Paul Finebaum reacts to the news that the College Football Playoff will not expand until at least 2026. (1:58)
On Aug. 24, the commissioners of the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 held a joint video conference to announce the Alliance, a new partnership between three of the five most powerful conferences in college athletics.
The launch generated immediate reaction — and memes from “The Office” — and set expectations for significant action, but its ambiguity also prompted plenty of questions. Most notably: What exactly is it?
The Alliance came together weeks after the SEC’s stunning addition of Oklahoma and Texas, and amid a turbulent and transformative summer for college athletics. It was formed, in part, as a response to realignment and the SEC’s power play. The main purpose was to pump the brakes on poaching teams and not generate more disruption, but it also drew clear tribal lines, distancing Alliance members from the ever-growing SEC and the weakened Big 12.
Last week marked six months since the Alliance was announced, and while the three leagues are working behind the scenes, the same existential question many asked about the pact remains.
The Alliance popped back onto fans’ radar last month when College Football Playoff expansion negotiations collapsed after an 8-3 vote, with the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 later revealed as the only dissenters against a proposed 12-team model. The leagues were portrayed as obstinate toward a more inclusive system many had been clamoring for, and while each maintains that it voted independently because of its distinct concerns, their link through the Alliance made them easy targets.
Six months in, the Alliance has accomplished some of its stated goals, namely stability within its ranks. Although conference realignment continued after the initial announcement, the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 have remained intact. The three leagues have aimed to increase games between them in the highest-profile sports, while pooling resources to address areas impacting student-athletes, such as physical and mental wellness, academics, social justice and diversity, equity and inclusion.
But the front-facing items for the Alliance, namely football scheduling, haven’t gained significant traction. Those in the Alliance say they’re making progress and even exceeding initial expectations, but some on the outside claim the impact has been negligible, at best.
Several Alliance football matchups are set and others are coming, but there hasn’t been a major scheduling surge.
The CFP fallout, meanwhile, underscores the confusion and mystery that still surrounds the Alliance. Commissioners Jim Phillips (ACC), Kevin Warren (Big Ten) and George Kliavkoff (Pac-12) spoke last week with ESPN’s Andrea Adelson, Heather Dinich and Adam Rittenberg to help clear up what the Alliance is and where it’s going. ESPN also reached out to leaders in college athletics who work outside of the Alliance to help determine how it’s perceived.
Jump to: CFP expansion | Football schedule | Realignment
Athlete experience and other goals
On Feb. 18, the CFP announced it will remain a four-team playoff for the next four years — a decision that was made with an 8-3 vote of the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. The CFP needed a unanimous, 11-0 decision to expand during the current 12-year contract, which runs through the 2025 season.
Amid criticism of the stall in expansion talks, Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, the chair of the CFP’s board of managers, publicly revealed the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 voted against the 12-team proposal. While the three leagues who voted against it comprise the Alliance, they firmly maintain they weren’t working in lockstep.
“This isn’t a voting bloc,” Phillips said last Friday.
When asked by ESPN recently what his initial reaction to the vote was, Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said, “It appeared to be a blocked vote,” though he added that he had “no inside knowledge.”
“If they say that’s not the case, I take it at face value,” he said. “They did seem to be on the same page on that one, but for different reasons, from what I read.”
Phillips stated in mid-January that his conference was united in its belief that “this is not the right time for expansion.” He also cited broader issues throughout college athletics.
The Big Ten, meanwhile, had lingering questions about an expanded format’s impact on athletes’ mental health, the academic calendar, revenue sharing and making sure multiple media partners are assured an opportunity to bid on rights. The Big Ten has also been steadfast in its position that the champions of the Power 5 conferences and one additional conference should have an automatic bid in an expanded playoff — a proposal that hasn’t received much support around the table.
Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 would have voted in favor of the 12-team proposal if the vote was specific to the final two seasons of the current contract. The motion brought to the table didn’t split playoff expansion into two votes: one for the current 12-year contract, and another for Year 13 and beyond. Instead, it was one vote on expanding the CFP under the originally proposed 12-team model with the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams. That was a consideration for the Big Ten, too.
“We have to take a holistic view, especially if we planned on signing the long-term deal,” Warren said of agreeing to a format that would extend beyond the current 12 years. “Now, if we’re getting to the point where it’s one year remaining, then that’s different, but when you have four years remaining on an agreement, and we’re talking about doing it early, it has to make sense not only for the Big Ten, it has to make sense for everyone. I just think that’s rational, good business.”
Kliavkoff said any notion that the three commissioners worked together to slow or stop expansion is “a narrative that certain folks benefit from having out there even if it’s not true.”
“I can only respond with what they told me,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “and what they asserted as their concerns and questions were not at all the same. In fact they were all unique to them, so I didn’t get any sense that they were a voting bloc.”
Added Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher: “I take my colleagues at face value. It’s an easy thing to point to — that doesn’t make it this grand conspiracy.”
Phillips is the only Power 5 commissioner who served on both the NCAA’s constitution committee and transformation committee — both tasked with restructuring the organization’s governance. He pointed to three reasons for the ACC’s reluctance: too many unanswered questions regarding health and safety of the athletes; the “overall disruption in college athletics,” including the new NCAA constitution and a desperate plea for federal legislation to manage NIL; and a 365-day “holistic review” of policy as it relates to the sport.
The Big Ten and the Pac-12 felt there were lingering unanswered issues, and the Pac-12 made specific requests related to the Rose Bowl, which traditionally pits the Big Ten champion against the Pac-12 champion. In an expanded playoff, a normal Rose Bowl would likely be getting the third-best team from the Pac-12 and maybe the fourth-best from the Big Ten, on average, as the top teams would almost assuredly be ranked in the top 12. The Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl don’t want a semifinal competing against the bowl game in the same traditional New Year’s Day TV window. The request would also protect the other bowls that have contracts with Power 5 conferences, the Sugar and Orange.
“What we’re asking for … is a tiny little ask,” Kliavkoff said Jan. 21 on The Paul Finebaum Show. “We’ve asked for three hours every three years to be protected against having to compete against a CFP quarterfinal. … Not a big ask. It’s difficult to expand the College Football Playoff and also hold on to the great traditions we have in the bowl games.”
The Pac-12 and Big Ten also shared a concern about the unknown revenue distribution in Year 13. Without knowing the TV contract, the CFP could not answer how the revenue would be shared beyond the current term. There was also no determination if the current revenue split would stay the same.
“There can’t be, ‘Well, we’ll answer that after we agree that we’re going to expand currently, we will answer that down the road,'” Warren said. “And so I know from where I sit, where the Big Ten sits, I said it very clearly: We are 100 percent supportive of expansion. We think it’s the right thing to do. But it has to be at the right time, in the right format, for the right reasons.”
In theory, the approval of expansion should be easier in 2026 because it doesn’t have to be unanimous. There’s no contract to unwind. Instead, a majority of the 11 would need to vote in favor of the proposal, including a majority of the Power 5 conferences. Once a format is agreed upon, every stakeholder can decide if they want to participate.
Under those circumstances, the ACC might not change its stance — but it might not matter if the league is outnumbered. If everyone else is moving forward with a 12-team playoff, the ACC will likely have to roll with it if the league wants a shot at the national title. It’s certainly possible the Big Ten relents on automatic qualifiers, though that conversation will be determined in part by how the league’s TV negotiations unfold.
If there’s a plan that appeases the Rose Bowl, the Pac-12 is far more likely to accept it, as long as the revenue distribution is the same or better than what it is now.
All three commissioners have said publicly that they favor expansion at some point, so it’s not far-fetched to think they can come to an agreement.
“We are 100 percent supportive of expansion,” Warren said last Friday. “Do I think we’ll get there one day? Absolutely, and I feel strongly about that, but this is not something that needed to be rushed.”
The question now is how the stalled talks impact negotiations and change relationships and leverage moving forward. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said “we’ll have to rethink our approach” when conversations resume. Sankey was a member of the four-person working group that developed the initial proposal, along with Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, Bowlsby and Swarbrick.
If the group can’t find a plan that appeases the SEC, it’s hard to see it happening, even if the SEC is in the minority. Sankey has repeatedly said his league has no problem with the current four-team field. The SEC’s playoff stance might ultimately be more powerful than where the Alliance stands — even if it’s together.
“We’ll take a step back and figure out our own direction, just as others have figured out theirs,” Sankey said.
The biggest headline when the Alliance was formed centered on future nonconference scheduling. Fans immediately started dreaming of marquee regular-season clashes.
USC–Ohio State! Clemson–Michigan! Penn State–Oregon!
But as Ohio State AD Gene Smith told ESPN, it’s just not that easy.
“The reality is, when you look at our model of playing nine conference games, it’s going to be difficult for us to have a formal scheduling alliance as it was first conceived,” he said. “We have a plan when it comes to football scheduling that we’ve worked diligently on over the years and we won’t change that plan. We won’t put a burden on our team to have to play an ACC or a Pac-12 opponent on an annual basis.”
Given the nature of college football schedules — for which games are often planned eight to 10 years in advance — such instant gratification was never realistic, but Phillips insists progress is being made.
“I think we have had some success — maybe not to the level that the general public wants,” Phillips said. “But if you look at just the complexities of overall scheduling we have had some pretty good progress.”
The Alliance has a working group assigned to coordinate with athletic directors from the three leagues on future scheduling, and Kliavkoff says the Pac-12 has 32 open dates over the next decade, in which Alliance games will take priority. Since July, ACC schools have either verbally agreed to or signed agreements for eight future nonconference series totaling 17 games against Alliance opponents.
A challenge is that the three Alliance leagues are in different places with their media rights agreements. The Big Ten is already in the early stages of negotiations for a new deal, which would begin in 2023 and reportedly could exceed $1 billion. The Pac-12’s rights agreement goes until 2024 and will be a critical area for Kliavkoff to grow the league. The ACC, meanwhile, is locked into a contract with ESPN through 2036 that likely will put the league behind others in annual revenue.
The differences in both timing and dollars with each rights agreement will impact the Alliance’s ability to work together on football scheduling and other items. The Alliance likely will face fewer obstacles after the Big Ten and Pac-12 deals are finalized.
“As we work through these agreements, these items will have to be on the table … structure of the conference, divisions, number of games, eight versus nine, your football championship game,” Warren said. “From a football standpoint, all of these things are critically important. The world we live in from a media-rights standpoint, not just linear TV but from an over-the-top standpoint, they’re great opportunities but also it’s a complex opportunity.”
Those on the outside remain skeptical about a spike in Alliance matchups.
“You don’t need an alliance for that,” one Power 5 athletic director said. “I promise you some of them aren’t interested in scheduling each other like that; otherwise they could have been doing it all along.”
But the conferences say they are committed to making it work, even as they navigate disparities in media rights deals, conference games (eight for ACC, nine for Pac-12 and Big Ten) and nonconference rivalries (ACC-SEC games involving Florida State, Clemson, Louisville and Georgia Tech).
“Some of that is outside the control of a single conference,” Kliavkoff said. “But we have every intention to continue to fill our open dates with Alliance games.”
This seems to be the biggest question, and at least within the Alliance, it all starts with the Big Ten because its media rights deal expires first. Though Smith indicated the Big Ten ADs want to stay at nine league games, he and Warren said no decisions have been made just yet.
More conference games would mean fewer spots for Alliance matchups.
“We are working through items pertaining to what’s the appropriate number of games, how our conference should be structured from a division or nondivision standpoint,” Warren said. “I look forward to over the next couple months being able to come to some decision in regards to [the] number of conference games.”
Kliavkoff said in December that his league would immediately reduce its conference schedule from nine games to eight as long as the Big Ten did the same. But with the Big Ten undecided, the Pac-12 is not necessarily in a position of strength. Kliavkoff said that decisions can’t be made in a vacuum.
“You can’t do it last minute, because there aren’t games of an equal quality to fill,” Kliavkoff said. “That’s more of a longer-term decision for us, unless we’re in a position where we can match that decision with others and guarantee that we have 12 games to play if we go from nine to eight.”
Kliavkoff said lingering questions about conference scheduling and division structure also impact who ends up in league championship games. He was blunt in his assessment — the Pac-12 must make decisions “to optimize for CFP invitations.”
That makes sense for a conference like the Pac-12, which has not had as much success getting teams into the CFP as the Big Ten and ACC. But this is important for the ACC as well, as it looks to enhance its overall football product beyond Clemson’s six playoff appearances. At the same time, schools like Florida State and Clemson have SEC rivalry games they must play — and Notre Dame is in the ACC scheduling rotation as well. USC and Stanford want to protect annual rivalry games against Notre Dame.
So even if more Alliance games are added, chances are the biggest names in some of the conferences might not have as many open slots open to schedule nonconference contests. If the SEC moves to nine conference games after adding Texas and Oklahoma, its members could change how they view the importance of annual rivalry games with ACC teams.
When the Alliance launched last summer, Phillips pointed out that he, Kliavkoff and Warren sensed a “responsibility to stabilize a volatile environment” after Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12. At the time, speculation swirled that the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC would have to respond, forcing them to perhaps poach from each other, or, in the ultimate nightmare, face the possibility of losing teams to the SEC.
Stabilizing the environment served to protect the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC, and stopped any speculation that there were backroom calls and deals happening that would further alter the landscape. While the ripples of the SEC’s move impacted Group of 5 conferences, the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC teamed up to essentially hold the line.
A main reason is the grant of rights tied to each conference, which did not exist during the last wave of realignment a decade ago. Essentially, if a school leaves, its media rights would stay with its old conference — making it financially untenable to leave conferences, especially those with longer television contracts. For Oklahoma and Texas, the Big 12 media rights deal expired in 2025, so there was not much for them to lose in joining the much more powerful SEC.
In the ACC, the grant of rights runs through 2036.
“I’m not sure that there’s a huge number of schools out there looking to move right now,” Miami athletic director Dan Radakovich said. “Maybe among the Group of 5 there’s continued movement, but I don’t see that as much on the horizon with the Power 5 schools.”
The timing of the Alliance’s formation — during the aftershocks of Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC — wasn’t lost on those around the sport.
“It appeared to be a response to OU and Texas,” Stricklin said. “I’m not sure if it was an effort to stabilize or it was a defensive gesture.”
If there is one certainty in collegiate athletics, it’s that change is always occurring, including conference realignment. All three conferences understand that, as each has added teams over the past decade. At least in the short term, the Alliance agreement discourages them from poaching each other. But the leagues didn’t sign a contract.
“If that’s what it takes to get something considerable done, then we’ve lost our way,” Phillips said in August.
In the long term, will the “gentlemen’s agreement” touted when the Alliance was formed actually hold up once another wave of realignment begins?
Among the three conferences, the Big Ten operates from an area of strength — and is set to cash in with its upcoming media rights deal. Though the ACC lags behind the SEC and Big Ten financially, it has a grant of rights through 2036 that makes it unlikely for any school to leave because of the financial penalties it would incur. Kliavkoff has made it clear that the Pac-12 must enhance its football. What does that mean for the league’s long-term strategy?
The bulk of work during the Alliance’s first six months has been focused on athletes and topics that resonate with them. Working groups have been formed to support their mental and physical health, academics and leadership development. The leagues are working together to address social justice advocacy, voting and civic engagement, environmental sustainability and gender equality and diversity.
In November, the Alliance launched “Teammates for Mental Health,” an initiative highlighting the importance of athlete mental health and wellness. The campaign included public service announcements on all three conference networks, and signage and promotions during the Big Ten/ACC Women’s Basketball Challenge. The Pac-12 in 2013 formed its student-athlete health and wellbeing initiative, and in 2020 held its first athlete mental health summit at UCLA. The ACC and Big Ten have since formed their own groups focused on athlete mental health, and all three leagues are pooling resources.
“Coming out of COVID, I candidly can’t think of anything more important that we can be focused on than the mental health of our student-athletes,” Kliavkoff said. “To combine our efforts to share best practices and to drive mental health awareness for student athletes, and drive results for them in that space, is a big achievement and the beginning of more work that we need to do.”
Some, though, have questioned why that work can’t be done more collegiately beyond the boundaries of the Alliance. Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt told ESPN the formation of the Alliance “speaks to the level of mistrust and lack of collective national leadership that college athletics has today.”
“You could talk about all the different other opportunities that they said they were going to collaborate on — DEI and social justice and health and safety — but those are things that, heck, we all better be in collaboration on and be prepared to work together on,” Hocutt said, “because if we don’t do it any better than what we’ve done in the past, it’s going to continue to lead down a path none of us are going to be proud of.”
Last month, the Alliance celebrated the 50th anniversary of Title IX and will continue its push to highlight the achievements of women in sports during March, which is Women’s History Month. Athletes from all three leagues have had meetings and seminars, such as one with all three Alliance commissioners and Los Angeles Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike, president of the WNBA players’ association and a former Stanford player and No. 1 overall WNBA draft pick.
“We want to make sure that we develop a collegiate sports model and environment where the important needs of our student-athletes are continued to be put at the top,” Warren said.
While fans are likely zeroed in on scheduling, the Alliance commissioners are continuing their broader approach moving forward. Their focus, Phillips said, remains supporting athletes’ wellness and working collaboratively with the other conferences and commissioners about the future of college athletics. Warren added that he wants to create financial stability to ensure that all sports “can preserve our historic traditions.”
And, yes, scheduling. The Alliance has established scheduling working groups for football, men’s and women’s basketball and Olympic sports.
“There’s the entertainment piece of college athletics that we all know and love,” Phillips said. “To me and the ACC, it’s pushing forward in those three areas in particular. Speaking only for the ACC, we’re incredibly excited about what we’ve seen, the possibilities and some of the work that’s been done in the past six months, but even more bullish on where this thing can go in the future and how the Alliance can be a part of the bigger picture of the future of college sports.”
“What’s been really cool about it is letting the Alliance be what the athletes want it to be, giving us full control of the programming, as opposed to just throwing things on us,” said Isaiah Holmes, a high jumper for Miami’s track team. “We have a few networking events coming up. And there’s tons of opportunities for student-athletes to discuss what’s happening on their campus and do some best-practice sharing, which is one of the more helpful things and more immediate changes since the Alliance formed.”
Holmes, a member of Miami’s student-athlete advisory committee, initially didn’t know what to make of the Alliance when it formed.
“I thought it was going to be like the rest of the Power 5 versus the SEC,” he said. “But I’ve learned this is much more a matter of student-athlete wellness and being able to strengthen their conferences with the power of each other.”