State of the Pac-12

There is considerable debate as to the State of the Union. Left, right, or center … no one seems to be happy.

The same could be said for the State of the Pac-12.

Many fans are convinced that the Pac-12 is in decline, both on the field and off. The fear is that the decline is not just a passing fad, but the harbinger of a bleak future for the conference.

The Pac-12 and its embattled commissioner, Larry Scott, however, have their defenders.

On the field …

— Football … The Pac-12 hasn’t had a representative in the College Football Playoff the past few seasons, and wasn’t even close to getting in a participant in 2018. The conference set a record for bowl futility in 2017, going 1-8 (improving only slightly in 2018, up to 3-4).

The Pac-12 hasn’t won a national championship in 15 years … and that was the Reggie Bush USC Trojans, who are not exactly remembered fondly by football fans.

Recruiting is also taking a serious hit.

“The conference’s reputation is just so bad,” Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell told Yahoo.Sports. “They just aren’t national title contenders. They aren’t in the playoff. They aren’t relevant. A lot of kids are gravitating to playoff teams and conferences.

“You have California kids going to Clemson,” Farrell said. “You have California kids looking at SEC schools. In all the time I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen so many five-star players on the West Coast having no interest in staying home.”

Not to worry, says Arizona State President Michael Crow. In a comprehensive interview with the Arizona Republic, Crow defended the state of Pac-12 football:

“Let’s say you’re the University of Washington and you’ve developed a great football program and they play a close and hard-fought Rose Bowl,” said Crow. “Everybody sees the University of Washington play in the Rose Bowl, but everybody is surprised Ohio State and Washington are equal teams, which they really are, playing at the same level, which they really do. One of them loses the game by one touchdown, hard-fought game, great comeback by Washington, but nobody knows anything about the University of Washington football program. That’s obviously something folks needs to think about in the Pac-12 is how to get people to understand who we are and what we are and what we do.”

— Basketball … The Pac-12 may be a one-bid conference come Selection Sunday in March. The conference went 38-36 (.514) in non-conference play in December, the worst mark for a major conference in 20 years.

The previous worst performance by a major conference in the past 20 years came in 2003, when the Big Ten went 46-30 (.605). The Pac-12’s previous worst was 38-24 (.613) in 2009, when it was still known as the Pac-10. There are no Pac-12 teams in the Top 25 rankings, and there hasn’t been since Arizona State fell out a few weeks ago.

This, on the heels of a winless NCAA tournament last March.

And now … perennial power UCLA fired its head coach, Steve Alford, before the start of the conference season.

Not a good look.

Not to worry, says Crow. It’s all cyclical.

“It’s always cyclical everywhere. There’s up, there’s downs,” said Crow. “UCLA (basketball) made a decision to fire a coach (Steve Alford) midseason. I don’t think they’ve done that in 100 years, and in those 100 years they won 10 or more national championships in men’s basketball. So yeah it’s cyclical. This is true for us also. Even people that think there’s somehow permanent powerhouses, they don’t know who Red Grange was, who John Heisman actually was. They don’t who the football powers Army and Navy coming out of the war playing in the great games. They don’t know any of that. Everything changes always.”

Off the field

The Pac-12 financials aren’t adding up.

This past year, the payout for Pac-12 teams were around $31.5 million. It is projected to go up incrementally to $32.7 million in fiscal year 2019, $35.3 million in 2021 and $38.1 million in 2023, according to the payout projections compiled by Washington State officials.

Every other Power 5 league either has exceeded the $40 million payout mark already or is projected to get there in a year or two.

And with the failure of the wholly owned Pac-12 Networks to make any headway nationally, the disparity between the Pac-12 and other conference will just continue to widen.

“The gap between us and the other [leagues] continues to grow,” Arizona State athletic director Ray Anderson said. “We’ll be competitively disadvantaged even moreso. … That’s real money in terms of being able to compete, support facilities, support coaches and support programs.”

In November, John Canzano of the Oregonian published a four-part in-depth series on the issues facing the Pac-12. The arguments are detailed and compelling, starting with, “Left out: How Larry Scott and the Pac-12 continue to lose ground in the college football arms race“, can be found here.

Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News has also published a series of articles detailing the criticism of the Pac-12 in general, and the Pac-12 Networks, how the Pac-12 schedules its conference games, and commissioner Larry Scott in particular.

If you want to find articles critical of the Pac-12, its not difficult to find one.

(To be fair, Wilner also hosted a podcast with AJ Maestas, founder and CEO of Navigate, one of the top marketing, sponsorship and brand-development firms in professional and college sports. Maestas believes that hanging onto 100% of the equity in the Pac-12 Networks will pay off for the Pac-12 in the long run).

The Pac-12 and its commissioner also has its champions.

Again, Arizona State president Michael Crow is bullish on the Pac-12 (even though he is apparently contradicting his own athletic director, quoted above):

“Conference income is a tiny part of everybody’s income,” argued Crow. “It’s just a piece of everybody’s income. You have your own advertising, conference income, donor income, athletic revenue themselves, other sources of income. From the conference perspective, we’re up five- or sixfold from where we were. We’re continuing to accelerate the network. We’re not producing out of our television contract quite what the others are producing the moment. Theirs came up and were renewed after ours was put in place. I don’t have any long-term concerns. There might be some issues on the short run.

“I also don’t think the best way to measure things is resources. The best way to measure things is graduation rates, championships, all kinds of things. There’s ups and down for everybody in those arenas so I think that when we made our strategic chance, which was to modernize the conference. From that point forward, things have gone very well, and I expect they will continue to go well. There may be some short-term heartburn that somebody is making more revenue than we are in conference A or conference B, but that’s an episodic thing.”

So, is the Pac-12 glass half-full? Or half-empty?

Pac-12 football is not nationally relevant right now, but Washington and Oregon are ranked in most of the “Way Too Early” preseason polls, with Utah and Washington State not far behind. USC and UCLA have had a few down years, but no one expects them to stay there for long.

Pac-12 basketball is also down, but Arizona and UCLA regularly produce top recruiting classes, and you can never count out the University of Nike.

But … even if Washington has a great 2019 season on the gridiron, or Arizona reasserts itself on the court … is that enough? Can the conference survive with the revenue gap between the Pac-12 and other conferences $10 million/team/year … and growing wider each year?

“I’m basically urging everyone, it’s a long-term play so you have to take a long-term view,” argues Crow, who just happens to be one of Larry Scott’s bosses. “Relative to the long term, we’re doing exceedingly well on every front and we have more control. The others have sold their networks to commercial entities and thereby have lost control of their networks and lost control of their scheduling and other things, and we have not.

“I don’t know who’s doing all the portrayals (of Pac-12). If they’re looking at income from the Big Ten and the SEC, yes our income is lower than theirs. If they’re looking at our particular football performance, mediocre compared to others but lots of new coaching appointments, lots of new opportunities.

“I don’t know if I would judge the future of UCLA football based on this year’s football outcome. By my standard, we’re on track, we’re doing well, we’re making progress and we’re positioning ourselves for greatness going forward. What somebody will be writing about three years from now or four years will be, ‘How did the Pac-12 get ahead of us?’ “.

We’ll see …

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3 Replies to “State of the Pac-12”

  1. Solution: Get the PAC-12 TV deal resolved and more east coast viewers will be aware of the PAC-12. As a conference, the PAC-12 needs to draw TV interest from the mid-west and east coast. Those areas don’t even know the PAC-12 exists. What are potential recruits going to do ? The only time they get to watch west coast teams is when they are playing bowl games or when they are carried by the major channels.

    That may not be the complete answer, but it’s a start.

    GO BUFFS !

  2. To me, it is about demand for the product. If the Pac 12 football and basketball programs are in demand by tv viewers, and thus distributors (streaming too) then owning the Pac 12 network will pay off. If the demand is limited when they go back to market in 3-4yrs? Uh oh.

    Owning stuff is great. But if nobody wants what you own, monetizing that is pretty hard.

    Now, had the Pac 12 partnered with networks when demand was higher, only to see it fall off later, when trying to renegotiate/renew those contracts? That would be a weak position too, perhaps with a little more $ in the interim.

    So, I guess we’ll know more as we see if any buyers for the equity spinoff materialize, and then, ultimately as the new rights deals come to market.

    I worry about demand for the product, but if the football and basketball programs start winning more, that should help.

    Go Buffs

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