Arizona State, Arizona announce Pac-12 exit for Big 12 Conference

Aug 4, 2023, 6:36 PM | Updated: 6:58 pm

Arizona football coach Jedd Fisch and president Dr. Robert Robbins...

Univeristy of Arizona Wildcats head coach Jedd Fisch and School President Dr. Robert C. Robbins prior to a college football game between the Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks and the University of Arizona Wildcats on September 18, 2021 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, AZ. (Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

(Photo by Christopher Hook/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Arizona State Sun Devils and Arizona Wildcats will depart for the Big 12 Conference in 2024 after the dissolving Pac-12 took a massive blow Friday with Oregon and Washington heading toward joining the Big Ten.

The Big 12’s board of directors unanimously admitted ASU, Arizona and Utah into the conference, commissioner Brett Yormark announced on Friday.

Arizona had leaned toward joining the conference more than ASU and Utah, but the Sun Devils’ reluctance waned with the two biggest media brands in Oregon and Washington deciding on Friday to head elsewhere.

Reports of the Wildcats’ interest in moving to the Big 12 gained steam heading into the Arizona Board of Regents meeting on Thursday night that didn’t lead to firm direction for either school. However, the Big 12 even approved the admittance of Arizona on Thursday, reported Yahoo! Sports’ Ross Dellenger.

Then on Friday, Pac-12 planned to vote on a grant of rights to bind committed members of the conference together, but that didn’t happen with the Ducks showing hesitancy about the future of the conference and its unresolved media rights contract, reports Action Network’s Brett McMurphy and Dellenger.

The pending departures of Arizona and Arizona State come after Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff presented a proposed media and TV rights deal to school leaders on Tuesday. The primary proposal, according to ESPN’s Pete Thamel, involved a streaming-focused deal with Apple with incentivized tiers based on the number of subscriptions raised.

A prior meeting the week before between Pac-12 presidents did not include any media deal updates. That stale progress led to the Colorado Buffaloes announcing they would leave for the Big 12 after the 2023-24 season, following the lead of the USC Trojans’ and UCLA Bruins’ decision last June to depart for the Big Ten.

Those losses, plus Kliavkoff’s year-plus process of searching for a finalized media deal, left the nine remaining Pac-12 members in a precarious position.

Arizona, Arizona State and Utah were considered the top targets for the Big 12 to poach after securing Colorado as the 13th team in the conference for the 2024-25 school year.

“The financial package is strong. The stability of the Big 12 is strong. We are ready and the timing is right,” vice president for university athletics Ray Anderson said in a press release. “The exposure and visibility as well as the resources from the conference will help us compete for championships. From enhancing our ability to recruit Texas for football to the Big 12’s strength in basketball, good days are ahead.”

Why did Arizona leave the Pac-12 for the Big 12?

After Colorado left, Arizona became the next likely departure. Reports indicated they had been most engaged in talks with the Big 12.

That’s because University of Arizona president Dr. Robert Robbins maintained for months that he would wait to see a media proposal before making a decision, failing to rule out a move to another conference.

Arizona State and president Michael Crow, a strong supporter of former Pac-12 president Larry Scott, did not initially appear itchy to leave the Pac-12. But the Colorado departure and Arizona’s openness to switch conferences before the Oregon and Washington moves played a role in convincing the Sun Devils that the conference was on thin ice.

“We will always have fond memories of the Pac-12 conference and this move will not change our appreciation of more than 40 years of experiences, rivalries, partnerships and traditions,” Crow said in a press release. “But now, it is the right time for change.”

The Ducks and Huskies represented the Pac-12’s top remaining sports brands, but the California Golden Bears and Stanford Cardinal were also secondary targets of the Big Ten.

Meanwhile, the Big 12 is attempting to restructure — and aggressively at that — under Yormark after the Oklahoma Sooners and Texas Longhorns announced a departure for the SEC.

The Pac-12’s media rights options presented Tuesday by Kliavkov fell short of the Big 12 media rights deal signed in October, which will reportedly pay out $31.7 million per school. According to Thamel, the Apple-centric contract proposal was in the realm of the low-$20 million range per school.

Yormark, the former COO of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation, closed the Big 12’s deal two months after he was hired.

“Our move to the Big 12 Conference will continue to raise the university’s profile by increasing visibility, growing our reach across the country and around the globe, expanding our pool of prospective students, providing more resources to support our student-athletes and presenting them with greater NIL prospects,” Robbins said in a statement.

From the Pac-12 perspective, Kliavkoff had maintained that the conference wanted to secure a media rights agreement before discussing expansion. But that two-pronged problem intertwined because the conference more and more didn’t have clear membership and media markets to promise its potential TV partners. The sudden departures last summer of UCLA and USC, plus Colorado’s move this past week, only hurt a finalized deal from being secured.

The Pac-12 released the following statement on Friday:

“Today’s news is incredibly disappointing for student-athletes, fans, alumni and staff of the Pac-12 who cherish the over 100-year history, tradition and rivalries of the Conference of Champions.  We remain focused on securing the best possible future for each of our member universities.”

What ASU, Arizona said leading into a potential Pac-12 departure

This past week, ASU head football coach Kenny Dillingham and Anderson in meetings with reporters kept their lips sealed about their athletic department’s opinions on staying or leaving the Pac-12.

“Oh, yeah, cool,” Dillingham said. “We’re playing Southern Utah in Week 1. That’s literally all I care about.

“We’re going to be the best versions of us, every single day, in everything we do, all the time. We’re going to get better and better and better.”

It was a different tone in Tucson leading into the decision.

Arizona head football coach Jedd Fisch echoed Robbins’ consistent sentiment Tuesday, saying the Wildcats simply wanted stability wherever they landed. Fisch told reporters in Tucson that he held a Zoom press conference with players’ families to reinforce that Arizona would be fine with any decision it makes.

“I’ll say this: Athletics are very expensive and to run sports programs is very expensive,” Fisch told reporters. “The NCAA has continued to loosen rules when it comes to feeding players, when it comes to travel, when it comes to certain advantages, when it comes to bonuses, call it, if you hit a certain GPA … all of those things go into making running an athletic department extremely important.”

Fisch cited stability and the financial numbers as a priority in the ultimate decision for Robbins and athletic director Dave Heeke.

Arizona’s positioning as an elite basketball school made the Wildcats a draw to the Big 12.

At the Big 12 Tournament in March, multiple head coaches spoke openly about the appeal of adding the Wildcats.

“That, to me, is the one we have to get,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said of Arizona. “I’ve always thought the Arizona schools, Colorado and Utah are a natural fit for us.”

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