The University of Utah has been rumored as a prime candidate in Pac 10 expansion plans. The Ute's have built a solid athletic program under AD Chris Hill and the Salt Lake City Olympic Games went a long way toward spiffing up their athletic facilities.
Rice-Eccles Stadium is a nice facility that was completely renovated for the Winter Olympic Games. It currently seats 45,000. The University of Utah plans on expanding Rice-Eccles Stadium to around 55,000 fans by enclosing the southern end zone and adding an identical press box to the east-side of the stadium.
The state of Utah offers a stable economy and a growing population base. Salt Lake is rated as the 33rd largest TV market in the country. By comparison Portland is rated at 22, Denver is rated at 18, and Seattle is rated at 14. We aren't talking about a huge market but it is very comparable to Milwaukie, Kansas City, or San Antonio which makes it the next logical place for the league to expand on this side of the Continental Divide.
The University of Utah is seen as a strong research institution with an outstanding medical school. The school does have a heavy LDS presence with nearly half of its students being members of the church but because it is a state institution it doesn't have the perceived cultural baggage that BYU has.
BYU would also love to join the Pac 10 in a package deal with Utah but the Pac 10 doesn't feel the school would be a good cultural fit with the rest of the conference. Another huge factor that works against BYU is the league wants to expand its geographic footprint and having two teams in the same state while making sense from a travel perspective doesn't increase the number of the all important TV sets in the expanded Pac 10 marketing area.
A former BYU official commented on the schools chances of receiving an invitation to join the Pac 10 recently in the Salt Lake Tribune.
"It became very clear [in discussions with the Pac-10] that what we were dealing with was good old-fashioned religious discrimination that was masquerading as academic snobbery," said the source, who wished to remain anonymous because of his continuing relationship with BYU. He said he expects the "climate to be even more divisive now" due to hot-button social issues such as abortion and gay rights that have BYU at odds with the more liberal-leaning Pac-10 schools.
"Stanford, Cal-Berkeley and one or two others would absolutely have a heart attack if BYU was admitted into the Pac-10," he said.
"Pac-10 ADs loved to schedule us because we put an extra 10,000 to 15,000 people in the seats for football and two or three thousand for basketball," he said. "From a monetary standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to add BYU. But money might not be everything here. It will be interesting to see how it plays out."
If Utah joins the Pac 10 and BYU is left behind there could be some political problems to deal with. Senator Orrin Hatch has been trying to break up the BCS monopoly in Congress. Adding Utah to the BCS obviously would reduce some pressure in that direction but nobody in Utah is going to forget about BYU if they are left behind to fend for themselves in a less important Mountain West Conference that could lose two of its strongest members to BCS conferences in the near future.
Could the Utah legislature get involved and demand that BYU and Utah be tied together in a package deal? That happened back in the early 90's when Texas was flirting with the Pac 10. The governor at the time wanted to keep the Texas schools together and most importantly did not want Baylor University abandoned. That left Texas and Texas A&M tied at the hip with the strong stipulation that Texas Tech and Baylor also be included in the new conference. Utah of course is not Texas and BYU is a private school. That being said the seperation of church and state can be paper thin in Utah.
If BYU and Utah somehow get tied together in a package deal look for the Pac 10 to look elsewhere for a companion to accompany Colorado into the Pac 10. Also realize that while Colorado is a lock for an invitation the Pac 10 would love to add a bigger market than Salt Lake City.
That market could be Texas or one of the Plain states. We will be discussing the merits of Texas in the next article.