It was the Pac-10 when Larry Scott took over as commissioner a decade ago.
It’s the Pac-12 today.
Will it be the Pac-14 a decade from now … or perhaps the Pac-16?
“I couldn’t begin to guess,’’ Scott said recently. “If history is any predictor of the future, it will be larger than it is now.”
Market forces are gathering, just as they did in the late 2000s to set the framework for massive realignment across major-college sports.
This time, the forces are different and the direction isn’t clear.
Expansion, or contraction?
Could the Pac-12 be smaller a decade from now?
Before we dive in, let’s be clear about this:
The conference has zero interest in expanding at the moment.
“We’re not talking about it,” Scott said. “We’re not looking at it.”
Even if interest percolated tomorrow, the Pac-12 lacks quality options in the western third of the country.
The schools with keen interest (Boise State and San Diego State, UNLV and Brigham Young) miss the sweet spot:
None are secular research institutions that would enhance the Pac-12 brand and bring enough value to the conference’s media rights package to increase revenue for current members.
If the conference were to expand, the only accretive options would be the football powerhouses in the Big 12.
Except there is no interest, here, there or anywhere.
“There’s no need or appetite for expansion,’’ said Dean Jordan, who spearheaded the formation of the ACC Network as the Managing Executive for Global Sports Media Rights at Wasserman Media.
“The leagues are doing pretty well. There’s a lot of stability.”
Even in the epicenter of realignment rumors.
“We’re in a period of greater calm at the conference level, including the Big 12,’’ said Kevin Weiberg, the former Big 12 commissioner and Pac-12 deputy commissioner.
The last major wave of realignment was fueled by media-rights negotiations — by the need for conferences to get bigger, to add football inventory (i.e, games) and to expand their TV footprint and subscriber base.
The Big Ten didn’t invite Rutgers because of its football history.
We’re fast approaching the next round of media-rights negotiations:
The Big Ten’s Tier 1 contract (Fox and ESPN) expires in 2023.
The Pac-12’s deal is up in 2024.
The Big 12’s agreement expires the following year.
And because discussions typically ramp up 15-18 months prior to contract expirations, the Big Ten will head to the negotiating table in late 2021 or early 2022.
That’s not far off, but analysts see no evidence the Big Ten plans to get bigger.
“There’s not a lot of upside to expansion for some conferences,’’ said Patrick Crakes, a former Fox Sports executive for programming and content strategy who operates a media-consulting service.
“When the Big Ten added Maryland and Rutgers, there was a lot of upside. How much further can you get now? It’s not worth it if there’s a 5-percent bump (in value) and then you have to share it it four new ways.”
The current media landscape suggests the Pac-12’s upward move in rights fees could be more incremental than monumental.
“Simply adding to your footprint to gain (cable) distribution could be a factor,” Weiberg said, “but that has changed with digital structure.
“If I’m evaluating today, it looks like the big broadcast networks, including ESPN, are highly interested in premium football content.
“The trend with cord-cutting is back to the ad-supported model, and that will be really important.”
For all the talk of Facebook or Amazon bidding for sports rights, neither company has indicated a desire to invest billions to become a primary college football rights-holder.
And if big tech doesn’t make a major play for the Big Ten, why would it open the checkbook for the Pac-12?
“I don’t see a pot of gold at the end of the digital rainbow,’’ said a media company executive who requested anonymity.
Instead, the future media landscape for the Power Five seemingly lies at the other end of the spectrum.
It’s not about big tech and the digital age.
It’s about digital options and legacy media.
It’s about reach.
“The broadcast networks need college football more than Amazon needs it,’’ the media executive said.
“Reach is what separates the winners from the losers. The NFL gets it the best, and the NFL is all about reach.”
Where’s the NFL?
It’s on broadcast television and ESPN — the same networks that currently own the Tier 1 rights to Power Five football.
“Sports and full-reach broadcast is a combination made in heaven,’’ Crakes said.
“Leagues like the Pac-12 and Big 12 will want established partners. They’ll want to be broadcast over-the-air but available in bundles with better interface and more control. The new bundle, basically.”
If legacy media companies with streaming components are the smart move for the Power Five, there would be little need for footprint expansion.
Which would seem to indicate this stretch of stability remains intact through the next round of media rights and into the 2030s.
Except for a new disruptor arriving on the scene: pay-to-play.
More than a dozen states are preparing to follow California’s lead with legislation allowing athletes to be compensated for the use of the name, image and likeness (NIL).
With its economic model under siege, the NCAA’s Board of Governors on Tuesday gave general approval for NIL compensation.
The move was significant symbolically in that the NCAA backed down from its entrenched opposition, but the development solved nothing from a practical standpoint:
Each division within college sports must create rules that best serve its purpose and fit within the “collegiate model.”
The state-level legislation is designed to detonate the collegiate model, setting up a potential court fight over the rules of engagement with pay-for-play.
Within Division I, we could eventually see a series of bifurcations:
Different economic models for schools that play football and those that don’t.
Different economic models for FBS and FCS programs.
Different economic models for Power Five and Group of Five schools.
And within the Power Five, different rules for the elites — for the 20 or 30 schools that have the resources and the tradition and the football culture to join an exclusive club.
“Are the students getting paid? And are they getting paid across the board, or just the schools that can afford it,” said the media executive.
“There are conversations going on right now about how you might split the top five (conferences) in two.
“And if you’re a media company and you get the top 30 schools to play each other every Saturday, that looks a lot like the NFL.”
Which would be a good thing — for the media companies.
How would that impact the Pac-12?
Two factors would dictate membership in the NFL-style model: Institutional desire and brand value.
It wouldn’t be enough to want in. Teams would have to bring value to the collective.
And only one school in the Pac-12 would be guaranteed to receive an invitation: USC.
Will it be the Pac-11 a decade from now?
Might UCLA join the Trojans in the exclusive club?
Or could we eventual settle on a Pac-8, if Oregon and Washington made the jump?
And if the powerhouses in the Power Five form a top tier, would they retain any competitive or economic connection to the remaining 30-35 schools?
When asked about the future shape of the conference, Scott acknowledged that “some type of legislation or legal action could reconfigure schools based on priorities and values.”
It should all play out over the next few years — perhaps concurrent to media rights negotiations and an expansion of the College Football Playoff.
But one thing seems certain: The forces that sparked realignment early in the decade won’t drive the shape of the conference a decade from now.
“The Power Five seceding from the NCAA,’’ one industry analyst said, “is more likely than media rights sparking realignment.”