Canzano: Handicapping Pac-12 expansion candidates
With help from the late Yogi Berra
The late, great Yogi Berra would have been great to have around the Pac-12 Conference offices. You know, Commissioner George Kliavkoff could have sent Berra out every time media members asked about expansion.
“The future,” Yogi once said, “ain’t what it used to be.”
Kliavkoff set a loose timeline for expansion discussions in our talk last week. He said the conference’s media rights negotiations need to get done first. Then, the conference presidents and chancellors would pivot toward the expansion discussion.
I think he’s being wise. I also think the Pac-12 wants to know what is going to happen with UCLA before it seriously considers adding new members. The Bruins are likely gone to the Big Ten, but the UC Regents need to weigh in formally first.
As Yogi Berra said once, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Will the UC system penalize UCLA and force the Bruins to subsidize Cal? Will that penalty be so stiff that UCLA might consider staying in the Pac-12? All good questions. I lean heavily toward the Bruins exiting as announced in 2024, but I don’t blame the Pac-12 one bit for wanting resolution before it thinks seriously about expansion.
I’m wondering if the Pac-12 will just want to get back to a dozen members or expand to 14 or maybe even 16. I’m having a difficult time finding 16 members that add enough media rights value unless the Pac-12 is going to poach a Big 12 member or two.
In the meantime, I’ve updated the possible expansion candidates below. Like Yogi once famously said, “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
San Diego State
The public research university boasts an alumni base of 300,000 and just opened a new 35,000-seat football stadium on campus. The biggest selling point to the Pac-12, however, is simple old-fashioned geography.
SDSU is located in Southern California, amid 1.1 million television households. Given the defections of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, adding SDSU feels like a no-brainer for the Pac-12. The conference needs a tentpole university in Southern California. If the Pac-12 is only going to add one or two members, SDSU makes the cut.
Biggest question: If UCLA somehow ends up staying in Pac-12, is SDSU the only addition?
Southern Methodist University
The big-dollar boosters at SMU are eager for the institution to get to a Power Five Conference. SMU is a research university. That will play well with the academics in the Pac-12. The Mustangs only have an undergraduate enrollment of around 7,000 and play football in Gerald Ford Stadium (capacity: 32,000).
Best of all, the campus sits on 234 acres that sit smack in the middle of a Nielsen TV market (Dallas) that has 2.7 million households. The geography doesn’t work well, but the television market is difficult to ignore.
Odds: 5 to 1
Biggest question: If it takes SMU, would the Pac-12 need to add another Texas-based university?
The Pac-12 holds its basketball and football championship games in Las Vegas and conference commissioner George Kliavkoff is well connected on The Strip. There are ample sponsorship opportunities, it’s located in the Pacific Time Zone and the conference would get a foothold in a rapidly growing sports city.
The TV market is just so-so (No. 40 nationally), but UNLV is a speculative play all the way. The football hasn’t been great historically. But conference expansion isn’t about on-field performance as much as it is about adding strategic partners and capturing television households.
The Big Ten didn’t want Rutgers and Maryland because of on-field football performance, for example. It wanted the New York and Washington, D.C. television markets.
I’m placing Vegas in front of some others here because I think it — and 757,000 TV households — offers strong upside. The population in the area grew 8.7 percent from 2010 to 2020. Projections predict that Las Vegas and Southern Nevada could have 3.3 million residents by 2060.
Odds: 6 to 1
Biggest question: Does the growth in Las Vegas continue at record rates in the next 20 years?
Boise State desperately wants to get to the Pac-12 or Big 12. It hired consultants to help with that cause, per multiple sources. The Broncos know this is a limited window and maybe their best shot of getting to the Power Five. They currently receive about $5.5 million in annual media rights revenue. Boise State feels like a partner that would be willing to come at a discount in the first few years.
$12 million in year one?
$15 million in year two?
$20 million in year three?
If the Pac-12 wants to boost the media rights payouts to Oregon, Washington and others, this isn’t a bad way to get there. If the Pac-12 added a couple of reduced-distribution members, it might be able to close the financial gap with the Big Ten and SEC. I don’t think the presidents and chancellors in the Pac-12 will love the academic fit, but this is a new world and Boise State has a strong relationship with ESPN. If the Pac-12 chooses to add only two members, I have a difficult time seeing Boise State as a pick. But if it adds four or six, this could work.
Odds: 8 to 1
Biggest question: If you add multiple Mountain West Conference schools… do you become the Mountain West?
If the Pac-12 is going to take SMU, I have to think it would also look hard at Rice University. The Owls are the fifth-smallest school competing in FBS football nationally, but the campus sits in a television market (Houston) that includes 2.5 million homes.
Since 1996, Rice has bounced from the Southwest Conference to the WAC to Conference USA and is now set to join the American Athletic Conference in 2023. But the move is viewed by industry insiders as temporary. Could the Pac-12 poach Rice to help justify the SMU addition? Are there other candidates in Texas and Louisiana that make more sense?
Odds: 9 to 1
Biggest question: The Pac-12 criticized USC and UCLA for ignoring geography, is it committing the same sin here?
I nearly placed the Bulldogs in front of Boise State on this list because I think Fresno State would be more motivated take a substantial discount.
It wants to be included.
It always has.
The Central California Valley television market doesn’t blow you away, but it’s fertile recruiting territory. The proximity in California to Los Angeles and the Bay Area is a selling point. If you rope in the Sacramento DMA — a reach, I know — the television market starts to get interesting.
The biggest selling point is simply the Pacific Time Zone. If ESPN and others are interested in owning the majority of college football inventory in the time zone, Fresno State could be a wise addition. I don’t think the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors will fall all over themselves to get the Bulldogs. But at the right price?
Odds: 10 to 1
Biggest question: Would Fresno State be willing to come into the conference at a significantly reduced media rights payout?
There are a number of interesting universities in Texas and Louisiana that might be attractive if the Pac-12 decides to venture outside the Pacific Time Zone. Would the conference want to grow to 16 teams? If the Pac-12 added SMU and Rice, could it find two other partners and create a four-team pod in the Texas and Louisiana region?
I keep thinking about a conversation I had recently with Mississippi State coach Mike Leach. I asked about the biggest differences between the Pac-12 and SEC. Leach said it was defensive tackles. He pointed to the ample number of talented high school defensive lineman being recruited from Texas and Louisiana. I wonder if the Pac-12 would want to plant a flag in the region.
Odds: 15 to 1
Biggest question: Does this dilute the Pac-12 to the point of no return?
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