It’s official. Contracts have been signed, Utah and Colorado have been abducted, and the red-headed step-conference of the NCAA is back — bigger, badder and with a brand new name. That’s right, after months of frenzied negotiation and reckless speculation, the Pac-10 Conference is now the Pac-12.
Of course, Utah and Colorado aren’t the only additions to the conference. Expansion comes complete with a sleek new website, an inspirational promotional video and a racy new logo with waves, mountains and curves that would make the Stanford Tree blush.
“The response has been terrific,” said Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott. “People are craving change, they’re craving energy.”
Yes, it’s all very exciting. But besides a new logo and a media day in New York, expansion also means new television markets and a new conference title game. And that means new revenue for every school in the conference.
“Almost all conference expansion is driven by television and media in general and the ability to turn those alignments into dollars for the member institutions,” Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby told The Stanford Daily. “And so I’d say that this one was driven as much by that as any other factor.”
Coincidentally, the Pac-10’s current TV contract with Fox Sports Net expires after the 2011-2012 academic year. Now the Pac-12 has two options: sell its media rights to a network like ESPN, or create a new Pac-12 conference network. The Big Ten Network makes the conference about $75 million in annual rights fees. ESPN and CBS nets the SEC just more than $200 million a year. Compared to the Pac-10’s current $45-million deal with Fox, either option makes Larry Scott a financial genius.
Coaches around the league seem to be embracing the change.
“I think it’s smart,” said Oregon football coach Chip Kelly. “I have friends back in the Northeast that want to see us play but they’re getting Big 12 games. Why aren’t they getting Pac-10 games?”
The biggest change for Pac-12 coaches, however, will likely come at the end of the season. Current NCAA bylaws mandate that a conference must have at least 12 teams to hold a title game. Now, for the first time in conference history, the West Coast can play for a championship.
Scott knows that a conference title game means more buzz, more media contracts and more money. But a championship game could help springboard a highly ranked Pac-12 team into the BCS National Championship too. In recent years, SEC and Big 12 Conference Championship games have helped conference winners like Alabama, Florida and Texas impress voters and computers in the last moments of the pre-bowl season. A high-profile conference championship could give Pac-12 contenders a similar edge.
Then again, as ESPN’s Ted Miller points out, a championship game could just as well give a conference David one last chance to trip up Goliath.
“As for an 8-3 team beating an unbeaten team for the title,” Miller wrote in May, “that’s the risk inherent in a championship game.”
Furthermore, organizing the conference schedule around a conference championship means dividing the conference. And that’s where things get messy.
For now, a north-south split seems most likely. This would divide the conference into northern and southern sections; California, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State would form the north division, and USC, Utah, Colorado, UCLA, Arizona, and Arizona State would make up the south.
However, even with a nine-game conference schedule, a horizontal split would deny northern section teams their annual recruiting pilgrimage to Southern California, the Mecca of West Coast recruiting. Also, northern section teams would be reluctant to forfeit home games with USC every other year, which typically turn out big crowds and big payoffs.
The alternate scenario, a “zipper split,” would divide the conference along traditional rivalries: A western division would group Washington, UCLA, California, Arizona State, Oregon State and Utah together, and the eastern division would be made up of USC, Oregon, Colorado, Washington State, Stanford, and Arizona.
Besides creating a less regional, more expensive conference, the zipper split would likely ruffle Buffalo feathers, as newcomer Colorado claims to have been promised a spot in the southern section with USC and UCLA.
So congratulations, Trojans. You’re right back at the center of the new Pac-12 universe, and all the mess, too.
So what does this all mean for USC?
Right now — nothing.
“The intention is that [the integration] would start in 2012 for all sports,” Scott said.
So the Trojans have some time to prepare for, and become eligible for, a championship game and all the glitz and glamour of a shiny new conference.
And then they can really welcome their new conference friends to Southern California in the Coliseum.