Led by savvy commissioner Larry Scott, Pac-10 rebrands its image
With new outlook and new TV deal on horizon, Pac-10 looks to be major player
Scott hired marketing experts who helped shape images of Nike, Coke, Heineken
Pac-10 wants to be national and Tuesday brings its message to New York City
|Superconference idea not dead|
It's only a logo.
It can't tackle a tailback or shoot a three-pointer. It can't serve an ace or score a perfect 10 on the vault. It can't convince television executives to write checks for $200 million a year. If you've made up your mind about the Pac-10 Conference, a shield featuring a wave rolling into a mountain isn't going to alter your beliefs.
Not on its own, at least.
Only 30 years ago, Nike's swoosh was just a funny looking check mark. Now, it embodies a brand. It immediately evokes a lean, muscular, sweat-covered image of not just a company, but a way of life. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott hopes years from now, you'll look at that shield with the wave rolling into the mountain and think three things.
West Coast. Innovation. Championships.
Scott knows it won't be easy to plant those images in your mind, especially if you live east of the Rockies, but his conference will try. On Tuesday, Scott will unveil the reimagined Pac-10 in New York City. The location isn't an accident. It's all part of a plan Scott set into motion when he took over as commissioner a year ago this month. Scott, a former Harvard tennis player who revamped the Women's Tennis Association in his six years there, dreams of reinventing how a college conference operates. Scott's first gambit -- putting together a 16-team superconference that would have included most of the current Big 12 South division -- fell short when the Big 12 saved itself from annihilation in June. But he hasn't stopped dreaming big. He wants to market the Pac-10 more like a professional league. He wants the Pac-10 to build not only a national brand, but an international one. While the league tries to win the hearts and minds of sports fans to the east, it also will look west to Asia in an effort to capitalize on untapped markets.
"The success of the Pac-10 has been historically on the management side and on the governance side," Scott said. "What I tried to do is say those are all critical roles that a conference office plays, but I tried to bring a new perspective to that. In addition to that, we have to look at ourselves as content owners and brand stewards and promoters. We've got very valuable assets we're responsible for leveraging for the benefit of the schools, and there is a lot at stake."
There is indeed. The rebranding of the Pac-10 comes months before Scott and his team will sit down with television executives to hammer out the conference's new media deals. There, Scott hopes to correct an imbalance that left the Pac-10 last among the six BCS automatic-qualifying conferences in revenue. In fiscal 2009, the Pac-10 made $96.8 million. The same year, the Big Ten made $220 million. This year, the SEC distributed $209 million to its 12 member schools.
"You're trying to position yourself to make sure you're not allowing too big a spread to be created between what's being paid to the Big Ten and the SEC schools," UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel said. "You had to keep looking at ways to make it more attractive to TV people."
The gap owes partly to timing; the value of media contracts has increased exponentially in recent years. But it also has roots in deep-held national perceptions of the conferences. Even before the Big Ten Network took off or the SEC's new blockbuster contracts kicked in, those leagues had better deals than the Pac-10. That mystifies some in the league. "All I know is that if these are television dollars and UCLA sits in one of the television capitals in the world in Los Angeles, it's ridiculous for our school to be taking less than any other school in the country," Neuheisel said.
Money matters. Earlier this month, a presidential committee at Cal released a scathing report that found that between 2004 and 2009, the university had given between $7 million and $14 million each year to subsidize the athletic department's now-$70 million budget. Those are taxpayer dollars funding sports at a time when faculty salaries are frozen and academic budgets are being slashed.
Scott understands why some faculty members want to cut athletics subsidies completely. It's his job to find a way to generate enough revenue at the conference level so member schools won't have to cut sports or extras such as academic support for athletes if their universities decide they can't afford to subsidize athletics. "Cal is a microcosm of what's happening across our conference and, frankly, across the country," Scott said. "So I feel a tremendous responsibility and pressure, in a sense. ... There is more pressure on schools and conferences to be entrepreneurial, to pay for themselves."
To make that possible, Scott and his team had to start by rebranding the Pac-10.
Scott loves to use media examples to make his points. When he took over at the WTA in 2003, BusinessWeek had just published an indictment of the organization under the headline "The Grand Slam Eluding Women's Tennis." Scott blew up the story and posted it in the conference room. He also had some of his staff rewrite the story with the assumption that the changes he planned to implement had succeeded. With both versions in hand, Scott had one question for his staff: Which story would you rather read?
Last October, Scott sent an SI article to major decision-makers at Pac-10 schools. He had copied John Ed Bradley's SI cover story on SEC football. The story drove home the point that Scott had been trying to drill into the skulls of his constituents since he was hired. A conference can be a brand.
The SEC has a strong brand. Barbecue, blitzes and butt-whipping. The Big Ten has a strong brand. Brats, bruising backs and barrel-chested linemen. But what is the Pac-10 brand?
"The Pac-10 has always had a very good reputation," said Washington president Mark Emmert, who will take over as NCAA president on Nov. 1. "The brand has always stood for academic quality and integrity. We certainly wanted to keep all that in place because it's essential and central to who we are. But it also had a bit of a stodgy, a little bit self-satisfied image that we wanted to change. We wanted to demonstrate that out west, people are engaged in innovation and creativity. We are the home of Microsoft and Google, and we do build airplanes. We do all sorts of exciting and dynamic things out west. ... Yet the conference wasn't really a reflection of that energy."
Scott began the process of reinventing the conference by making concrete changes. He reorganized his staff. He met with television executives. In one a-ha moment, Scott was stunned when he learned from ESPN/ABC executives that the conference had turned down the reverse mirror option for split telecast football games on ABC. Reverse mirroring allows the portion of the country that doesn't get a particular game on ABC to watch that game on one of ESPN's family of networks. For example, if 33 percent of the country is getting Oregon-USC and 66 percent of the country is getting Michigan-Iowa on ABC, the east-coasters and Midwesterners who want to watch the Ducks and Trojans could simply tune to ESPN2. So instead of exposing the entire country to its product, the previous Pac-10 regime had forced Pac-10 football to remain largely a regional entity. Scott immediately corrected that mistake, telling ESPN that for the remainder of the existing contract, it could reverse mirror Pac-10 games at no extra charge. He also convinced athletic directors to allow more Thursday and Friday night football games to give the league more national exposure.
Scott also needed to tweak the conference in more abstract ways. To help, he hired Danette Leighton as the league's first marketing executive. Leighton, the daughter of a former UCLA baseball player and an Arizona graduate, began her career as an intern in the Pac-10 office. She was working as the Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development for Maloof Sports, the owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, when the Pac-10 called again. Leighton believes the NBA promotional model can be adapted to suit college sports with great results.
"Professional sports, being a sports business, have had to look at everything through a different lens," she said. "How do we sell tickets? How do we market? How do we sell sponsorships? What is the most appealing thing for our fans? Looking at the holistic experience from a fan perspective in the NBA is really, really critical."
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