The University of Colorado will leave the Pac-12 in favor of the Big 12 after the 2023-24 season as the school formalized its future membership on Thursday. The Colorado Board of Regents unanimously voted in favor of the move during a public video conference, completing the final step in a process that has largely been considered a formality for the past 24 hours.
“It’s time we changed the conferences,” Colorado President Todd Saliman told the Council of Regency Thursday afternoon. “We see it as an opportunity to create more opportunities for the University of Colorado, for our students, for our student-athletes, and to pave a path for the future.”
Colorado’s departure coincides with the end of the Pac-12 television deal, which expires after the 2023-24 season and means Colorado won’t have to pay an exit fee. Colorado is expected to join the Big 12 on a pro-rata basis, which translates to an average television revenue of $31.7 million over the course of the league’s new contract beginning in 2025.
“Let me start by saying that this move wasn’t based solely on money or finances,” said Colorado athletic director Rick George. “There’s a lot more at stake in a decision this big than just money.”
George and Colorado Chancellor Phil DiStefano, speaking with reporters at a campus news conference Thursday night, emphasized their desire for stability, but also spoke about the appeal of the competition in three different time zones and the national exposure it brings through ESPN and would receive Fox as the main contributors.
George said the university expects athletes to travel less, play in more convenient time slots, and still return to campus earlier from away games.
George didn’t specifically respond when asked if he actually saw any numbers from a Pac-12 media rights deal, but he did say, “We want to work with Fox and ESPN.”
Colorado’s decision is the latest blow to the Pac-12, who will lose both USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in 2024 and are in the midst of a contracted process to secure a new television deal. Colorado’s quick announcement came less than a week after Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said he wasn’t concerned the Big 12 would try to poach any teams.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” he said at last week’s Pac-12 media day in Las Vegas, addressing the issue publicly for the first time this year. “Our schools are committed to each other and to the Pac-12. We will finalize our media rights deal and announce the deal. I think the realignment that’s happening in collegiate athletics will come to an end this cycle.”
Colorado’s George was asked Thursday about the timing of the school’s decision in light of recent comments from Kliavkoff.
“Do I think I caught my colleagues off guard?” he said. “I don’t think so, but that’s a question to ask them.”
The Buffaloes had proven to be the most vocal skeptics about Kliavkoff’s ability to land a decent television deal. Colorado school officials met in person with representatives of the Big 12 at a neutral location in early May, according to ESPN sources.
George insisted that Colorado’s decision was “not about” any failures by Kliavkoff or frustration at the lack of a media rights deal.
“George Kliavkoff does the best job he can, gives his ass off and works tirelessly for the members of the Pac-12,” George said. “…but that wasn’t what this decision was about. It was about, and that’s the Big 12 Conference and what’s best for CU and CU Athletics and our student athletes, and that’s what we made that decision from.”
Colorado’s move marks a return to the Big 12, of which it was a member from 1996-2010. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Colorado is the first team to leave a conference and return to the same league of their own accord. (Temple was banned from the Big East after the 2004 season.) Colorado made the switch to the Pac-12 in 2011 and has had no bowl wins and only two successful football seasons since the move. Colorado is coming off a 1-11 season and new coach Deion Sanders will only coach one season in the Pac-12.
George said he’s spoken to all of his head coaches about the potential move, but also acknowledged the Big 12 conference will agree on Sanders’ recruitment.
“I can tell you that being in the Big 12 has tremendous benefits in the direction Coach Prime is taking in terms of recruitment,” George said. “Being able to play against UCF in Orlando, where he was recruited very heavily. Texas State has always been a priority for us and we now have four teams playing in that area. … I tried to get all of our coaches involved, and of course Coach Prime, and I talked about it just like I’ve talked to other coaches.
Since USC and UCLA’s announced departures from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten last summer, the Pac-12 has struggled to secure a solid enough television deal to keep its members happy. The immediate expectation is that the Pac-12 would replace Colorado with San Diego State, which was discussed internally at the Pac-12 prior to Colorado’s departure.
It’s uncertain if this will result in a domino effect of the Pac-12’s movement, as Colorado’s decision is the loudest expression of impatience. At a recent forum in Washington DC, Arizona President Bobby Robbins hinted that league presidents would wait and see how the finances of the Pac-12 television deal look.
“I think right now all ten of us are just focused on the deal,” Robbins said on June 7. “Once we have that, we have degrees of freedom to make informed decisions.”
Colorado’s addition marks a change for the Big 12, the first major conference school to be added since the league began in 1996. West Virginia (Big East) and TCU (Mountain West) joined the Big 12 in 2012. After the departure of Oklahoma and Texas, who will play in the SEC next year, the Big 12 have Cincinnati (AAC), UCF (AAC), BYU (Independent) and Houston (AAC) added.
The conference welcomed the Buffaloes later Thursday with a two-word statement voiced by Michael Jordan.
A statement from the commissioner. pic.twitter.com/UtGgY5WnTf
— Big 12 Conference (@Big12Conference) July 27, 2023
“Certainly, income and expenses are part of the equation,” George said. “We looked at the costs that we will incur from team trips to the Big 12 as well as the initial rebranding. And when we factor in revenue from the Big 12, we think it’s a big win for the University of Colorado. The revenue.” The revenue came not just from the media deal – and there’s a lot of talk about that – but also from other revenue streams, and we think that’s a positive.
“We believe the benefits far outweigh the costs of getting into the Big 12 conference,” he added. “As college sports evolve, so do conferences. It is our responsibility to put CU in a strong position for the future. And as AD, conference realignment is always something we think about. I truly believe today’s decision positions the University of Colorado for years to come.”
The Big 12’s appeal in luring Colorado to return is directly related to the television deal brokered by new Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark and announced in October. This summer, Yormark entered negotiations with Fox and ESPN to discuss the Big 12’s contract a year early, as the Pac-12’s contract was due to expire after the 2023-24 season.
That helped the Big 12 line up and gain two linear television partners, leaving Pac-12 with fewer options and television windows.
Colorado’s departure will cause loud echoes in the Pac-12, a league already plagued by the uncertainty of the televised deal. There has been little public comment from the Pac-12’s two dominant programs, Oregon and Washington, as the league waits to see how Kliavkoff can land a television deal in a so-called bear market. The league could stay with nine schools and stop giving revenue from the forthcoming television deal to other programs.
In a statement released Thursday night after a meeting of Pac-12 leadership and presidents, the league said it would “welcome the expansion” under its current media rights deal.
“We are focused on completing our media rights deal and securing our continued success and growth,” the statement said. “Immediately upon completion of our media rights deal, we will pursue opportunities to expand and bring new fans, markets, excitement and value to the Pac-12.”
The potential for San Diego State to join the Pac-12 recently became public when ESPN reported that the school’s president had sent a letter to Mountain West announcing the school’s intention to withdraw from the league. In that letter, the school requested a one-month extension “given unforeseen delays at other college athletic conferences, which are beyond our control.”
That was in reference to the television deal with Pac-12, which was slowly coming about. However, with SDSU having nowhere to go before the June 30 deadline, the company had to pay a $34 million exit fee to play in the league ahead of the 2025-26 season. According to ESPN, the school is expected to remain at Mountain West for at least the next two years.