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June 16th, 2010 HENRY STERN | News Stories
 

Pac Mentality

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IMAGE: Keat Teoh

The Pac-10 Conference is dead.

The athletic conference that for 32 years has defined major college sports in this part of the world assisted in its own suicide last week when it accepted Colorado from the Big 12.

It’s just one man’s opinion, but here it is: The death was necessary.

Even hidebound nostalgics must concede that a 10-team league doesn’t cut it anymore when it comes to the most important revenue sport in college: football. Leagues with fewer than 12 teams can’t offer a lucrative postseason conference championship game or command the kind of TV deal that a larger league can.

Now, it appears that Oregon and Oregon State will end up in a conference with at least 12 teams just in time to negotiate a new TV contract. Unbelievably, for a while, it appeared it would have been as many as 16.

For readers who only think of football as the kind that’s played in the World Cup, here’s a quick summary of the shifts over the past week.

Colorado ditched the Big 12 when Nebraska started to muse about leaving for the Big 10 (which it ultimately did). And it looked like well-heeled Texas would follow Colorado into the Pac-10, bringing with it three other Big 12 schools—Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech and perhaps a fourth—Texas A&M.

Texas pulled back, however, reportedly lured by the opportunity to have its own TV contract in the revamped Big 12. And like the Yankees in baseball, or Real Madrid in soccer, if that’s what Texas wants, that’s what Texas gets, because it’s one of college football’s marquee schools.

So now, in what’s certainly a comedown for Pac-10 officials who’d been giddy about a 16-team mega-conference, Utah is expected ultimately to become the 12th member of a new, bigger Pac-10.

It may have been weird to think about Oregon or Oregon State traveling 2,000 miles to play a new conference “rival” like Texas, which has about as much in common with Oregon schools as George W. Bush does with Earl Blumenauer. But it makes sense given the TV business and intense national recruiting that makes up college sports and, specifically, football.

There is little doubt that a larger conference means more TV money.

Adding schools from markets like 16th-ranked Denver and 33rd-ranked Salt Lake City to the current mix of second-ranked Los Angeles (USC and UCLA), the sixth-place Bay Area (Cal and Stanford), 13th-ranked Phoenix (Arizona and ASU), 14th-place Seattle (Washington) and 25th-ranked Portland (OSU and UO) means larger TV contracts with networks, or even the league’s own network.

But the cachet of Colorado and Utah—although both enjoy periodic football success (Colorado won a split national championship in 1990, Utah finished second in The Associated Press poll in 2008)—is nowhere near that of adding traditional powerhouses like Texas and Oklahoma. Texas and Oklahoma would have meant more national interest from viewers, which also spells bigger TV money. A Pac-16 would have split its teams into two divisions, creating a championship game between the two division winners after the regular season. Presumably, a Pac-12 will do the same for a title game that’s an added TV windfall.

Beyond the money, an expanded 16-team conference into Texas would have given Oregon and OSU more national exposure on TV to more high-school behemoths and speedsters. Many of those recruits whom coaches want to attract to their institutions of higher learning come from Texas (such as Oregon State’s Rodgers brothers, Jacquizz and James).

Now that there’s going to be a Pac-12, here’s something to watch for in recruiting, if and when that larger league splits into two divisions: Will Oregon and Oregon State remain in a division with USC and UCLA?

Imagine a scenario where Oregon and Oregon State are put in a division with historic rivals like Washington, Washington State, Stanford and California.

A small state like Oregon doesn’t have enough top high-school players for Oregon and Oregon State to rely on for recruiting a competitive team. So both draw heavily from talent-rich Southern California (last year’s Oregon team listed 37 players from Southern California, including standouts like tight end Ed Dickson, linebackers Casey Matthews and Spencer Paysinger and defensive end Kenny Rowe), in part by telling teen-agers that their families and friends can see them play once a year when the Oregon schools go to play either USC or UCLA. Put those schools in a different division and that’s no longer the case.

Yes, all this talk of football recruiting and TV money sounds obscene given the well-documented problems—low professor salaries, tuition rising beyond families’ capacity to pay—of higher education in Oregon.

But that’s not going to change. And more money for athletics at underfunded Oregon State means less money taken from the academic side for sports. And at better-funded (a.k.a. Phil Knight) Oregon, it means more money to subsidize every other sport.

So by the measure of college football’s metrics, a Pac-12 is good for the Oregon schools—just not as sweet as a Pac-16.


FACT: The NCAA slapped USC with probation last week, which includes a two-year ban on appearing in a bowl game and the devastating loss of 30 scholarships.
 
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