Posted: Tuesday July 27, 2010 7:03AM ; Updated: Tuesday July 27, 2010 4:36PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Led by savvy commissioner Larry Scott, Pac-10 rebrands its image

Story Highlights

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

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The Pac-10 just unveiled a sleaker, more dynamic logo featuring a wave rolling into a mountain.
Courtesy of the Pac-10
Superconference idea not dead

The Pac-10 came within days of making a move that would have reshaped college athletics. Commissioner Larry Scott didn't succeed last month in landing Texas, Oklahoma, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, but he believes the idea of 16-team superconferences took root in the minds of many influential people, and he expects to see them eventually.

Will the first megaconference be the league currently known as the Pac-10, which will rechristen itself the Pac-12 when new members Colorado and Utah join?

"We're done -- for now," Scott said.

Scott said "for now" because he believes his league will remain stable after it signs a new set of media contracts next year. Since most recent contracts have been long-term -- the SEC is in the first year of 15-year deals with CBS and ESPN, and the ACC just signed a 12-year deal with ESPN -- Scott expects his league to go down a similar path. That doesn't preclude the idea of adding schools, but it does make it less likely.

Still, Scott said there was far too much "head-nodding" among the major players in college sports to believe that the idea of a 16-team league is dead. "Something like that is bound to happen at some stage," he said.

Scott was ambitious when he moved last year from the Women's Tennis Association to the Pac-10, but as he researched potential expansion alternatives, a paradigm-shifting move began to make sense. "Our original idea for involving some Big 12 South schools did not involve six of them," Scott said. "We had some early conversations with Texas about the process, but I realized that there would be some real challenges and some stumbling blocks with some of the earliest ideas we discussed. Over a period of about four months, we developed the idea that which fans got a chance to see during that period in June."

Scott didn't know initially how the idea would be received, but when he got the endorsement of Pac-10 presidents, he knew it had a chance. The happiest surprise, he said, came from television executives. "What you couldn't predict is what fan reaction would be, what media reaction would be and how the TV executives who would ultimately have to stroke some big checks would react," Scott said. "That was the part that was very pleasing. I got contacted by every major TV network in the country."

When rumors began to fly that Fox had the inside track on a deal with the new conference, Scott said, representative of the other networks called asking Scott to hear their pitches before he made a decision. The Fox rumors weren't true, but they did help Scott learn just how valuable that 16-school alignment would be.

The potential move set off alarm bells in other quarters of the sport. At schools such as Kansas and Kansas State, which could have fallen from the elite level in a drastic reorganization, there was outright panic. At the NCAA level, some worried such an obviously money-motivated move would further harm the NCAA's efforts to maintain amateurism. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, who was trying to save his league, even posited in an internal white paper that the move might prompt the federal government to consider revoking the NCAA's tax-exempt status.

One of the presidents who approved Scott's expansion plan said conferences have been in flux for a long time, and consolidation might be the next logical step. "I know there's a tendency for folks to say this is all about money," Washington president Mark Emmert said. "Obviously, money is very important in all this, but it wasn't just all about money. We wanted to make sure that we had institutions that would fit well and that would accept the culture we created in the Pac-10."

Emmert's opinion is important. On Nov. 1, he'll take over as president of the NCAA. He said consolidation doesn't have to be all about dollars. "With any of these alignments and realignments, the one thing that we in intercollegiate athletics -- and when I say we, I mean the presidents, the commissioners, me in my NCAA role, all of us - have to worry about is that we keep our eye on the ball here that this is about creating ever-improving and better opportunities for student-athletes," Emmert said. "It's very easy to get caught up in a media contract or this alignment or that alignment. As long as we constantly say, 'How does this change positively the experience kids can have on the playing field?' If we keep our eye on that, then these expansions could be very positive. It could be a lot of fun."

The schools that wind up on the other side of the revenue divide may not consider it a lot of fun, but they may have little choice in the matter. If powerful schools want to consolidate, and if television networks want to pay them a lot of money to do it, nothing can stop the superconferences from forming.

"I've got a pretty simple philosophy on these things," Scott said. "If things make sense, I think they ultimately happen. Maybe not in the time frame that people would wish, but this one just seemed to make an awful lot of sense to a lot of people and seemed to have tremendous amount of value associated with it."

-- A.S.

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.

Identifying the brand

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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