Nuclear winter is on the way for a handful of Pac-12 schools left out of the brutal realignment game in the dead of summer.
USC, UCLA, and Colorado have already expressed interest.
Oregon and Washington are departing for the Big Ten Conference.
Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah will compete in the Big 12.
Stanford, California, Washington State, and Oregon State are the last four teams standing.
What are their alternatives?
Can they keep their football and basketball programs competitive without the massive revenue that comes with being a member of a top conference?
What impact will their Olympic sports and athletic department employees have?
First and foremost, the schools have some free time. The Pac-12 will continue to exist for the coming academic year, with all 12 schools competing.
More importantly, the funds will continue to flow to each campus due to a media rights agreement with ESPN and Fox that is in effect until next summer.
However, the Pac-12 will be reduced to the Pac-4 by the start of the 2024 football season.
Because commissioner George Kliavkoff failed to finalize a media deal prior to the conference’s dissolution, the remaining entity may be unable to fund operations. (Is bankruptcy an option? Perhaps.)
There is also the important issue of leadership.
Will Kliavkoff stay in charge through the upcoming sports season, or will he step down? An interim commissioner would be needed to oversee operations and competition, as well as find a way out for the remaining schools.
Another issue for the remaining quartet is campus leadership. Cal chancellor Carol Christ will retire next summer, Oregon State president Jayathi Murthy has been in office for less than a year, and Stanford’s Marc Tessier-Lavigne will resign at the end of this month due to an academic scandal.
Only Washington State’s Kirk Schulz, the current Pac-12 board of directors chair, possesses the necessary tenure and understanding of college sports to provide strong leadership.
We see a few possibilities for the schools:
— Washington State and Oregon State have joined the Mountain West, while Stanford and Cal remain Independents.
— WSU, OSU, and Cal join the Mountain West, while Stanford remains an independent.
— The quartet sticks together and attempts to reform the Pac-12 through expansion, utilizing a handful of Mountain West schools and possibly SMU (from the American Conference) as the foundation.
One of the many challenges with this strategy is the timing: due to logistical issues and exit fees in other conferences, the Pac-12 is unlikely to add schools in time for the 2024 season.
— The schools join the Mountain West as a group, forming a 16-team mega-conference led by current commissioner Gloria Nevarez.
The next step would be to address the media rights issue. The MW’s current contract with Fox and CBS runs through 2026, with each school receiving an average of $4 million per year.
Would the media partners agree to increase the payouts if four former Pac-12 members were added? That is not clear. However, regardless of the banner under which they compete, any collection of Pac-12 and MW universities would provide potential media partners with either direct or indirect access to seven of the country’s top 40 markets.
National market rankings based on Nielsen data from 2021:
- Bay Area (Stanford, California, and San Jose State)
- Denver (Colorado State University)
- Sacramento-Modesto State (Fresno State)
- Portland (Oregon State University)
- San Diego State University (SDSU)
- Salt Lake City (University of Utah)
- University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV)
Does this imply that a lucrative media contract is on the way? Nope. It’s not even close.
The remaining Pac-12 schools will receive pennies on the dollar compared to what they would have received if the conference had survived.
This dramatic drop in annual revenue will have an impact on the budgets of all sports, from football on down, and may result in layoffs and resource reductions across the four campuses.
Conferences have previously failed, with the Big East being the most recent example.
The league dissolved in 2013 after more than 40 years of existence, mostly as a basketball powerhouse. The basketball-focused schools (dubbed the ‘Catholic 7’) left in droves, formed their own league with the help of a media partner, Fox, and eventually purchased the Big East name from the remaining schools.
Meanwhile, the dissolved league’s football-playing members formed the American Conference, which produced three schools (Houston, Cincinnati, and UCF) that will now compete in the Big 12.
Perhaps there is a model somewhere in that history for the Pac-12 schools left behind in the realignment game.