Conference realignment: Phil Knight resorts to cold calling for Oregon as Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC search for lifelines

The real impact of this latest round of conference rebranding is the image of one of the world’s most powerful sports figures ‘working the phones’. This is how a source this week described Phil Knight’s level of desperation.

A marketing genius, benefactor, philanthropist, and multi-billionaire, the Shoe Dog appears to be using all of its resources to find a home for Oregon, a program that has made Knight one of the most well-known collegiate athletic brands as a de facto offshoot of his Nike Rich.

Knight has been reduced to a cold-calling telemarketer. And that’s a sad situation.

USC and UCLA’s migration to the Big Ten in 2024 made it one. In the past week we have again been shown the ruthlessness of this system.

The Pac-12 may or may not survive, but after the loss of its two flagship programs it is forever changed. All with a reminder that the ACC is scrambling to retain its top teams while the Big 12 may be in their fourth round of restructuring since 2010.

What we are witnessing in real time is the consolidation of the best brands at the forefront of the sport. Everything else be damned. If Knight is reduced to speed dial to save his ducks, well, that takes the possible disqualification to another level.

You may have noticed: The SEC and Big Ten are a Notre Dame (or so) away from hosting their own playoffs. Maybe they don’t need the Fighting Irish, who after 130 years of independence are once again deciding whether to join a conference.

What you can see is that access and relevance is slipping away from everyone but the elite – and those lucky enough to attend their conferences. Certain ACC schools are freaking out. They estimate they are $50 million behind the SEC and the Big Ten annually in annual rights fees.

An industry source said it could cost a school $500 million to leave the ACC since the league keeps schools in the conference that big until 2036.

Some of the pressure has shifted to boosters. Will they make up the difference? Can the current spending ratio be maintained?

A source at a high-resource football program says donors have run out.

One day the SEC and the Big Ten may decide to bend by funding 95 grants instead of the current 85. There might be some outside of the top two conferences that can compete, but at what cost?

What’s more, the leadership and thinking of the four newest Power Five commissioners – all hired since 2020 – are more diverse than ever.

Last week, CBS Sports featured one three-part series on the future of college football. One of the conclusions? The 130 FBS schools may eventually break away from the NCAA.

Now that number seems smaller and more dangerous. Maybe 50-80 will make it. You can see why Knight Swooshes are sweating.

That always had to happen. People freaked out when the SEC added Arkansas and South Carolina in 1991. Ditto for the Big Ten, which added Penn State in 1990. The Southwest Conference collapsed due to multiple NCAA violations. The Big 12 formed in 1996 and then almost fell apart. Only six original members remain (Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech). Big East Football ended in 2013 when the conference was reformed.

Now the SEC and Big Ten have the most power and leverage as there has never been a gathering of brands at the top of the game like there has been at these conferences.

What remains is a frenzied rush from the other major conferences to snag the biggest remaining brands. No other conference can bring to the table what the SEC and the Big Ten will bring to the table by 2024-25. The battle now is to see if one or more of the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 can amass enough notable programs to keep the SEC and Big Ten from staging a credible playoff on their own.

Which brings us back to Knights Cold Calling. It’s happening in a world that could leave Oregon and Washington with no chance of battling for national championships. A world that doesn’t believe in flying volleyball players across four time zones to play a match. A world that has stripped its soul of two Power Five conferences in back-to-back summers.

Oregon and Washington are the top two football programs “in play” considering the Pac-12 is reduced to 10 teams; However, there’s a reason they weren’t given special consideration in the realignment. Industry sources say neither is delivering the value the Big Ten needs ($80-100 million per year). The Pac-12 schools most prominently named for the Big 12 are the so-called “Four Corners” schools: Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado, Utah.

The Big 12 has been told by TV rights advisors that the two most important considerations for expansion are brand and geography. Geography marginalized Oregon and Washington. (That doesn’t mean the likes of Arizona and Arizona are necessarily “brands.”)

When the Big 12 expand, it’s not necessarily for money, but for survival and relevance. A high-profile industry source called the difference between an expanded Big 12 or Pac-12 “a coin toss.” Think of the reason for the expansion more like this: Can a credible playoff be staged without allowing Oregon and Washington to compete for a spot?

ESPN sort of answered that question when it thought nothing of scrapping the Big 12 last summer when Texas and Oklahoma moved to the SEC.

The network told us, without telling us, that the world wouldn’t end if players like Oklahoma State, Iowa State and TCU, among others, didn’t get a chance to finish in the top four in the college football playoffs. The question was further answered when the Pac-12 was sidelined last week.

Ratings are important. They’re more important when a 9-3 Oklahoma from the SEC has a better chance of making a playoff than a 12-1 Oklahoma State from the Big 12.

An industry source called Oregon and Washington “tweeners” in the realignment. They’re certainly not USC and UCLA in terms of branding and marketability, but they’re not Arizona and Arizona State either. Here’s what the refocus has shown: The real things that make college football relevant to the only people who matter — TV execs, programmers, advertisers — are being uncovered in ever greater detail and specificity.

Without Oregon and Washington, the Pac-12 could fall apart. With them it can not matter.

Notes on the realignment of the conference

The next big focus is the announcement of the Big Ten’s new multi-billion dollar TV deal. That could take place at a gala, perhaps a rollout splash in the league’s media later this month. The Big Ten can be expanded. It doesn’t really matter because Notre Dame has time and influence on his side. If it decides the money is too big to deny and/or entering a playoff becomes too difficult to sustain success, it can join the Big Ten.

Any completion of this round of realignment that leaves the new Big 12 unscathed is a win for the league. It is satisfied with the 12 current teams moving forward in 2025. Worst case scenario for the Pac-12 is some sort of hybrid merger with Mountain West. That would be what’s left for two soccer powerhouses in Oregon and Washington, who have won a national championship together, played for two titles since 2010, and attended five Rose Bowls combined since 2001. These two schools are also the only participants of the CFP’s Pac-12.

A merger between the Big 12 and Pac-12 remains a possibility, but… A source told CBS Sports that the process of finalizing its membership — at least from the Big 12 side — could be completed in weeks, not months.

Of the four new Big 12 schools (BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UCF), three are American. That’s part of the narrative of the Pac-12’s future path as the league rolled out its TV rights earlier this week. Why would you want to go to a conference whose members are a quarter of the teams of five? Why risk “current” stability for Pac-12 history and tradition?

Why actually? The Pac-12 is marketed with ESPN and Fox featuring 10 teams who have not sworn allegiance to one another. The Big 12 is already in the air, ready to pluck members from the West Coast. But the rights holders are already asking: What are we bidding on? Which schools should there be?

Clemson, Florida, Miami, North Carolina and Virginia from the ACC have been mentioned as possible dance partners for the realignment, but at least they’re in conference with a TV deal. This reveals another reality: it really is a scramble now. Super conferences are here and not going anywhere. Include Notre Dame and maybe Stamford (as a partner for ND), Clemson and Florida State or Miami. Suddenly, a two-conference playoff becomes a reality. Anything else could be an unsavory group of six or seven. At this point, it makes sense to form a new subdivision that will host its own playoffs. The money – not gigantic Money – would be there.