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It was a day of celebration in Boulder.
On June 11, 2010, after weeks of intense speculation, the University of Colorado was formally unveiled as the newest member of what was then known as the Pac-10 Conference. In the high-stakes and cutthroat game of conference realignment, the Buffs had managed to find a new and ostensibly more profitable home than the Big 12 Conference, a league for which they were a founding member and had spent the previous 14 years.
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As the announcement was made, members of the university leadership, from chancellor Phil DiStefano to then-athletic director Mike Bohn, stood and smiled for photo-ops from the high risers at Folsom Field, with the Flatirons standing tall in the background. Larry Scott, the Pac-10’s second-year commissioner, spoke of the Buffs’ arrival in lofty terms, saying, “History will recognize and reward the bold first step we’ve made together.”
The general sentiment was unmistakable—this was a marriage destined to flourish. “Quite simply, the Pac-10 is a great fit for us,” DiStefano said that day.
Thirteen years later, and with DiStefano still at the helm, that’s apparently no longer the case.
On Thursday afternoon at a “special board meeting,” Colorado’s Board of Regents voted unanimously to approve a move back to the Big 12 after a dozen years in the Pac-12, finalizing a return to a conference it happily abandoned in the not-so-distant past.
“After careful thought and consideration, it was determined that a switch in conference would give CU Boulder the stability, resources, and exposure necessary for long-term future success in a college athletics environment that is constantly evolving,” DiStefano and athletic director Rick George said in a joint statement Thursday. “The Big 12’s national reach across three time zones as well as our shared creative vision for the future we feel makes it an excellent fit for CU Boulder, our students, faculty, and alumni. These decisions are never easy, and we’ve valued our 12 years as proud members of the Pac-12 Conference. We look forward to achieving new goals while embarking on this exciting next era as members of the Big 12 Conference.”
Colorado has now done what once seemed farcical, but why the Buffs reversed course isn’t much of a mystery: This past fall, the Big 12 signed a six-year, $2.28 billion media rights deal with ESPN and Fox. The agreement offered the conference and its members some peace of mind after league centerpieces University of Texas and University of Oklahoma announced they were departing for the Southeastern Conference. Perhaps more important, it gave the Big 12 a critical strategic advantage over a competitor. The Big 12’s TV contract was set to expire in 2025, one year after the Pac-12’s, and by securing an agreement when it did, it sent the Pac-12 scrambling for a deal in a marketplace in which many of the major networks had largely full college football inventories.
Deadlines that Pac-12 administrators had publicly floated—the end of June and the league’s football media day in late July—came and went. Potential broadcast partners—Amazon Prime, Apple TV+, the CW—grew more unconventional and far less appealing than ESPN or a major network. Given the overwhelmingly disproportionate role media rights deals play in the money a school receives annually from its conference, the lack of a contract became more than an annoyance for the Pac-12 and its members. By the time USC and UCLA announced impending moves to the Big Ten, it was an existential threat.
Even beyond the TV deal, the Big 12 has a sense of stability the Pac-12 doesn’t. What was once thought to be one of the conference’s greatest flaws—that without Texas and Oklahoma, it’s a collection of also-ran athletic programs in geographic outposts like Lubbock, Texas; Stillwater, Oklahoma; Ames, Iowa; and Manhattan, Kansas—turned out to be a key to its survival. While the Pac-12 had to constantly worry about schools like Oregon and Washington fleeing for another major conference, the Big 12 had no such concerns. And with the additions of Houston, Cincinnati, Central Florida, and BYU, all of whom officially joined the league earlier this month, it strengthened its membership while the Pac-12 failed to expand after USC and UCLA split.
But the impetus for Colorado’s decision goes beyond the perpetual chess match big-time college sports has turned itself into.
The Buffs will be returning to a league in which they were far more successful on the football field than they were in the Pac-12 (though that could be attributed just as much to misguided coaching hires and other self-inflicted wounds as conference affiliation). They’ll be within 900 miles of eight of the school’s new conference mates, compared to just two in the Pac-12. With four Texas schools in the league, they’ll get a stronger recruiting foothold in a state that has historically provided the program with some of its most talented and productive players on its best teams.
And although it would be foolish to make such a long-term institutional decision based on a football coach who seems more likely to be at Colorado for a good time rather than a long time, Deion Sanders will now have the opportunity to work his magic in Texas, where he played professionally, lived for a number of years, and coached high school football. With Texas and (especially) Oklahoma gone, the path to the upper echelon of Big 12 football is more navigable than it was with two of the sport’s behemoths lording over its counterparts.
In men’s basketball, the Buffs will be joining what has been the sport’s best and deepest conference for the better part of a decade, with two of the past three national champions—and that’s before adding the likes of Houston and Cincinnati, both of which have top-tier hoops programs.
If the past two decades have taught us anything, though, it’s that it would be silly to believe Colorado’s conference move will be the last in a seemingly never-ending game of musical chairs. It’s implausible to think Oregon and Washington, both of which have successful football programs and large fan bases, will sit idly by as the Pac-12 sheds members and fails to find a network willing to air its games. Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah had, along with Colorado, been linked to the Big 12—along with rumored targets as far-flung as Connecticut—as potential new additions for months. With the Buffs now gone, will those other schools follow suit? If they do, it’s possible the Pac-12, a conference that has been around in some form since 1915, could vanish.
But as seismic as this decision may feel at the moment, it almost certainly won’t be the final temblor. The Big 12 has been perilously close to extinction several times this century only to persevere, including two years ago when the Pac-12 looked into poaching much of the Big 12’s remaining base after Texas and Oklahoma declared their exits. Who’s to say it won’t plunge to those depths again? The Buffs left the Big 12 for the Pac-10 a decade and a half ago for a bigger payday, only to turn around and do the same thing in the opposite direction this week. Perhaps Colorado is destined to be a nomad in this new college sports landscape, changing leagues every 15 or 20 years as circumstances shift and more stable, lucrative opportunities arise. Indeed, given what has transpired in major college athletics for the past quarter-century, there’s truly no scenario that’s too outlandish to be dismissed.