Pivotal Year for Struggling Pac-12
By any objective standard, last year was a train wreck for the Pac-12.
On the field, off the field, and at the cash register.
The Pac-12 was irrelevant in football and basketball. Snubbed by the College Football Playoff for the second time in four years, the conference posted a 1-8 record in bowl games. Basketball was even worse, with only three teams participating in March Madness, none of whom made it past the first round.
Then there were the off-the-field scandals. Three basketball players arrested for shoplifting during an international visit to China. Two basketball coaches arrested by the FBI. Two football coaches accused of sexual harassment.
Financially, the league fell behind the other Power Five conferences in payouts to member schools, and the Pac-12’s inadequate TV coverage became a national punch line.
One of the conference's TV partners dumped the Stanford-Washington football game for a truck race. And its Pac-12 Network, with test pattern ratings and fewer than 20 million viewers, was mocked by high-profile ESPN announcers and criticized by the league’s own football coaches and school presidents. Late kickoffs were another sore point.
Despite all that, Commissioner Larry Scott stood in front of neon lights blazing his name at last week’s Media Day and proclaimed that all was well in Pac-12 land.
Scott said the conference was achieving “unmatched academic and athletic success across all sports,” and that he “couldn’t be more delighted” with the Pac-12 Network.
The reality is, this is a critical year for the Pac-12. NCAA championships in water polo, soccer, and gymnastics are all well and good, but what really matters in college sports—particularly for a Power Five conference—is what you do in football and basketball.
The Pac-12 has not had a national champion in football since USC won it in 2004 (later vacated because of the Reggie Bush scandal). And it has not had a national champion in basketball since Arizona won it in 1997.
No other Power Five conference has gone as long without a champion in either sport.
Every year that goes by without a national champion in football or basketball, the league falls further behind the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC in both prestige and revenues. Last year, the Pac-12 paid out $30.5 million to each member school. The SEC paid out $40 million. Next year, the Big Ten is projected to pay $50 million.
There is little the league can do about TV rights until 2023. It is locked into a 12-year, $3 billion agreement with ESPN and Fox that, when signed seven years ago, seemed like a good deal. But the market has grown and rights fees have increased substantially since then; last year, for example, the Big Ten signed agreements with ESPN and Fox paying essentially the same amount (just under $3 billion) for only six years.
The chances of the Pac-12 Network generating more revenues are slim to none, given that there has been no progress in negotiations with Direct TV, which to date has refused to carry the network’s programming.
So it falls on the Pac-12’s coaches and players to boost the conference’s stature and bank account by 1) getting teams into the College Football Playoff, and 2) getting more teams into the NCAA Basketball Championships and having them advance deep into the tournament. Both accomplishments would generate huge paychecks for the conference.
That means the pressure is on Washington coach Chris Petersen and quarterback Jake Browning, or Stanford coach David Shaw and running back Bryce Love, to crack the playoff this year. Likewise, on Arizona coach Sean Miller or UCLA’s Steve Alford, to make a serious run in March Madness.
Because if the Pac-12 has another nightmare season, people are going to start talking about the Power Four.