in this year’s Women's College World Series. They join the conference as quality competition to Northwestern, and a team that should definitely challenge the ‘Cats for future Big Ten championships while elevating competition in the conference as a whole.
As far as the other sports, it’s clear that the level of competition in the Big Ten will only increase as the quantity of teams increases. Iron sharpens iron, and Northwestern must do everything it can to ensure it is on the winning end of the conference, or it risks being left behind.
The new appearance of the Big Ten makes it known that the conference is no longer just a regional organization, and money is more important than proximity. Expansion does generate more money, but it also creates more problems with travel distance for teams that don’t produce as much revenue.
Eastern teams, like Penn State, Rutgers and Maryland, would have to drive nearly forty hours for an away game in Los Angeles. Since obviously, that is not an ideal option, a flight from State College, Penn. to LA, for example, is estimated to be 6.5 hours, and the travel expenses could be very cost-inducing for non-revenue sports.
That being said, if money being brought from new TV deals is enough to offer non-rev teams charter flights, a trip from LA to original B1G territory, one that would likely knock out two or three teams in one, could span a similar time frame as a non-chartered trip from LA to Washington. What charter flights would likely eliminate is time spent in the airport, getting through security and baggage claim waits. Though it's clear more travel time will be added across the board, it may not be as bad as initially thought.
Also, the future of the conference might run directly through the City of Angels. SoFi Stadium is rumored to play host to the Big Ten Football Championship Game, while Crypto.com Arena may hold the B1G basketball tournaments — both of which have been in Indianapolis in recent years.
Aside from athletic or travel purposes, adding USC and UCLA is a major inflection point in terms of the cultural makeup of the conference. The two universities are located in sunny Los Angeles, a far cry from a rainy Evanston April or a biting Madison January. Beyond that, though, the two schools have largely been and will continue to be viewed as leviathans of the West Coast — a distinct panache that runs antithetical to the more midwestern Big Ten.
Point blank, it will take a long time for B1G fans to grow accustomed to seeing the UCLA blue and USC cardinal colors on scoreboards, let alone looking at the Bruins and Trojans in conference standings. However, once supporters of a Big Ten team eventually grow comfortable, they very well may be more likely to flock to the stands. With such an influx of talent, Northwestern will face sharper competition and establish new rivalries.
Even in sports where the ‘Cats may get trounced, particularly football (on off years) and men’s basketball (well, every year), having the chance to see premier players — like football 2023 No. 2 overall prospect and USC recruit Malachi Nelson — in person is nothing to scoff at. As such, attendance at Ryan Field, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Rocky and Berenice Miller Park, Sharon J. Drysdale Field and Martin Stadium may augment when UCLA and USC become ushered into conference play.
The movement also sparks a change in Northwestern’s academic role in the Big Ten. With the addition of the Trojans, Evanston can no longer lay claim to the only private school in the conference. With four of USNews' top 27 academic schools, the Big Ten appears to be seeking to become the best power conference in regard to the classroom and on the playing surface.
The pulling power of the two California schools in collecting and utilizing resources should be significant. Not only are both athletically renowned, but they also share Northwestern’s mission of elevating the student and student-athlete experience. Outgoing NU president Morton Schapiro echoed as much, saying, “The guiding principle will be the pursuit of the highest levels of excellence in both academics and athletics, focusing on the welfare of our student-athletes and their ability to thrive in the classroom and on the playing field.”
It remains to be seen which, if any, other schools will accompany USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in 2024; all eyes are on Notre Dame, which might be the next domino to fall. While Northwestern will remain a charming, gritty, world-class institution, its company in the conference, both academically and athletically, has been permanently altered by the shine of the Hollywood sun.