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Canzano: Pac-12 expansion scenarios getting real
Plus, is Big Ten having buyer's remorse?
I heard a wild story. Maybe you did, too. It goes like this — the Big Ten Conference presidents didn’t love it when ESPN wasn’t part of its announced $1.25 billion-a-year media rights package. They’d grown accustomed to being promoted by the worldwide leader’s propaganda machine.
The tale goes that the presidents were giddy over the windfall created by their new deal with FOX, NBC and CBS, but were supposedly left wringing their hands and wondering how not being a partner with ESPN might affect the Big Ten brand. When it comes to rankings, perception, and inclusion in a soon-to-be expanded and crazy-lucrative College Football Playoff, ESPN controls a big chunk of the narrative.
Add four more Pac-12 schools?
Create a new Big Ten division in the Pacific Time Zone?
Shop that to ESPN as part of a new tier of programming?
I’ve been told (and heard) that story in a variety of ways for a couple of weeks now. I did some digging around, talked with some consultants, conference insiders, athletic directors, and keep coming back to one thing — it makes almost no sense. Not if you understand the nuances of programming, know media rights negotiations, and trust what ESPN president Burke Magnus said last week.
Magnus talked about Pac-12 expansion, not contraction. He said that he didn’t think anyone believed the conference would stay at 10 members. Magnus is negotiating with the conference and spoke about Pac-12 expansion as if it were a foregone conclusion. It caught my attention and it raised the eyebrows of those in the media-rights world.
Said one long-time, high-level network executive: “I think Burke is being pretty honest, or he is a much better liar than I am.”
Why might the Big Ten presidents be anxious about the loss of ESPN as a partner?
We all know the power of ESPN’s platform. College Football Game Day is a Saturday-morning machine, distributing national narratives and skewing the day’s conversation. Having that element on your side is a massive benefit. The SEC knows what I’m talking about.
I asked Bob Thompson, the former president of FOX Sports Networks, what he made of the story that has been circulating for a couple of weeks. Is it possible the Big Ten presidents had buyer’s remorse and now want ESPN as a partner?
He said, “As long as that negotiation took, I find it hard to believe that the university presidents didn’t know that ESPN wasn’t going to be involved prior to the announcement. If they had problems with that then they certainly would have been brought up at that point. This was a huge decision for the conference going forward and not one that would have been made without the presidents being made aware of all of the particulars.”
Would that new tier of programming be appealing to ESPN? Sure. We’ve heard about it for weeks. The Big Ten could use Oregon, Washington, Stanford and Cal to create a package of another 30 games that included those four new Pac-12 schools plus USC and UCLA. But Thompson tells me, “It would seem to me that FOX, CBS and NBC would want those games to go into the ‘selection pool’ as well.”
That does ESPN no good at all. Because instead of having the Pacific Time Zone’s primetime window to itself — which it could easily have by partnering with the Pac-12 — the network would now be competing against the Big Ten’s primary partners (FOX, CBS and NBC) for the games.
“I mean, wouldn’t you want to select Oregon vs. Washington over Northwestern vs. Maryland?” Thompson said.
The money involved would not appear to be a large initial media-rights increase for the Ducks or Huskies, either. Also, you’d also be looking at a significant number of late-night kickoffs for the four new additions. We all know how that plays with the fan bases and coaches. And remember, FOX supposedly wanted ESPN to be included in the package and the Big Ten balked. In fact, the conference made ESPN an offer that was so unattractive, it knew it would walk.
I don’t blame the consultants for exploring the questions. I don’t blame the universities or conferences for asking them. I don’t blame national media for reporting what their sources say. I found out one well-known consulting firm is charging a Pac-12 university $35,000 a month to help sort through the options.
I’m not saying that Oregon and Washington are staying in the Pac-12 forever. We’re in wild times. I think we could see another round of significant changes to the landscape in two, three, five, or seven years. But right now, I’m leaning into the idea of the remaining 10 members staying together in this cycle and adding a few more universities via expansion.
Expansion would immediately help the Pac-12’s mission to hold itself together. If you add new members, especially at a fractional media-rights distribution in the initial 2-4 years, you could sprinkle some of that leftover revenue on Oregon and Washington to keep them happy.
Also, ESPN could foster a “loose partnership” between the ACC and Pac-12 to create some interesting crossover games. I’m told this is still on the table. Merton Hanks, the Pac-12’s football administrator, told me last week that the conference has “never wavered” about the concept of going from nine to eight conference games.
There’s only one partner that works with that scenario — the ACC.
It would mean that every Pac-12 member would play one crossover game vs. an ACC opponent each football season with ESPN getting exclusive broadcast rights. Not every Pac-12 member is wild about this idea. Some love it. Others have expressed that it’s difficult enough to schedule non-conference games and they fear this might increase the difficulty. But I think ESPN will get the final vote on this.
I’m being told not to expect any big news on the Pac-12 Conference’s media rights negotiations until after Labor Day. Still, I’ve been thinking a lot about potential expansion candidates and how the conference’s hired consultants might view them.
Here are some…
San Diego State
It’s the most obvious choice and one that I think the Pac-12 would be wise to explore with alacrity. San Diego State’s DMA brings 1.1 million television households and adding the Aztecs would get the Pac-12 back into Southern California. The Big 12 could potentially meddle here, and provide some leverage for SDSU. But I think San Diego State makes far more sense for the Pac-12 geographically and suspect the university would be happy to take a lower distribution of media-rights funds in the early years.
Odds: 2 to 1.
Biggest question: How soon can the Pac-12 get this done?
It has a tiny campus footprint in Dallas, but the Mustangs have immense donor support and adding them would get the Pac-12 into Texas. The DFW market includes more than 2.9 million television households. That is super attractive. Several conference coaches have told me they’d love to recruit Texas regularly but are unsure about the travel demands it would create for the non-football teams on campus. Still, we’re in an era of shake-ups and this is the easiest path into an important recruiting area.
Odds: 4 to 1.
Biggest question: Does the geography work?
The football program has been abysmal, but expansion isn’t all about on-field results. It’s about the pursuit of revenue, opportunity and stability. Las Vegas is a rapidly growing market with ample sponsorship opportunities and an NFL stadium. It’s the site of the Pac-12’s conference championships in basketball and football, too. If the Pac-12 wants to make a speculative play, Las Vegas is the bet. It’s currently TV market No. 40. In a decade, is it in the Top 25?
If the aim for ESPN is to gobble up Pacific Time Zone inventory, adding the Rebels to the Pac-12 helps gets you there. Don’t discount the relationships that Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has, either. He lives in Vegas and has worked there for years.
Odds: 5 to 1.
Biggest question: Does the current number (757,000) of TV households give the Pac-12 pause?
The Broncos have hired consultants to help them explore opportunities in the Pac-12 and Big 12, per multiple sources. Boise State has an interesting foothold in the Mountain West Conference and currently receives a total of $5.5 million in annual media-rights payouts.
Joining the Pac-12 could immediately boost that figure by a multiple of 3x-5x and it would help give ESPN a growing stable of attractive primetime windows in the Pacific and Mountain Time zones. Boise State wants to matter. It has a good relationship with ESPN and has successfully chased wide exposure by playing in creative inventory windows over the years.
I don’t think Boise State works as well as a member of the Big 12, but I don’t blame it for exploring that option as a contingency. There are only 517,000 TV households in all of Idaho. For this reason, I think the Pac-12 could get Boise State at a deep media-rights discount in the first few years.
Odds: 6 to 1.
Biggest question: Are the Broncos capable of making the same kind of leap in the Pac-12 that Utah made?
The Central California Valley is an interesting animal. It includes a large swath of proud agricultural geography and sits in the center of a state that is well-recruited by Pac-12 members. Fresno State is located almost equidistant from Los Angeles and the Bay Area. It’s about a three-hour drive to both places. I know. I lived there and worked at The Fresno Bee. The population is growing, but unless you include Sacramento as part of the DMA, the number of immediate television households doesn’t blow you away. Still, ESPN would covet this move. The network has to be salivating at the idea of getting the primetime windows in the Pacific Time Zone virtually to itself.
Odds: 8 to 1
Biggest question: Will the presidents and chancellors of the Pac-12 view the potential addition of Fresno State as diminishing their brand?
Big 12 Hunting
Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff said on Media Day last month that he hadn’t decided if he was going shopping in the Big 12 yet. It was a barb directed at a conference he accused of lobbing “grenades” at him for several weeks. Kliavkoff said he believed the Big 12 was trying to destabilize the Pac-12.
There’s the matter of Big 12 bylaws, which potentially penalizes departing members to the tune of about $76 million. But there’s a tricky workaround there. The conference bylaws also allow for the Big 12 to be dissolved with only eight votes. Texas and Oklahoma are already there. That only leaves six votes to get and there would be no penalty.
If the Pac-12 poached Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas and Kansas State, the Big 12 would disband. I don’t think this is going to happen. In part, because I don’t believe ESPN wants to further disrupt the teetering ecosystem. Also, because I don’t think the Pac-12 would necessarily want all of those schools.
Still, I’m throwing this out there because one Pac-12 AD told me he’s in favor of chasing a number of current and future Big 12 teams vs. adding a bunch of Mountain West Conference candidates that dilute the value of the Pac-12.
“Oklahoma State is at the top of my list,” he said.
Odds: 10 to 1.
Biggest question: How difficult would it be to get six Big 12 schools to simultaneously jump?
Who else makes sense for the Pac-12?
I’ll address in the coming week…
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