University of Colorado to join Big 12 Conference, leaving Pac-12: Here’s what that means

Tony Gorman/CPR News
Coach Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders led the team onto the field for the Black and Gold Game. Saturday, April 22, 2023.

Updated at 5:58 p.m. on July 27, 2023.

The University of Colorado Board of Regents voted Thursday to leave its current athletic conference, the Pac-12, and join the Big 12. 

CU’s decision comes after months of speculation regarding its future, with the Big 12 eager to expand its reach and add schools from the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coast. Colorado’s departure from the Pac-12 is the latest in a series of school poachings that has weakened the conference in recent years.

“We're incredibly grateful for the great partnership that we've had with the Pac-12, and we look forward to maintaining the many relationships we've built with Pac-12 universities as we move forward,” University of Colorado President Todd Saliman told the Board of Regents. “But we think that the time has come for us to change conferences.”

The nine-member board voted unanimously to confirm the conference change. Colorado will join the Big 12 at the conclusion of the 2023-2024 school year.

The Pac-12’s current media rights deals with ESPN and Fox expire after this school year, and losing another large institution could impact negotiations. Last year, UCLA and USC announced it will leave the Pac-12 for the Big Ten Conference starting in 2024. 

Moving away from the Pac-12 means moving away from west coast opponents. Rather than playing teams such as University of California, Berkeley, Arizona State University, and the University of Washington, Colorado will instead fly east for most of their fixtures. 

Some of the conference’s 12 members are nearby, such as the University of Kansas and Brigham Young University; others will be long flights away, like West Virginia University and the University of Central Florida. Texas and Oklahoma are leaving for the Southeastern Conference next year.

Colorado is returning to the Big 12 after a 12-year absence

Colorado was an original member of the Big 12 from 1996 to 2011, when it departed for the Pac-12. At the time, the Big 12 was on the brink of dissolution, due in part to the Pac-12 luring away its teams. 

Colorado’s time in the Pac-12 has been marked by a lack of success. The football team — CU’s largest and most popular team — has only won 9 of its 36 Pac-12 games over the last four seasons. As a whole, CU has won just 14 conference championships across all sports, none of which were in football or basketball, its other tentpole program.

Bruce Benson, who served as the University of Colorado system’s president when they switched conferences in 2011, and Phil DiStefano, CU’s chancellor, told the Denver Post at the time that they wanted to play more games on the West Coast and believed the other schools in the Pac-12 matched Colorado’s academic mission

In 2019, as Benson prepared to leave his post as CU president, he told Colorado Matters that joining the Pac-12 Conference was the best thing the university’s done. 
“Our alumni base in the old Big 12 without Colorado was about 11,000. In the Pac-12, it’s 50-some thousand, as I recall,” he said. “Another thing that most people wouldn’t even think about — who are our research partners? And they’re places like Berkeley and Stanford and UCLA, Washington. These are our research partners that we do a lot of work with.”

Why is CU switching conferences?

Speculation around CU’s future has intensified since Deion Sanders became its head football coach in December. Sanders’ arrival has resulted in a complete overhaul of the program, including an influx of transfers from other universities. His first meeting with the team included public assurances that most players from CU’s 2022-23 roster, which went 1-11 overall, would be gone by next season.

CU’s return to the Big 12 appears due to a perfect storm of uncertainty. The financial benefits of staying in the Pac-12 appears to be up in the air, with conference officials yet to finalize a media rights deal. 

In the meantime, the Big 12 has looked to expand. With the conference’s $2.2 billion television deal with ESPN and Fox running through 2031, it appears to be in a more stable position than the Pac-12.

While CU’s athletic director, Rick George, and DiStefano have repeatedly told reporters that they would wait for the Pac-12 to announce its media rights deal before making a change, the lack of concrete progress on that issue, combined with the Big 12’s offer, proved too much for the Regents to ignore. 

Money is important for the University of Colorado. The athletics department operated at a loss of $17 million in 2021. On top of that, football head coach Sanders has signed the most expensive contract in CU history. Meanwhile Rick George, CU’s athletic director, is eager to wean itself off financial support from the academic side of the university

DiStefano, who is overseeing his second conference switch during his tenure as chancellor, told the board that a move to the Big 12 will help the university grow. 

“The Big 12 conference will set CU Boulder up for long-term success and will provide stability in an era of unprecedented change in collegiate athletics. It will also provide added exposure for not just our student athletes, but for the good work and the great work and accomplishments of the university as a whole,” DiStefano said. “And with the conference's footprint extending across three time zones, CU Boulder will be featured in areas of the country that will bring us into the homes of legions of potential new students and fans.”

CU hasn’t released details of the offer it received from the Big 12.

Correction: This story was updated July 28 to correct the name of West Virginia University.