Discover more from Bald Faced Truth by John Canzano
Canzano: Putting money where the mouth is
Part 3 in a series about Pac-12 basketball.
The corporate headquarters of Pacific Seafood is located in a two-story building in the suburbs of Portland. The third-generation, family-owned business owns 44 facilities in 11 states.
“Our footprint almost matches identically with the Pac-12’s,” said Bill Hueffner, a vice president.
Over the last few months, Pacific Seafood has closely followed the developments of the Pac-12 Conference. It’s one of 28 corporate sponsors. Others include New York Life, 76 gas stations, GEICO, Nike and Pacific Premier Bank.
“The timing was right. The deal was right. It just made sense,” Hueffner said. “And it still makes sense.”
The Pac-12 Conference CEO Group meets this week to discuss media rights and possible expansion. A resolution on both fronts feels near. Meanwhile, only one of the conference’s men’s basketball programs remains alive in the NCAA Tournament — UCLA. And the Bruins are leaving for the Big Ten Conference in the summer of 2024.
This is Part 3 of a series on Pac-12 basketball. I’ve examined the conference’s basketball broadcast woes and studied the downfall of one of the Pac-12’s once-proud programs. While in Las Vegas for the conference tournament earlier this month I met with multiple sources and stakeholders to talk about what the Pac-12 must do to matter more on the basketball court. But we need to frame this discussion with the seafood business.
Frank Dulcich Sr. founded Pacific Seafood. He used to fish on the Oregon coast and sell his catch at a stand in downtown Portland on Powell Street. Today, the same company is run by his grandchildren, employs more than 4,000 people and has operations from Alaska to Chile.
One of the company plants happens to be in Las Vegas. In December, Pacific Seafood used the Pac-12 football championship game as an opportunity to bring some of its best customers together. It gave clients tickets to the USC-Utah game, access to VIP parties, took them down on the field for photos, and brought them behind the curtain.
For the basketball event earlier this month in Las Vegas, the company showered its local employees and customers with tickets and back-stage access to VIP basketball events.
Said Hueffner: “When you’re entertaining customers and talking about deals, there’s just a lot of opportunity. We get access to things for our customers. We also have a chance to potentially put our protein on the conference’s different campuses. These kinds of sponsorships can pay for themselves.”
The Pac-12 women’s tournament will likely return to Las Vegas next March. Plans for the men’s tournament haven’t yet been announced, either. I expect the conference to keep both basketball events in Las Vegas where they’ve been wildly successful.
Steve Tseng, the vice president of sales and sponsorships for the Pac-12 told me: “A lot of our sponsors entertain. It’s so easy to take care of your customers in Las Vegas. Everybody is happy.”
Tseng was hired by the Pac-12 in the spring of 2019. He inherited a stable of nine corporate sponsors and has added 19 more in the last few years. He waved off my questions about the defections of the two Los Angeles schools. Tseng said the departures of USC and UCLA hasn’t impacted sponsorships.
“The economic downturn has been a bigger deal,” he said. “The recession has hit everybody. New conversations are harder right now, but that’s happening everywhere.”
Pacific Seafood is in the middle of a multi-year deal with the Pac-12. New York Life, the presenting sponsor of the basketball events, is still under contract for one more year. 76 gas stations has multiple years remaining on its sponsorship deal with the Pac-12, but its No. 1 market is Los Angeles. That provides yet another reason for the conference to consider adding San Diego State via expansion.
“Our footprint still speaks for itself,” said Tseng.
The men’s basketball programs need to do some talking, too. Pac-12 athletic departments were encouraged to ramp up the investment in football shortly after commissioner George Kliavkoff was hired. It was a conference-wide directive, spear-headed by the new commissioner. Some schools had already moved in that direction prior to Kliavkoff’s arrival. Decide for yourself when the tipping point was, but six teams were ranked in the final Top 25 poll last season. The same athletic departments have been more reluctant to invest in men’s basketball.
Said Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich: “To be fair, the investment in basketball has lagged vs. football. The teams at the top in men’s basketball have been investing consistently over a long period of time.”
Four Pac-12 teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament this season. The conference’s top two seeds — Arizona and UCLA — lead the conference in basketball investment. UCLA spent $11.9 million on men’s basketball last year, per financial documents I obtained. Arizona spent a league-high $12.2 million. Both programs invest heavily with recruiting budget and coaching salaries. Neither program utilized a single commercial flight this season.
“We charter all trips,” Arizona AD Dave Heeke said.
The schools that invest in men’s basketball generally do well in the standings. Washington State’s sixth-place finish in conference play is an outlier. The Cougars are squeezing more, dollar for dollar, out of men’s basketball than anyone in the Pac-12. Also, Washington’s ninth-place finish in the standings this season is puzzling. The Huskies are spending like a contender ($10.5 million), but didn’t contend. And the job that coach Bobby Hurley did in getting Arizona State to the NCAA Tournament this season looks even more remarkable given the modest men’s basketball investment ($8.9 million) by the Sun Devils.
I realize I’m blending two topics in this piece. The first deals with corporate sponsors and the health of the conference tournament in Las Vegas. The second deals with the schools themselves and the commitment to men’s basketball. But there’s a synergy that exists between the two topics that is fascinating to me.
Tseng and his sales team at the Pac-12 offices say business is good. But they’d have a much easier time attracting new sponsors and even more dollars for the conference if the teams performed better on the court.
Further, NCAA Tournament games are worth about $2 million each in distributions to the Pac-12. That’s why the early tournament exit by Arizona stung so badly and why you’ll likely find 11 other Pac-12 schools rooting for UCLA on Thursday when it plays Gonzaga in their Sweet 16 matchup.
Hueffner and the team at Pacific Seafood sound more interested in football vs. basketball. The company was more active and centered more client VIP events around the football championship in December. But I suspect it — and some others —would get on board with men’s basketball if there were more consistent excitement and upside around the sport.
Zaninovich said it’s probably time for a “reboot” and some fresh strategy. The conference looks hard at scheduling philosophy, and is interested in improving the NET Rankings of the schools that are in the middle of the standings. But until there’s a conference-wide investment in men’s basketball, those other things amount to window dressing.
“We hammer the 75 percent figure into coaches heads,” Zaninovich said. “Conferences across the board that win 75 percent of non-conference games in any given year get 50 percent of their teams in the tournament.”
Washington State is proof that you don’t have to outspend everyone to win some games. But the minute coach Kyle Smith makes an NCAA Tournament, I expect the poachers will come calling. Meanwhile, Colorado, Cal and Oregon State should invest more in men’s basketball. And Oregon and Washington simply need to consistently get more out of what they are spending.
Pacific Seafood is sticking with the Pac-12. It will ride out the current sponsorship deal. So will the other 27 corporate sponsors. They’re in “wait and see” mode. But it’s time for the men’s basketball programs to give them more to see.
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