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Gordon: USC, UCLA departures dim Pac-12 postseasons in Las Vegas

Updated July 1, 2022 - 11:36 am

The rumors began Thursday morning and were confirmed before sunset. UCLA and Southern California are leaving the Pac-12 in 2024, they announced via Twitter — and thereby leaving Las Vegas, too.

Gone are the conference’s top two brands. Athletic juggernauts that anchor the Los Angeles sporting scene when they’re operating at their apex. That helped fill T-Mobile Arena or MGM Grand Garden or Michelob Ultra Arena every March.

Will the Pac-12 and its postseason ever be the same?

Easy answer: No.

Change is coming. That much is obvious after the Bruins and Trojans announced their departures to Big Ten and its rich, green (and chilly) pastures. They leave sizable voids in the Conference of Champions — and in Las Vegas, where the league contests its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and, as of last season, its conference football championship game.

Perhaps Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will follow. Reports suggest the Big 12 may come calling for those schools and the markets they represent.

Changes could be “monumental,” per an NCAA source with ties to Las Vegas.

As if they weren’t already?

Losing its luster?

The city has housed the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament since 2013, breaking ties that year with Los Angeles amid dwindling upside. The women’s tournament followed suit in 2019. Football debuted its championship game locally last season.

The men’s basketball tournament and football championship will be back this academic year, though the league has not yet announced a plan for its women’s tournament. That said, “the fact that our relationships go so deep in Las Vegas is great,” Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich told the Review-Journal in March.

”I think it was a step-by-step progression that now is just kind of a full acceptance,” he added. “Now people think of Vegas first for these events, which is a testament to the city.”

Losing USC and UCLA is a major blow to the conference, but the league isn’t always “dependent on those teams all the time,” the source said. Arizona fans flock to Las Vegas every March, and Oregon and Utah fans packed Allegiant Stadium last winter.

UCLA hasn’t won a men’s basketball tournament since 2014 and USC has never won one. On the women’s side, the Bruins last won a conference tournament championship in 2006 and the Trojans in 2014.

Neither program factored into the first football championship game in Las Vegas, though Lincoln Riley may have something to say about that the next two seasons.

“I do think the tournaments are that strong — and football will do well,” the source said, acknowledging those viewpoints are rather optimistic.

But there’s only so much weight that Arizona, Washington or any other Pac-12 program can be expected to carry.

Now what?

Therein lies the dilemma: How will the league proceed?

It’s probably too soon to tell, given the ever changing landscape of college athletics. Maybe it’ll pursue other pertinent programs on the West Coast a la San Diego State. But for what it’s worth, the conference maintained confidence in a statement issued Thursday evening.

After acknowledging disappointment, the league drew on its “long and storied history in athletics, academics and leadership in supporting student-athletes that we’re confident will continue to thrive and grow into the future.

“The Pac-12 is home to many of the world’s best universities, athletic programs and alumni, representing one of the most dynamic regions in the United States. We’ve long been known as the Conference of Champions, and we’re unwavering in our commitment to extend that title,” the league’s post read. “We will continue to develop new and innovative programs that directly benefit our member institutions, and we look forward to partnering with current and potential members to pioneer the future of college athletics together.”

As does the Big Ten.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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