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Conference Realignment and the PAC-12: To Eat or Be Eaten

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The Big 12 is looking to expand, which means its time to eat or be eaten in the world of college athletics.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

College football offseasons in this decade can be characterized by the following:

  • Coaching Carousels
  • Player/Coach Scandals (and coverups)
  • Recruiting
  • Conference Realignment and Expansion Scuttlebutt

In the past week, the last of that list has reappeared on the radar screen of the average college football fan. The Big 12 spurred the recent round of rumors by formally directing its commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, to begin contacting schools and to gauge their interest in joining up.

Yup, you read that right. The Big 12 is interested in once again restoring a 12-team conference. Or 14. Or 16. Or who-the-hell-knows.

The fact that the conference felt the need to announce their intent simply to evaluate other schools - with BYU, Houston, Memphis, and Cincinnati all high on the list - in a public way should be viewed with a skeptic’s cynicism. There is, of course, a potential benefit in trying to stoke the fires of interest (and to gain some leverage) among target schools. It never hurts to have those you might suit become the solicitors in transactions of this nature.

But there are drawbacks, too. For one thing, making such proclamations sets certain expectations and makes you accountable to those who are invested in both heart and wallet in your conference. For another, this kind of overt signaling is sure to garner a reaction among those with whom you compete. In this instance, the remaining four power conferences are sure to take notice.

It is the last point that I’d like to explore here. Like the hyena leopard that takes down its prey in the open plains of the savanna, the Big 12 has made its move. As it now tries to digest its meal, it must contend with the circling of the vultures, the stalking of hyenas and the attention of those bigger animals that may wish to dine on that smaller cat's kill.

Make no mistake. The SEC, Big Ten and PAC-12 are the big lions in this scenario.

Now that the Big 12 has forced the issue, it is necessary for the PAC-12 to decide what it wants to do. The game theory could work out in a lot of ways, but the bottom line is that the PAC-12 needs to consider what actions (or absence of action) will result in the conference maximizing its franchise value. Included in that definition are things such as creating options for addressing its fanbase (TV market expansion), increasing recruiting footprints, and improving negotiating position for the monetization of content rights.

Given that Larry Scott continues to get stonewalled by DirecTV and remains unable to drive significant concessions from either the networks or the cable companies, he has no choice to evaluate his options. Those include:

  1. Do nothing
  2. Re-evaluate the option to expand through the invitation of non-Power 5 schools
  3. Reassess targeting other Power 5 schools for expansion

Option 1 is a non-starter. The PAC-12 is very clearly losing ground to the SEC and Big Ten in the competition for conference relevancy, based on the basic financial results that have leaked out over this offseason. In fact, you can argue with a straight face that the PAC-12 might be competing with the Big 12 for the title of "least relevant" in the conference pecking order. Part of this is due to the self-inflicted strategy of going it alone with their network ownership, while part of it is due to factors not fully in their control such as their geographic location and the competitive parity that exists across the sports.

Doing something seems a necessity in an environment where the pieces on the board are moving. But option 2 seems like a poor one. If the PAC wanted to target non-Power 5 schools that had a regional affiliation, their options are slim. Who are we talking about? Boise State? Hawaii? Utah State? BYU? There are some rumors out there that we might, in fact, be talking about Houston.

For reasons discussed in this forum many times over, none of those options seem to make financial sense, even if you could somehow get the university presidents to agree on the academic/prestige rationale (which you couldn’t). The addressable media markets aren’t compelling, the incremental cost associated with travel would be hard to digest, and the increase in parity could hurt more than it helps.

If you are going to trade off on the issue of parity, in return you had better get access to attractive markets. That is where option 3 begins to make the most sense. Poaching some big programs out of existing Power 5 conferences can supercharge the economics of your conference venture.

It was exactly this logic that had the PAC chasing Texas and Oklahoma five years ago. Now that the Big 12 has all but publicly admitted that they are barely treading water, it may well be time to revisit those options.

A 16-team super conference is still a viable strategy for a conference that needs to add more valuable content (and addressable markets) to its fledgling TV network. But the key is to make sure that the next four teams that get added are, you know, relevant enough.

Imagine the leverage Larry Scott would gain if he could somehow add Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and perhaps Oklahoma State to his portfolio. Is DirecTV going to ignore Scott’s calls at that point? For that matter, does Scott now have a legitimate option of telling DirecTV to pound sand in favor of an online/pay-per-view scheme that leverages both his cable contracts and consumer interest in "cut the cord" options?

Hunt or be hunted in the jungle of college football.

There are reasons to think that such a coup would pay handsomely. Texas and Oklahoma both carry tremendous media prestige and, combined, deliver a huge southwestern television and sports market. Kansas is a national brand in basketball and could greatly elevate the PAC’s status when it comes to their conference tournament and their prospects on Selection Sunday. Issues such as national award snubs and time zone irrelevance would fade away.

It’s not a perfect scenario - and I don’t write this article with the opinion that it would be better for us fans if the PAC were to expand. There would be a lot of things fans and student athletes would have to give up. Longer road trips. Dilution of long-term rivalries. More funky kickoff and tipoff times.

All of those are real issues that would take us further away from the "good ol’ days." That would suck for a great many people. I get it.

The old adage of the swimming shark nevertheless applies. Either you are swimming or you are dying in this day and age of college athletics. Larry Scott needs to be swimming like a shark and he needs to be doing it right this minute.

There is another consideration here and the shark analogy continues to apply. Just as bigger sharks have been known to eat the smaller of their species, the PAC-12 cannot assume that it is not the hunted in this sea of change.

On Sirius XM this week, analyst and former Husky head coach Rick Neuheisel opened the possibility that it might make sense for some current PAC members to look towards competitive conferences. He suggested that Cal and UCLA, in particular, might be targets that could have an interest in making a change.

He could be right. His logic, presumably, is that each of those two schools is in the position of being "little brother" in a major television market that would be of strong interest to other conferences. This was the exact rationale that led to Texas A&M moving out of the Big 12 and into the SEC.

In addition to those two schools, I would think that schools such as Arizona State, Colorado, or Arizona could garner attention. In fact, you might be inclined to believe that Bill Snyder was talking about Colorado when he said that he was aware of two former Big 12 members who "want to come back." Each of them is associated with quality media markets and fertile recruiting grounds that would be attractive to the Big Ten or Big 12.

No matter how it shakes out, it is "game on" with regards to conference realignment and expansion. Hunt or be hunted in the jungle of college football.