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Roundtable: Huskies Pro-Realignment?

The Gang Tries to Figure Out Conference Realignment

Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl - Washington v Boise State Photo by David Becker/Getty Images

Another week. Another roundtable from the UWDP staff chat.

This week we tried to tackle what moves UW fans would want to see at the conference level. With Larry Scott out as the conference commissioner, there isn’t a conference-level move that all UW fans (or Pac-12 fans as a whole) can get behind to improve our standing nationally.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any out there. We’re nearing a decade since the last wave of major conference realignments started, and the TV deals that spurred the changes are expiring. That means the CFB landscape is ripe for more realignment.

Coach B: Scott’s firing this off-season reminded everyone of the initiatives he spearheaded over his tenure. The biggest was conference expansion. Texas very nearly joined a PAC-16 conference. Coach K heading down to Texas to join Sark added to the number of connections we have to Texas and the huge “what if” of where we’d be with different conference expansion outcomes.

With a new media rights contract coming up, it’ll likely start up a new wave of conference realignment. What are the moves you’d like to see for the PAC-12 and UW? Schools to pursue for expansion? Leave for another conference? Create a new conference?

Andrew Berg: Any answer to that question must place itself on the continuum of “what is best for UW athletics” to “what could reasonably happen to incrementally improve the conference’s outlook.”

Coach B: Looking from UW’s perspective first, what type of conference realignment moves should we back?

Andrew: The scenario that would set up UW football and basketball to succeed most would be a 16-team conference of the biggest, academically strongest, most nationally branded schools west of the Mississippi. I don’t think we could ever poach a team from the SEC or B1G. With that in mind, the conference would look something like this: UW, Oregon, Cal, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona St, Colorado, Utah, Texas, Baylor, TCU, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St, Kansas. We can quibble around the margins (Maybe KU hoops doesn’t make their football worth it, maybe BYU brings more revenue, maybe Texas Tech has better facilities), but that list is very close to a top 16. And it breaks down into east and west divisions in the first eight/last eight on this list.

How much does it matter that Washington St, Oregon St, and Kansas St are not on this list? Probably enough that it would never happen. But sentimentality aside, those schools are smaller, academically inferior, less historically successful, and have access to fewer resources than the rest, by quite a bit. Wazzu and OSU are already outliers. Should the future of the program rely on the fact that it was only feasible to travel far enough to play teams like that 100 years ago?

I would advocate to keep the Apple Cup as a yearly rivalry game in non-conference.

In the bigger picture, I think this conference can compete for wins and eyeballs with any other. The recruiting footprint of Texas + California might level the playing field with the deep south to an extent. The media rights for a conference with USC, Oklahoma, Texas, UW, and Oregon would be very valuable.

I’ll shut up and let you all weigh in, but that’s my short version of a pie in the sky scenario.

Coach B: That’s a direction that I was leaning towards as well. The 16-team super conference is probably the best way to counter the dominance of the Big Ten & SEC for the western teams, and the Big 12-Pac 12 merger is the best path forward. Realistically, the Big 12 has all the leverage in that scenario, and I see them absorbing the 6 strongest Pac-12 schools before they kick out their weakest members. In that scenario, it’d probably be UW, Oregon, USC, UCLA, Utah, and Arizona/ASU (although, I’d argue that dumping WV for Colorado would better align the conference geographically). UW should be all for that scenario as it’d maintain most of the Pac-12’s regional footprint and only keeps one “Big 16” school in most of the west coast states. The remaining Pac-12 schools would be relegated to the G5 tier that’d boost the recruiting of the Big 16. Like you suggested, the new conference would enhance our brand in Texas and California by adding several conference games in Texas and eliminating Cal & Stanford as in-state P5 schools to compete with for recruits (as well as our toughest competition for academics-focused recruits). However, it goes both ways by giving the Big 12 schools direct access to California recruits, but I wouldn’t worry too much as Texas & Oklahoma already play a national recruiting strategy.

Competition-wise, the merger would give the conference a number of strong playoff-caliber contenders that the Pac 12 never had, and the champion would be all-but-guaranteed a CFP spot based on strength of schedule alone. Strictly looking from a UW perspective, an East vs West division alignment like how you proposed gives quite the gauntlet, and the whole Big 16 conference idea puts us in a “small fish, big pond” situation. I’d be excited for that challenge, but we could be quickly looking like Colorado if we don’t manage the transition properly.

Kirk DeGrasse: We first need to define what the goals are for the conference and for Washington’s athletic department. If the goal is to remain competitive with the top-tier of conferences in the revenue-generating sports (football and men’s basketball) then the primary thing to target is money - how can the conference and Washington maximize revenues. And it’s important for people to understand that we as Washington fans need to be concerned about the conference we’re in and the revenue it generates. I see takes from time to time from Husky fans that don’t care a whit about the rest of the conference - in their minds, they think it’s fine if the rest of the conference isn’t viewed favorably so long as Washington is winning double-digit games and going to the CFP periodically, citing Clemson and the ACC as an example. Except the problem with that is, while you can argue that the quality of teams in the ACC in football isn’t any better than in the Pac-12, the simple fact of geography means that conference will pull more eyeballs on broadcasts and thus earn more money than the Pac-12. And without revenues that are in the ballpark of the B1G, SEC, ACC & Big-12, we will continue to see the best & brightest coaches and staff in this conference poached by the Big Four as the Pac-12 continues to slide toward mid-major status.

For a long time now, the schools that are the core of what is now the Pac-12 patterned themselves after the B1G and the significant academic bonafides of those schools. This wasn’t just an athletics conference, it was a “club” for the top schools on the west coast. School presidents wanted to hobnob with peers from schools they respected. And there is a fair amount of cooperation on the academic side that happens between these schools, so it’s not completely idle puffery. It’s also easy as an alum of the University of Washington to take pride in the academic status of the school and the association with similar schools with high academic ideals. This also has practical applications when it comes to sports - the schools would like to feel like they all share a relatively similar attitude about sports and where they fit within the bigger picture of the academic mission of each institution. To put plainly, they are going to uphold some level of standards and not just let athletics be a completely outsourced entity using their name and colors but otherwise having almost no connection to upper campus, or worst-case be dictated to by the athletics department (“You will admit player X because he runs a 4.24 40-yard dash and hits like a Mack Truck and I don’t care if his high school transcripts are a complete mess”). So the stance the conference has had in recent decades that they wouldn’t consider admitting other schools that don’t match the academic profile of the current schools and/or schools that have specific non-secular restrictions or practices that don’t jibe with the current schools. Schools like BYU and Boise State didn’t get any real consideration in expansion the last two times it happened for the conference despite success on the field for both programs.

That line of thinking though may need to become more flexible moving forward. Geography and the disparate levels of fan engagement across the country put this conference behind their Big Four peers. For a variety of reasons CFB just isn’t as big of a deal out here, and that translates into less revenue. So high-minded thinking is butting up against the reality of money. So then the question becomes “Which schools could we add that would increase revenue for the entire conference?”

WASHINGTON V BYU Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Unfortunately, despite their success I don’t think BYU or Boise State are likely to add value to the conference. Nor would any others in the MWC like San Diego State. They make sense geographically, but I don’t think any of them would increase conference revenue for all schools - more than likely revenue per school would go down because those schools don’t add enough additional eyeballs to make each pie slice of TV money bigger than it already is without them. So that probably means what you two are talking about above: figuring out if there’s some solution through a partnership or merger with the Big-12.

NCAA Football - The Rose Bowl Game Presented by Citi - USC vs Texas Photo by Scott Clarke/WireImage

The golden goose here in that scenario is Texas. Yes, Oklahoma is a big-time program and they would bump up revenues for the conference, but they pale in comparison to Texas. The issue the last time around is that Texas already has a deal with ESPN that resulted in The Longhorn Network. The Pac schools wanted to go the NFL route and share TV revenues equally, and that wasn’t going to fly with Texas - they had no financial incentive to give up TLN or roll it into a conference-wide network and share revenues. Knowing that’s the case, any arrangements that occur with Big-12 schools have to be done understanding that equally shared TV revenue isn’t going to happen because Texas will never agree to that. And if that’s the case, you can expect that USC would say “Well, if they get their own larger cut of the pie, we want a larger cut too!” And from there you can imagine that Washington, Oregon, UCLA and ASU (at the very least) would also raise their hands and say they all deserve more money than WSU, OSU, Arizona, etc. Not exactly the kind of harmonious situation from which to build a new partnership.

If we’re talking about a true merger, that almost certainly means shedding some existing programs. And that brings in major political issues - you can bet that legislators in Washington and Oregon would raise a major stink if the Cougars and Beavers were left behind while the Huskies and Ducks moved on to a more lucrative conference. The specter of that looms large enough that I think the most realistic path wouldn’t be a true merger of the two, plucking the best from each to create a 16-team super-conference - it would more likely be some kind of significant partnership between the two, pooling together their Tier 1 & Tier 2 TV rights as a group and instituting some mandatory cross-scheduling between the conferences. The Tier 1 rights for the Pac-12 expire after the 2023/24 sports year and those for the Big-12 a year later, so that’s probably close enough that they could work out something to bridge that difference. Scheduling would be more tricky given that A) the Pac-12 has 12 teams while the Big-12 is math-challenged and only has 10, and B) scheduling in football is just tough, period.

It should also be noted that any partnership like this that involves more cross-conference scheduling becomes an added expense for the non-revenue sports as well as a competitive factor - if the Big-12 retains West Virginia, that’s basically a cross-country flight for any Pac-12 school that has to play them in any sport.

I’m sure more than a few of the Pac-12 school presidents would also have some misgivings about associating with schools like Baylor and TCU. The Pac-12 is currently has no non-secular institutions, and while I don’t want to accuse any of those school administrations of being anti-religion, there would almost certainly be some anxiety. If the two conferences had a partnership rather than an actual merger, that likely eases those concerns, but it’s worth noting.

Andrew: The political implications are interesting and I had not considered that element. I suspect you’re right that there would be some friction in that area. For example, the PSA-type ads that ran through the Pac-12 season with various conference athletes would probably stir up more dissent in Texas than they do in the existing conference footprint.

Gabey Lucas: Yeah Ive wondered about that too — it’s not like the Pac-12 schools are inherently these angelic perfect institutions, but it’s hard to imagine a religious school that’s based in a more conservative culture having a particularly cheery relationship with the values Pac-12 schools at least publicly spout (whether they all actually walk the walk with those values is a whole other discussion, although I imagine they probably do more so than, say cough Baylor).

Really the only religious schools I can picture having a relatively harmonious relationship in the hypothetical scenario where they’re in the Pac are the Jesuit Catholic ones, but none of them have football programs other than Boston College which, obviously, is a bit geographically challenged for that to work out

Kirk: The other main aspect in all of this is the critical importance that the next commish is either extremely savvy with the broadcast landscape and the future of what that looks like, or is willing and able to bring in deputies and/or outside consultants that are that can shape the next negotiations. While it’s true that fans of Pac-12 programs don’t draw the same eyeballs as the other Power-4 conferences, it’s also true that there were major errors made the last time around that hurt the conference. Scott needed to get Pac-12 games on as many devices as possible, but he failed in multiple respects. Our own Chris Landon was all over this at the time and after - Scott failed to ensure nationwide distribution of the P12 Networks in his deal with Comcast, failed to secure streaming rights on mobile devices and overplayed his hand with DirecTV and was never able to come to an agreement to get the P12 Networks on that platform which helped greatly limit its reach.

There’s a certain level of chicken and egg when it comes to fan interest in a conference and their teams and the ease of seeing their games, but if there was one aspect where the conference should have been willing to sacrifice a bit of money it was in the area of ensuring as wide exposure of their games via TV/cable/streaming as possible.

Moving forward, the conference needs a real visionary to see the future of broadcasting and knowing how people are going to digest that content in the future and negotiate accordingly.

Well, if you’re like me, I’m not sure we have a definitive answer here. The pros of partnering with the strongest Big 12 schools (like 10-years ago) still exist, but those schools are negotiating from a position of power now. What is certain is that this is a complicated problem with geography and politics boxing the conference into a corner. For the Pac-12 to survive, and for UW to succeed with it, this next commissioner hire must work out.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

As always, Go Dawgs!