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Questions remain for what UO’s Big Ten move means for the university, student athletes and the region

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University of Oregon accepted membership into the Big Ten athletic conference late last week, leaving Oregon State University in the crumbling Pac-12

The University of Oregon has high hopes for its move to the Big Ten athletic conference next year, but questions remain about the impact on student athletes, fans and the region.

UO announced its move from the Pac-12 conference to the Big Ten last Friday, the same day University of Washington announced it had made the same decision. University of Southern California and University of California, Los Angeles both announced their move to the Big Ten last year.

The move to the Big Ten means a number of changes for Ducks in every sport including playing teams based in the Midwest and on the East Coast instead of primarily in the western half of the U.S.

Rob Mullens, UO’s director of intercollegiate athletics, said in a statement the move means “stability and exposure.”

“Accepting membership into the Big Ten Conference is a transformational opportunity for the University of Oregon to change the short and long-term trajectory of our university and athletics department,” Mullens said.

University president Karl Scholz said in a statement that the decision “will help ensure a bright future for the University of Oregon.”

UO’s move followed major instability within the Pac-12, according to reporting from the Associated Press, including an underwhelming media deal from the conference and other teams’ decisions to leave. Payouts from the Big Ten will likely top what Pac-12 schools are currently receiving and what’s available in other conferences, such as the Big 12, according to the Associated Press.

Brady Ruth, sports co-editor with the Daily Emerald, University of Oregon’s independent student newspaper, told OPB that at the end of the day, the conference realignment moves are driven by money.

“There’s just more money in those conferences,” Ruth said of the Big Ten and Big 12 in comparison to the Pac-12. “It’s all about those big TV deals. The Big Ten was already making more money, and now it can attract the Los Angeles TV market, the Portland TV market, the Seattle TV market.”

UO and University of Washington will not receive full cuts upon entering the Big Ten, at an estimated $60 million per year. Instead, they would likely receive about $30 million per year, with annual increases. The Pac-12 deal would have likely had payouts closer to anywhere from $23 to $25 million, according to the AP.

Changes for all UO athletes

But with more money also comes big changes for UO, which has been in the west coast conference for more than 100 years, including games against harder teams and much farther travel for student athletes.

While the first sport people think of in collegiate athletics might be football, Emerald sports editor Ruth said the impact of conference realignment will be felt more by sports with less funding, like tennis.

Ruth said UO’s football team has private planes and the travel days are usually late in the week into the weekend.

“The ones where it’s really going to impact the student athletes are like tennis, where you’re flying Southwest Airlines, you’re flying Delta, you’re flying United, and suddenly you’re having to get from Eugene to Bloomington, Indiana, and then to Purdue in the same week,” he said. “Instead of just, ‘Oh, we’re going to the Seattle schools, so we’re leaving on Thursday, we’ll be back on Saturday.’ It’s going to be more travel time.”

Several student athletes and alumni at UO and other schools undergoing conference realignment have taken to social media to air concerns about increased travel and impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

“Those travel weeks that were probably three or four day trips probably become four or five day trips now,” Ruth said. “It’s an extra day out of the classroom, and it’s more time on the road, more travel, and it’s more taxing on these student athletes.”

Still, Ruth said he has confidence that games will continue to be scheduled with students’ best interests in mind.

In a meeting with UO’s Board of Trustees last week, university president Scholz said the move would also benefit the school’s academics. He called the Big Ten “not just a premiere athletic conference, but it is a premiere academic conference.”

Scholz said the university would have a chance to interact with the schools in the Big Ten through the “Big Ten Academic Alliance.” That alliance has historically included collaborations like pooling academic library resources and networking opportunities for students and faculty.

The future of the Pac-12

UO’s move leaves just four schools in the Pac-12 Conference,including Oregon State University.

“This is a serious moment, and, given the longstanding traditions among Pac-12 teams, we all feel the loss,” OSU president Jayathi Murthy said in a statement to the campus community Friday.

“We believe the preservation of the Pac-12 is in the best interests of all member universities, student-athletes and fans. Oregon State University also continues to explore options separate from those of the conference,” she said. “We have been working vigorously behind the scenes to secure the best opportunity going forward. I will share more information with the university community as it becomes available.”

Related: Almost ready for the kickoff: OSU’s new Reser Stadium at '98%' completion

University of Oregon said in its statement Friday that the school will prioritize long-standing traditions, including competing with OSU across all sports. It’s not yet clear exactly what that will look like with the conference realignment.

Ruth with the Daily Emerald said there will still be opportunities for UO and OSU football to play against each other during non-conference games, it just might not be during the time of year fans are used to. With other sports, like softball and baseball, there are even more opportunities for non-conference games.

Ruth stressed that this might not be the end of conference realignment moves. The Big Ten will have a total of 18 members when UO and University of Washington officially join next year, and there could be the potential to break up the conference in some way.

“Are we going to see three super conferences?” Ruth said. “Are we going to see [the National Collegiate Athletics Association] step in and say, ‘Hey, this is a little ridiculous. We need to have a conference cap or some geography cap to try to keep local teams together?’”

Ruth said this is just another move in “one of the craziest eras” of collegiate athletics, and it would only be speculation to say where things could go from here.

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Meerah Powell