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What Happens to Conference Partnerships in the Wake of UCLA, USC Move?

Since it won’t actually happen for another two years, the announcement by UCLA and USC that they are taking their talents to the Big Ten lacked the immediate drama of watching Robert Irsay’s moving trucks drive out of Baltimore in the middle of the night some 38 years ago.

But the decision by the two schools will have much bigger consequences for college sports than the Colts’ move to Indianapolis—and eventual replacement by the Ravens—ever had on the NFL.

And once again the impact of the move’s repercussions on corporate partners will be largely ignored in the conversation of who wins and who loses. Already the focus is on what does this mean for the Big Ten and Pac-12’s broadcast deals (and, eventually, the ACC’s, Notre Dame’s, etc.) and although that makes perfect sense given media rights are by far the largest piece of the revenue pie, it disregards the contributions made by numerous brands spending not insignificant dollars on conference sponsorships.

Brands such as 76, New York Life, Old Trapper, Pacific Premier Bank and Redbox are among the Pac-12’s 18 official conference partners, alongside Dr Pepper, Gatorade, GEICO, Jockey and others. They are now left watching to see if there will be further departures among the for-now remaining Pac-12 members and whether new schools will join the conference.

Even with UCLA and USC tied to the league for two more years (prepare for plenty of jokes about lame ducks in any matchup with Oregon the next couple of seasons), the rights and assets those brands purchased were immediately devalued last Thursday evening when the Big Ten presidents accepted the powerhouse schools into their conference. Next will come internal discussions about the ability of the partnerships to continue to meet objectives, followed by difficult conversations and negotiations with the conference about opening up contracts and agreeing to updated terms.

Outside the Pac-12, the continued realignment among all other college conferences, except the new Power Two Big Ten and SEC, raises the question of why any brand would sign a conference partnership before all the dust settles--a process that will take years—without the ability to completely rework or exit the agreement.

In that regard, the Big 12’s move the day before the Pac-12 shakeup to hire Brett Yormark, an experienced sports industry leader and previously an accomplished sponsorship sales executive, could prove remarkably prescient.

As for the soon-to-be-16-member Big Ten (and presumably the SEC), its sponsorship program appears headed for new frontiers well beyond its Midwest roots.

In its examination of what went on behind the scenes in the days leading up to UCLA’s and USC’s separation from the Pac-12, The Athletic noted that Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren joined numerous meetings via videoconference “from London, where he was meeting with potential conference sponsors and partners.”

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