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Uncertainty Reigns in Wake of USC/UCLA Shocker

It's been 10 days since USC and UCLA stunned the sports world and blew up the college football landscape by announcing their decision to leave the Pac-12 Conference and join the Big Ten.

Since then, wild rumors and expert predictions have been flying non-stop.

Suddenly, NIL, the transfer portal, recruiting commitments and pre-season rankings have taken a back seat to speculation about conference realignment and the future of the Pac-12.

I've been involved in college sports as a reporter, publicist, event promoter, administrator, bowl director, and blogger since back around the Paleolithic Age, and I must confess to having a foggy crystal ball on this one. It’s crazy out there and, at this point, I can see things evolving in any number of different directions.

Pac-12: From what I've read and heard through the industry grapevine, the Pac-12 is considering at least four options: 1) stand pat and sign a new media deal involving the current 10 members, presumably locking them up for the duration of the contract through a grant of rights; 2) form a "loose partnership" (please don’t say “alliance”) with the ACC involving head-to-head competition and perhaps a post-season game matching the conference champions; 3) expand the Pac-12 by merging with the Big 12 Conference; 4) expand by adding teams from the Western U.S. that provide value through their media markets; candidates might include San Diego State, SMU and Baylor and Houston.

Commissioner George Kliavkoff, who just a couple of weeks ago was reveling in positive media attention celebrating his successful first year on the job, was blindsided by the LA schools' defection and now must find a way to preserve and hopefully strengthen his conference. His course of action might include more than one of the above options.

To that end, the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors have authorized Kliavkoff to begin negotiating the league's next media rights package (the current deal expires in two years) and also have given him the green light to explore expansion opportunities.

However, the unfortunate truth is that none of these moves will put the Pac-12 in the same league (pardon the pun) with the Big Ten and SEC, and in essence will position it as a glorified Mountain West.

Big 12: Over in the Big 12, new commissioner, Brett Yormark, like Kliavkoff a veteran of the entertainment industry, is hoping to make a splash by poaching Pac-12 schools, reportedly targeting Utah, Colorado, the Arizonas, and—wishful thinking—Oregon and Washington.

Good luck with that.

Quack: Speaking of Oregon, mega-donor Phil Knight has been reportedly pulling out all the stops in an attempt to get his Ducks into the Big Ten.

Good luck with that.

Notre Dame: The biggest fish out there, Notre Dame, is weighing offers from the Big Ten and ACC and considering whether it's best—from a revenue standpoint and a College Football Playoff standpoint—to remain independent or join a conference.

If the Irish do join the Big Ten, at least two insiders have suggested that they might want to bring Stanford along with them, a long shot possibility that I'm sure has the folks in Palo Alto very excited.

Big Ten: The Big Ten is negotiating a new media rights agreement which, in all likelihood, will exceed $1 billion. In evaluating candidates for further expansion, the conference must consider whether the school will add more value in media rights than it will receive in the Big Ten revenue payout, which may approach $100 million per year.

Notre Dame certainly would do so, but would Oregon, Washington or Stanford? Perhaps if Knight and Nike sweeten the pot.

CFP: As for the College Football Playoff, it’s clear that the Big Ten and SEC hold all the cards. Will they re-engage on a 12-team playoff, one that would be dominated by their members, or could the two super leagues join with Notre Dame to stage their own championship tournament?

Nerd League: My suggestion of an Academic "Nerd League" (working title only) was greeted enthusiastically by some and pooh-pooed by others. Here's an interesting quote from Purdue president Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana, from an article he wrote recently for the Washington Post.

“Schools comfortable spending huge donations on recruiting the best players—funds that might have been used to strengthen their academic missions—will be free to do so. When that happens, they should drop any pretense that these are “students” and any requirement that anyone attend classes or pursue a degree. Offer education, as more and more employers do now, as an optional fringe benefit of the job.

“Only a couple dozen sports factories will be able to compete successfully in the pay-to-play echelon. The rest will be left with a Hobson’s choice between permanent also-ran status and dropping down into a further segmentation of today’s system, hoping that they can still fill stadiums and negotiate contracts to watch actual students play.

“My guess—okay, hope—is that such an arrangement can work. Meanwhile, I’m sure the new league of sponsored professionals will be highly entertaining and a huge financial success. Just please don’t call it ‘college sports.’”

My sentiments exactly.

Some Revealing Numbers: One of the most critical mistakes made by former commissioner Larry Scott was his insistence that the Pac-12 go it alone with respect to its TV network, rather than partnering with ESPN or Fox. That decision, along with an absurd plan to provide seven different network feeds, and a silly public dispute with Direct TV, doomed the Pac-12 Network.

Thanks to the leverage provide by its partnership with Fox, the Big Ten Network (BTN) has approximately 50 million subscribers and reportedly generates 59 cents per subscriber per month, or about $350 million per year in subscriber fees. The Pac-12, meanwhile, has less than 15 million subscribers and generates 13 cents per month per subscriber, or about $25 million per year.

The SEC Network, because of its members' success on the field and partnership with ESPN, does even better, with approximately 60 million subscribers, 93 cents per subscriber per month, and about $650 million per year.

One must also assume that the advertising dollars generated by the three networks show a similar disparity.

Those numbers make it a little easier to understand why, in an era when money is all that matters, USC and UCLA might want to switch conferences.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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