Realignment Chaos: Assessing the Pac-12 and its members’ options
Archer is in the league office screaming in anyone’s ear he can find: “Danger Zone.”
The Pac-12 is in a rough spot. With the news Thursday that USC and UCLA are exiting in 2024 to join the Big Ten, the Pac-12 is losing its only blue blood football program and its only blue blood basketball program. The league is also seeing that valuable Los Angeles television market transfer over to its Alliance “partner.” There are plenty of questions about what it can do next.
So let’s look at a few of the options on the whiteboard.
Keeping Oregon and Washington
This becomes the most important task of George Kliavkoff’s young tenure as Pac-12 commissioner. It doesn’t seem too hyperbolic to say the long-term viability of the league as a relevant conference depends on his ability to convince Oregon and UW to remain attached to the league.
The Ducks are the league’s most consistent winner, but that also means they’re the Pac-12’s most visible asset. The Big Ten would be smart to court them. If it drags its feet, though, there’s no reason another league shouldn’t try and swoop in. If the Big Ten is going to expand west, why would the SEC stop in Texas? Perhaps the ACC gets reaffirmed commitments from Clemson and Florida State and starts to look west as well in the hopes it can stay alive as a No. 3 behind the SEC and Big Ten.
Point is everyone is going to want Oregon. The Ducks must be viewed as one of the next major dominoes in this conference realignment chaos. When their next move is clear, Washington will be the next key piece if the two don’t move in lockstep.
The Seattle-Tacoma market is the 12th-most valuable TV market in the country, according to the 2021 Nielsen DMA Rankings. With 2.1 million TV homes, it’s an area Kliavkoff can’t afford to lose either. Considering Los Angeles, with its 5.7 million TV homes, just went to the Big Ten, the Pac-12 would be dead in media rights negotiations if it lost Seattle as well.
One option that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand: unequal revenue splits.
As a tool to persuade Oregon and Washington to remain onboard, could the Pac-12 look to compensate its two remaining tent pole programs commensurate to the value they provide? It might be a worthwhile discussion depending on what the future payouts look like.
It also might turn out to be a good thing for some of the league’s lower-level programs. If the Ducks and Huskies leave, the rest of the league would struggle. Programs like Oregon State and Washington State, even as unequal partners in their current home, might still make more than they would if they were forced into a league without a big-name brand to drive media value.
There is precedent for this at the FBS level. In 2012, the Mountain West struck a deal with Boise State that allowed the Broncos to sell their home games in a separate deal from the league’s overarching TV package. That agreement kept Boise from jumping to the Big East and earned them almost $2 million more than what they would have made otherwise.
The two northwest flagships will look to try and remain competitive with the rest of college football’s upper-tier programs, and to do so requires money to hire and fire, money to staff, money to build facilities, and money to support student-athletes. The more the Pac-12 can offer, the better.
Oregon and Washington should look out for themselves
Of course, what’s best for the Pac-12 right now might not be what’s best for the Ducks and Huskies. Check that, is not what’s best for the Ducks and Huskies.
USC’s defection, and UCLA going along with it, could not have come at a worse time for Kliavkoff. The league is without a new media deal beyond 2024 and Kliavkoff is hard at work to fix that. But the Pac-12 was never going to fetch the same kind of investment as the Big Ten and the SEC. With its most valuable properties ducking out, what percentage would you suspect the annual payout for each Pac-12 school under the next deal was just cut by? Thirty percent? More?
If Jon Wilner’s reporting is accurate and the next TV deal for the Big Ten will net $100 million annually for each of the league’s partners, Rutgers will be getting something like two or three times what the Pac-12 schools could get.
That’s a scenario that would make heads roll in Eugene and Seattle.
The Ducks and Huskies need to be proactive. If there’s truth to the suggestion the Big Ten wants to get to 20 schools, Oregon and UW would make 18, still leaving room for Notre Dame to come aboard along with one other. (Duke?)
If the Big Ten wants to make them wait, why not approach the SEC? How does Greg Sankey feel about the Big Ten dominating headlines? What better way to remind the country which conference is king than by swooping in and taking the other high-profile Pac-12 brands?
Since 2000, Oregon has more top-10 appearances in the AP poll—and more appearances period—than every non-Ohio State Big Ten program. That includes both of the future Big Ten programs.
Bitter rivals have to become allies here. As a package deal, they bring a tremendous amount of value to a new conference.
And, as cutthroat as it sounds, what’s best for UW and Oregon is to move quickly to secure their future before they’re tethered to Oregon State and Washington State. Neither figure to be attractive adds to the Big Ten or the SEC. Maybe the four PNW programs together make sense for the Big 12 or the ACC, but that might feel like a letdown for administrators at UW and UO.
The Four Corners
Arizona and Arizona State, alongside Utah and Colorado, make a tremendous amount of sense as Big 12 targets. They are reportedly exactly that.
From a basketball standpoint, putting Arizona and Kansas under the same flag would make what’s arguably the best conference in college basketball the unquestioned best conference in college basketball.
From a football standpoint, the four Pac-12 adds in conjunction with the already-announced newcomers make the league tremendously interesting.
The Big 12 will soon be getting Cincinnati, the first G5 team to make it to the College Football Playoff. It’ll be getting Houston and its metropolitan hub. It’ll be getting Central Florida and a direct line into the Florida recruiting scene. If the Big 12 is also able to add Arizona/Arizona State and a direct line into the Arizona recruiting scene, it’s another win. If it’s able to add one of the most consistent programs in the country over the last 20 years in Utah, it’s another win.
Don’t overlook Utah
The Big Ten values AAU membership. Check. The Big Ten is clearly looking for programs invested in football. Check. The Big Ten is looking for schools with their academics in order. Check. The Big Ten is looking for consistent winners. Check.
Salt Lake City also happens to be a top-30 TV market and a nice bridge between the center of the new Big Ten footprint and the L.A. schools.
Why are more people not talking about Utah as a value play for the Big Ten?
Stanford and Cal
What happens with the Bay Area schools? The San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose DMA is the sixth-largest TV market with over 2.6 million TV homes. That’s valuable space. And both programs offer a tremendous academic profile and national championship pedigrees in some of the non-revenue sports. The problem is in their commitment to and financial support of football.
ESPN needs West Coast programming, especially so if FOX just secured Los Angeles. But would any of the power conferences want to bring aboard Stanford and Cal if it means adding so-so football and men’s basketball teams?
A 22-team merger
The point about ESPN made above shouldn’t be minimized. ESPN and FOX are running the show here. And as everyone focuses on a Power Two forming out of the Power Five, it’s entirely plausible that a third conference hangs on because the networks need that to be the case. ESPN has to fill programming on ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, and ESPN+. Mickey Mouse is all-in on the SEC, but that league doesn’t currently offer any value to folks west of Texas.
If the Pac-12 and the Big 12 were to merge into something that ESPN could package and distribute, it might be able to acquire those rights on the cheap. At least, cheaper than it would have been a few days ago.
This scenario feels like one that would be driven by the network if it were to become a realistic path.
The Pac-12’s expansion options
Start doing research on Boise State and Fresno State and San Diego State and BYU and Houston and anyone else you want to throw in.
The Pac-12 can’t really afford to be too picky. It says it will explore its options for expansion.
The upper-tier teams from the Mountain West make geographical sense. San Diego State gets the league back into Southern California. In tandem with Fresno State, the league could start to put a dent in the TV homes it just lost. BarkBoard’s Jackson Moore broke it down perfectly:
The 2021 Nielsen DMA Rankings put the Fresno-Visalia market as the country’s No. 56 option. But as Bulldog fans know, the Red Wave spreads much further than the immediate population around Fresno State. Fresno State began its timely marketing campaign of “For the V” on Friday – the Green V on the university’s logo and uniforms represents the San Joaquin Valley as Fresno State is the only Division-I football program to represent the greater area.
The Valley spreads much wider than Fresno and Visalia. Fresno State is the definitively representative D-I college for the counties of Fresno, Madera, Tulare, Kings, Kern and San Joaquin. Fresno State is also the closest school to the Central Coast’s San Luis Obispo County. In all, this collective market would represent more than four million people and 1,217,720 homes according to the latest US Census statistics, which is the defining measurement by the Nielsen DMA Rankings.
Add those 1.2 million to the 2.5 million opened up in San Diego and you’ve cut the L.A. loss in half. Of course, just because a TV home is there doesn’t mean it’s on and tuned to college football on Saturdays.
Trying to pilfer Big 12 programs could make sense as well to make up the difference. If the league targeted some of the Texas teams, it could fix two issues just created by USC and UCLA’s departure.
The league will undoubtedly be hurt by a Big Ten access point to California recruits. Ohio State can recruit wherever it wants, but the likes of Michigan and Penn State and Wisconsin should be able to recruit the area better than before with USC and UCLA’s arrival.
A line for the Pac-12 into the Texas high school scene might be able to help offset that. Do TCU and Houston and Baylor move the needle? Let’s not forget the DFW and Houston areas share a combined 5.5 million TV homes.
Another sticking point: the Pac-12 will have to convince any prospective Big 12 team that their league is the better of the two options. That’s a tall task.
Anything and everything’s seemingly on the table.
This is going to get crazier before it’s done.