The disappointing demise of the Pac-12 conference gave Cal few options for the athletic department’s new home, but a West Coast school –– let alone two –– playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference makes no sense at face value.
The deal that brought Cal and Stanford into the ACC was hailed as a win for student-athletes and the greater framework of the athletics department by UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ. However, we believe that major questions remain about how the school ended up in its present situation and where it goes from here.
The house of cards that fell during the dissolution of the Pac-12 did not have to deal Cal the hand it ended up with.
After a month-long courting period, Cal will receive a cut of the conference’s media rights deal with ESPN, which paid each team about $40 million in 2020-21. Cal will then have to pay back a significant portion of this sum annually, only fully tapering off in 2034, as part of the agreement.
With Cal and Stanford joining the ACC, this also spells the end of the Pac-12, which only has two teams not yet committed to play elsewhere in 2024. This means more than just the end of a conference, but rather the onslaught of major ramifications on the regionality of college athletics.
These ramifications will be most consequential for student-athletes in the ACC. More specifically, in joining the ACC, Cal and Stanford have signed their student-athletes to a major commitment to cross-country travel.
While it may be true that certain sports unaffiliated with the Pac-12 on campus — such as water polo and rugby — likely won’t see any changes, it remains to be seen how the university plans to soften the effect of travel on 11 of the school’s 30 sports.
For instance, how will Cal softball manage a conference schedule that would require a cross-country flight nearly ten times a season?
On a larger scale, Cal Athletics still isn’t out of the woods with this deal. Having incurred $445 million in debt to remodel California Memorial Stadium only for field sponsor FTX to fall out late last year, it was clear that money was tight even before the Pac-12 collapse. Now, even though both the ACC and stadium repayment plans have already been inked, Cal’s financial situation could worsen, as nothing but a conference exit fee is stopping other ACC schools from pulling out at a moment’s notice.
Florida State and Clemson are two of the major drivers of media revenue among ACC schools, and both have been rumored to be looking to move elsewhere in years to come. Though there are contractual roadblocks in place for now, greener pastures in the Big Ten or SEC may override the newcomer taxes and fines for leaving.
With the future of multiple ACC programs in question, Cal may find itself in the middle of yet another conference-realignment nightmare, all while not earning the full value of the media revenue it initially signed on for.
It was clear from the moment that soon-to-be-former conference neighbors UCLA and USC decided to leave the conference that action had to be taken to secure a future in the Pac-12 or elsewhere. However, Cal had seemed content with staying in the Pac-12 throughout the next year, lacking the leverage and boldness of the two Southern California schools.
Leverage would have been earned if there was more urgency to move toward better conference opportunities well before Colorado broke open the floodgates of the Pac-12, or when warning signs went off as a doomed Apple media rights deal was presented to members in August.
In all this controversy and the foggy future ahead, what we believe to be unfortunately clear is that this very well may be our best-worst option. While our student-athletes will continue to compete at the highest competitive level of collegiate athletics, they subsequently face an undetermined future.
And with the added detail that there is no safeguard against future teams pulling out of the ACC, the instability of regional conference play in its current state is particularly concerning for the future of our athletes.
With new expectations, student-athletes will be hauling thousands of miles across the country with the added pressure of demanding academic standards set by UC Berkeley. In addition to their particularly packed schedules and high expectations, our athletes deserve stability at the very least — and in the current state of collegiate athletics, it’s uncertain whether that bare minimum will be guaranteed.
The once diametrically opposed brands of Cal and UC Berkeley find themselves adjoined in facing the murky future of collegiate athletics.
Being on the back foot of trends and movements has landed Cal Athletics in this unfavorable position. If Cal does not act to maintain the integrity of the conference that they fell into, a future move may not be as forgiving.