With USC, UCLA bound for Big Ten, college sports becomes another corporate proxy war | Opinion

Dan Wolken

It has never been the transfer portal or giving the kids some money that was going to make college sports fundamentally worse, less fun and more corporate.

It was always going to be the proxy war between ESPN and Fox and the soulless college presidents and administrators who have been sucking on their teat for the last decade, unable to do anything remotely visionary with their sport besides convince television executives to shovel more money at them every decade.

And now here we are, at the precipice of a realignment that will not merely be about rearranging pieces on the chess board. This, finally, is the Big One: The ultimate abandonment of tradition, of rivalry, of geographic sanity and of the unique character that distinguished one conference from another. 

In the end, we’ll still have the Big Ten and the SEC standing atop college sports, but they will no longer be college athletic conferences in the same way we’ve known them for a century. Now, with USC and UCLA abandoning their West Coast roots for the riches of a league that was founded in 1896 by a group of college presidents in the Midwest trying to establish some control over college athletics, they are headed for a future as generic, soulless corporate entities that exist purely for profit and excess. The future of the SEC vs. Big Ten will look no different than Coke vs. Pepsi, FedEx vs. UPS and Apple vs. IBM.

And college sports is never going to be the same. 

This has been building quickly over the last dozen years, starting with the Big Ten’s foray into Nebraska and subsequent poaching of Maryland and Rutgers when it came time to negotiate a new TV contract. The Pac-12 tried, and failed, to crush the Big 12, settling instead for Colorado and Utah. But the instability from that exploration never went away, and shortly thereafter the SEC pounced, taking Texas A&M and Missouri. The ACC, having lost a founding member in Maryland, struck a fatal blow to the old Big East by adding Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Louisville, while giving Notre Dame a home for its non-football sports.

Meanwhile everyone else cobbled things together the best they could, administrators hoping the next big earthquake wouldn't happen until their 401ks got fat enough for them to get out of this ridiculous business. 

The uneasy détente lasted until a year ago when word leaked that Texas and Oklahoma were headed to the SEC. After that, it was only a matter of time until what we saw Thursday. Apocalypse, now. 

It’s hard to predict how exactly it will happen, but it will happen all the same. The Big Ten’s addition of USC and UCLA as early as 2024 — made official by an acceptance vote Thursday — opens the door to the future that everyone in college sports figured was coming but hoped might somehow be averted. It may go fast, or it may come in drips and drabs, but the free-for-all to get into either the SEC or the Big Ten is going to make "Squid Games" look like child’s play.

When there’s potentially $100 million annually on the line, climbing over dead bodies is just part of the deal. 

Remember, in the wake of the SEC’s power play last year, the commissioners of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC announced a so-called “Alliance" that was supposed to stabilize college sports in the midst of television negotiations and College Football Playoff expansion. Asked if the leagues had put anything on paper to, you know, prevent poaching from each other, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said it was an “agreement between three gentlemen.”

Perhaps in retrospect, it was two gentlemen and one henchman. That would be Kevin Warren, the Big Ten commissioner that fans of the league (and many administrators within the league) had dismissed as a weak link given his clumsy handling of COVID-19 in the summer of 2020 when he announced that the football season would be delayed until spring and then reversed course when the SEC, ACC and Big 12 held firm that the season would be played in the fall. 

As it turns out, Warren has a ruthless streak. And even if it was indeed USC and UCLA approaching the Big Ten rather than the other way around, as people within the Big Ten insist, the knife in the back cuts all the same.

ANALYSIS:With UCLA and USC looking to join the Big Ten, college football's future is two super-conferences

MORE: UCLA, USC bring major hardware to the Big Ten

USC running back Keaontay Ingram runs past UCLA Bruins Quentin Lake during their rivalry game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 20, 2021. UCLA won the game, 62-33.

This is college sports for the foreseeable future: Hunt or become roadkill, a message that is undoubtedly resonating not just among the remaining Pac-12 schools but at Clemson, Florida State, North Carolina and, yes, Notre Dame. 

In the coming world of college sports, there are two castes: The SEC and Big Ten, inhaling television money like oxygen, and everyone else trying not to suffocate. The gap between those two worlds will be massive, and everyone who can get to the other side will do whatever it takes to make that happen.

The Big Ten, now with 16 schools, is almost certainly going to expand more. Is it Oregon and Washington? North Carolina and Duke? Stanford and Notre Dame? Is the leadership at Clemson, Florida State and Miami going to sit idly by or push to do something dramatic? 

These are the questions that were being asked all over college sports on Thursday, though there weren’t a lot of answers to be had. The only thing we know is that college football, and by virtue all of major college sports, will revolve around two leagues — and two television networks — that are only going to get bigger and more powerful. 

They will, sadly, be mostly indistinguishable from one another, just two big corporate vessels taking the last bit of tradition and regional flavor that made college sports fun and turning into Applebee’s and TGI Friday’s. 

Hope you enjoy the artichoke dip.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken