CU later: Board approves Buffs’ return to Big 12

The University of Colorado will leave the Pac-12 for the Big 12 after the 2023-24 season, as the school formalized its future membership on Thursday. The Colorado Board of Regents voted unanimously in favor of the move during a public videoconference, completing the final step in a process that for the past 24 hours has largely been considered a formality.

“The time has come for us to change conferences,” Colorado president Todd Saliman told the board of regents on Thursday afternoon. “We see this as a way to create more opportunity for the University of Colorado, for our students and our student-athletes and create a path forward for us in the future.”

Colorado’s departure will coincide 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 at a pro rata basis, which is an average of $31.7 million in television revenue over the course of the league’s new deal starting in 2025.

“Let me state up front that this move was not just based on money or finances,” Colorado athletic director Rick George said. “A decision this big has a lot more to do than just money.”

George and Colorado chancellor Phil DiStefano, who spoke to reporters Thursday evening at a news conference on campus, emphasized their desire for stability, but also spoke about the draw of competing in three different time zones and the national exposure they’ll get from ESPN and Fox as major factors.

George said the university considered athletes will travel less and play in more favorable time slots and still return to campus earlier from road games.

George did not specifically answer a question about whether he had actually seen any figures from a Pac-12 media rights deal, but he said, “Fox and ESPN is who we want to be aligned with.”

Colorado’s decision is the latest blow to the Pac-12, which loses both USC and UCLA to the Big Ten in 2024 and is amid a contracted process of landing a new television deal. Colorado’s swift announcement came less than a week after Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff said he wasn’t worried about the Big 12 trying to poach any teams.

“It’s not a concern,” he said last week at Pac-12 media day in Las Vegas, addressing the topic publicly for the first time this year. “Our schools are committed to each other and the Pac-12. We’ll get our media rights deal done, we’ll announce the deal. I think the realignment that’s going on in college athletics will come to an end for this cycle.”

Colorado’s George was asked Thursday about the timing of the school’s decision, given Kliavkoff’s recent comments.

“Do I think I caught my peers off guard?” he said. “I don’t believe so, but that’s a question you have to ask them.”

The Buffaloes had emerged as the loudest skeptics of Kliavkoff’s ability to land a reasonable television deal. School officials from Colorado met in person with Big 12 officials at a neutral site in early May, per ESPN sources.

George insisted that Colorado’s decision “wasn’t about” any failures by Kliavkoff or frustrations with a lack of a media rights deal.

“George Kliavkoff is doing as good a job as he can do, and he works his ass off and works tirelessly for the members of the Pac-12,” George said. ” … but this decision wasn’t about that. It was about this, 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 this decision based on.”

Colorado’s move marks a return to the Big 12, which it was a member from 1996 to 2010. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Colorado is the first Power 5 team that has left a conference and returned to the same league of its own volition. (Temple was expelled by the Big East after the 2004 season.) Colorado left for the Pac-12 in 2011 and has had no bowl wins and just two winning football seasons since the move. Colorado is coming off a 1-11 season, and new coach Deion Sanders will coach just one season in the Pac-12.

George said he spoke with all of his head coaches about the potential move, but also acknowledged that the Big 12 Conference will align with how Sanders is recruiting.

“I will tell you there’s tremendous benefits for being in the Big 12 for the direction that Coach Prime is going as it relates to recruiting,” George said. “Being able to play in Orlando against UCF, where he’s recruited very heavily. The state of Texas has always been a priority for us, and now playing four teams in that area. … I tried to include all of our coaches in this, and Coach Prime certainly and I had conversations about this, as well as I did with other coaches.”

Since the announced departure of USC and UCLA from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten last summer, the Pac-12 has struggled to land a robust enough television deal to keep its members happy. The immediate expectation is that the Pac-12 would replace Colorado with San Diego State, which has been discussed internally in the Pac-12 prior to Colorado’s departure.

It’s uncertain whether this will create a domino effect of movement from the Pac-12, as Colorado’s decision is the loudest manifestation of the impatience. At a forum in Washington D.C. recently, Arizona president Bobby Robbins indicated that the league’s presidents were going to wait to see the finances of the Pac-12 television deal.

“Right now, I think all 10 of us are solely focused on the deal,” Robbins said June 7. “Once we have that, we have degrees of freedom to make informed decisions.”

The acceptance of Colorado marks a shift for the Big 12, the first major conference school added since the league began play in 1996. The Big 12 added West Virginia (Big East) and TCU (Mountain West) in 2012. In the wake of the departure of Oklahoma and Texas, which will start play in the SEC next year, the Big 12 has added Cincinnati (AAC), UCF (AAC), BYU (independent) and Houston (AAC) for the upcoming season.

The conference welcomed back the Buffaloes later Thursday with a two-word statement that channeled Michael Jordan.

“Certainly, revenue and expenses are part of the equation,” George said. “We have looked at the cost that we will be incurring from team travel in the Big 12, as well as the initial rebranding. And when we consider the Big 12 revenue, we believe it’s a great win for the University of Colorado. The revenue was not just from the media deal — and there’s a lot of talk about that — but from other revenue streams, and we believe that’s positive.

“We believe the benefits far outweigh the costs for the move into the Big 12 conference,” he added. “Because college sports evolve, so do conferences. It’s our responsibility to put CU in a position of strength for the future. And as an AD, conference realignment is always something that we’re looking at. I feel strongly that today’s decision positions the University of Colorado for years to come.”

The attractiveness of the Big 12 to entice Colorado’s return can be directly related to the television deal brokered by new Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark, which was announced in October. This summer, Yormark opened negotiations with Fox and ESPN to discuss the Big 12’s contract a year early, as the Pac-12’s deal was set to expire after the 2023-24 season.

That helped the Big 12 jump in line and land a pair of linear television partners, leaving the Pac-12 with fewer options and television windows.

The departure of Colorado will reverberate loudly through the Pac-12, a league already shrouded by the uncertainty of the television deal. There’s been little said publicly by the Pac-12’s two dominant programs, Oregon and Washington, as the league waits to see how Kliavkoff can navigate a television deal in what’s considered a bear market. The league could stay at nine schools and not give up any more of the revenue from the upcoming 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 “embrace expansion” after its current media rights deal.

“We are focused on concluding our media rights deal and securing our continued success and growth,” the statement said. “Immediately following the conclusion of our media rights deal, we will embrace expansion opportunities and bring new fans, markets, excitement and value to the Pac-12.”

The potential for San Diego State to join the Pac-12 revealed itself publicly recently, with ESPN reporting that the school’s president sent a letter to the Mountain West about the school’s intention to depart the league. In that letter, the school asked for a one-month extension “given unforeseen delays involving other collegiate athletic conferences beyond our control.”

That was in reference to the Pac-12’s television deal, which has come together slowly. But since SDSU didn’t have anywhere to go before the June 30 deadline, it would owe a $34 million exit fee to play in the league prior to the 2025-26 season. The school is expected to remain in the Mountain West for at least the next two years, according to ESPN.

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