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The Pac-12 school with the best options finally exercised them. Turns out Colorado had the ability, motivation, history and level of impatience to keep this conference realignment train rolling.

Colorado is back in the league it once called home for more than six decades. The CU Board of Regents on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to return to the Big 12, the conference the Buffaloes helped found in 1996, after 13 seasons in the Pac-12.

Meanwhile, the Pac-12 returns to the negotiating table with one less member. It is now set to have just nine teams in the conference at the start of the 2024-25 athletic season.

Next steps? Perhaps too many to count.

  • Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark certainly isn't done.
  • The Pac-12's future existence is now more front and center than ever.
  • Will enough dominoes fall to cause an even more significant shift in realignment?

What happens in the future remains to be seen. Colorado became the most likely team to leave the Pac-12 due to its deep knowledge of the Big 12 -- having spent 63 years in different iterations of the league -- and a surge in popularity spurned almost entirely by hiring NFL star Deion Sanders as the Buffaloes new football coach.

It wasn't Oregon and Washington -- the best remaining Pac-12 brands -- that made the move. They may have desire to join the Big Ten, but there's little interest from the nation's richest conference at the moment. It wasn't Arizona (yet); the Wildcats continue to patiently wait for the numbers from a Pac-12 media rights deal that looks to be diminishing by the day.

Colorado spoke loud and clear that at least it perceives the Pac-12 will not be anywhere near the $31.7 million the Big 12 is getting in its new media rights contract from Fox and ESPN.

The Pac-12's failings bear repeating: The league likely had its choice of Big 12 schools -- twice. In 2010, then-commissioner Larry Scott's bold move to raid the Big 12 of half its teams fell just short. More than a decade later, when Texas and Oklahoma announced they were departing for the SEC in 2021, the opportunity existed to pick the bones of a wounded Big 12.

Instead, the Pac-12 stood pat ... and the Big 12 retooled.

Two years later, the paradox can be felt from here to the Left (Behind) Coast.

The Big 12, considered unstable and perhaps headed toward failure in 2021, has now struck a blow destabilizing the Pac-12. Let's hope that's all it is. There remains every chance for the Pac-12 to remain afloat, but what will it look like?

San Diego State seems like an easy replacement for Colorado beginning in 2025. Well, it seemed like an easy replacement for USC and UCLA, except the Pac-12 could not get its media rights ducks in a row quick enough for SDSU to make a decision prior to its Mountain West exit fee doubling.

Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark said earlier this month he'd like to cap expansion at 14 teams once Texas and Oklahoma depart. Colorado's addition move the league to 13 members in 2024, which suggests it is going to be a mad scramble for that 14th spot.

It also signals, once the Big 12 is done -- even if it takes another Pac-12 program -- the Pac-12 should have enough significant teams to remain standing.

UConn remains in play. Yormark still must convince his presidents to buy into both a dramatic move East and the admission of a substandard football program. The benefit of the Huskies? Basketball prominence. The Big 12 could increase its stature as the nation's best college basketball conference.

Early indications are that UConn decision makers are all in, but someone is going to have to pay that $30 million Big East exit fee. 

Survival matters more than money at this point for everyone, really. Yormark wants younger, cooler, hipper. The Pac-12 just wants to solidify its future. The SEC and Big Ten are in the process of turning the Power Five into Power Two.

The Big 12 likes to think it is in a fight with the ACC to become part of the Significant Three.

The loss of prestige has hit the Pac-12 hard with the conference dropping a pair of top-20 markets -- No. 2 (Los Angeles) and No. 16 (Denver). It went from having four schools with football national championships to one (Washington). Suddenly, the Big 12 has three times as many schools that have won a natty (BYU, Colorado, TCU).

As for the Pac-12, it must double down and figure out how to keep Oregon and Washington happy. Both spoke with the Big Ten as early as last fall. Perhaps giving each a weighted share of media rights revenue makes sense.

There's no room for those two in the Big Ten at the moment as new commissioner Tony Pettiti must first assimilate USC and UCLA into the first 16-team super league of this era.

Colorado's exit now makes it OK to question out loud the process the Pac-12 has taken to this point. Upon losing USC and UCLA, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff either could not or would not get a media rights deal done in an early negotiating window last summer.

That should have been the first indicator of the league's diminishing value. There continue to be rumors the Pac-12 asked for as much $500 million annually at one point. That's $50 million per team per year, which would have put the Pac-12 in the same orbit as the Big Ten despite two biggest West Coast brands walking out the door.

Talk about outlandish.

Too harsh? Kliavkoff then watched Yormark jump the line by opening his conference's media rights deal early and signing extensions with Fox and ESPN -- the same partners with whom the Pac-12 hoped to negotiate -- the day before Halloween.

Scary? You bet … for the Pac-12. That Big 12 deal essentially took away ESPN and Fox as potential primary linear partners.

Linear continues to mean everything in these changing times. That's why the Big Ten has partnered with CBS, Fox and NBC for college sports' richest media rights deal.

The industry's economic downturn certainly contributed to the Pac-12 problems. It's doubtful ESPN, which holds 63% of the Big 12's $2.3 billion value, could afford to do that deal today given the company just went through another massive round of layoffs.

So, why would there be similar money left for the Pac-12?

The league will most likely stay together, but at what level of relevance?

The Pac-12's proximity to -- and academic engagement with -- Silicon Valley has always been an advantage. However, in a strange twist, the streaming giants that made the region famous have become a contentious discussion point. Since streaming hasn't "hit" quite yet as a major carrier of sports, the Pac-12 seemingly has to land a media rights deal that relies on less than 50% of its dollars coming from that platform.

The lack of visibility on linear TV could rankle Pac-12 athletic directors and coaches. It certainly mattered to Colorado, which will instead earn an equal $31.7 million annual share from Fox and ESPN as a new Big 12 member.

Apple has reportedly been in talks to stream Pac-12 games since 2019. It recently acquired the entire MLS package to mixed reviews. Apple senior vice president Eddie Cue may have recently indicated why the company's interest has yet to result in a deal: "It doesn't work unless it's something significant," Cue told Front Office Sports this week.

Whatever negotiating advantage the Pac-12 might have once had appears to be slipping by the day.

"At this point, I don't care if it pisses everybody off. Do a quick deal with [the likes of] Apple and Fox," media consultant Jimmy Williams said of the Pac-12. "The best deal on the table, you better take it now. If other schools go, other schools go. … Do you really want to be the fifth choice of ESPN or the only choice on Apple?"

Colorado traded that Pac-12 uncertainty for that full share from the Big 12. It traded an uncertain future in one conference for six-plus decades of familiarity in another.

The ultimate irony is that Colorado left the Big 12 back in 2011 because of a perceived lack of stability. Twelve years later, it is seeking that same security in its old conference.

What changed? Not much. In both cases, CU had options.