Colorado board approves 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 in the Big 12 on Thursday.

The school’s Board of Regents voted unanimously to make the move, which loomed as the final step in a process that for the past 24 hours has largely been considered a formality. Colorado’s departure will coincide with the end of the Pac-12 television deal, which expires after the 2023-24 season, meaning Colorado won’t have to pay any 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.

“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 application for membership 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. Pac-12 leadership is expected to meet with presidents Thursday night to discuss that league’s next steps, sources told ESPN. The Buffalos had emerged as the loudest skeptics of Pac-12 commissioner George 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.

The move marks a return for Colorado to the Big 12, where they were members from 1996 to 2010. 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.

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 of movement from the Pac-12, as Colorado’s application 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 on 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 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 earlier, as the Pac-12’s deal was set to expire after the 2023-24, a year earlier than the Big 12.

That helped the Big 12 jump in line, land a pair of linear television partners, and left 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 publicly said 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 potential for San Diego State to join the Pac-12 revelated itself publicly recently. ESPN reported 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. While San Diego State and the Mountain West disagree on whether the school has issued its formal resignation from the league, the school’s declaration of departure prior to June 30 means an exit fee that’s nearly $16.5 million to leave after the 2023-24 season as opposed to nearly $34 million after that date.

“These decisions are never easy and we’ve valued our 12 years as proud members of the Pac-12 Conference,” Colorado chancellor Philip DiStefano and athletic director Rick George said in a joint statement. “We look forward to achieving new goals while embarking on this exciting next era as members of the Big 12 Conference.”

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