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Colorado’s Pac-12 exit puts spotlight on UNLV conference future

Updated July 28, 2023 - 8:20 pm

Colorado’s defection from the Pac-12 and return to the Big 12 on Thursday reignited conference realignment discussions and renewed speculation about UNLV’s conference future.

The Rebels have been part of the Mountain West since its inception in 1999. But with the large difference in media rights payouts between Power Five conferences like the Big 12 and Pac-12 and Group of Five conferences like the Mountain West, getting into a Power Five conference represents a massive financial boost.

UNLV receives around $4 million per year from the Mountain West’s media rights deal. The Pac-12 reportedly paid each of its member schools an average of $37 million through its media rights during the 2022 fiscal year, according to USA Today, while the Big 12 paid its member institutions between $42 million and $44.9 million.

However, the Rebels can’t simply choose to join a new conference. Instead, they have to wait and see how the rest of realignment shakes out and which conference expresses an interest in them.

UNLV athletic director Erick Harper could not be reached for comment Friday.

Colorado will rejoin the Big 12 following the 2023-24 season. The Buffaloes’ return will put the conference at 13 member institutions for the 2024-25 season. According to the Action Network, the Big 12 expects to add at least one more school and could expand to 16.

UNLV and other Group of Five schools are not among the Big 12’s preferred list. Instead, the conference is focused on Arizona, while monitoring Utah, Arizona State and even Oregon and Washington, according to the Action Network. If all those schools decide to stick with the Pac-12, then the Big 12 may reach out to a Group of Five school.

Any Group of Five school that joins the Big 12 reportedly will not get a full $31.7 million revenue share from the Big 12, according to the Action Network.

On the other side of the equation, Colorado’s departure leaves the Pac-12 with just nine member institutions for the 2024-25 season, which will also see the departure of UCLA and Southern California to the Big Ten.

The conference released a statement shortly after the Buffaloes’ decision to leave, stating the Pac-12 will “embrace expansion opportunities” following the conclusion of its media rights negotiations, which have been ongoing since July 2022.

However, for UNLV — or any Mountain West school — to join the conference in 2024, they’d need to pay an exorbitant exit fee, roughly in the range of $34 million. The Mountain West bylaws state a school’s exit fee doubles if notice is not given by June 30 of the year prior to the school’s departure, which has already passed.

This was the issue that led to the conflict between San Diego State and the Mountain West in late June, when the Aztecs briefly left the conference only to return after failing to be offered a place by the Pac-12 or any other Power Five conference.

Besides UNLV, the Action Network also mentions Connecticut, Memphis and San Diego State — all of which have more recent success than UNLV in either football or men’s basketball, the two revenue sports — as Group of Five expansion options for the Big 12, along with Southern Methodist.

Staff writer Ed Graney contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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