To make expansion worthwhile, Pac-10 must try to land Texas
The point of expansion in Pac-10, elsewhere is to improve conference value
Texas adds enough value to justify expansion, but few other schools would
Utah and Colorado are attractive candidates, but BYU and Boise State aren't
Let's dispense with the coolest, craziest notion right away: Boise State isn't joining the Pac-10. As great of an up-by-the-bootstraps story as it would be, the blue turf isn't going to host Pac-10 opponents on a regular basis. It's not going to happen.
Ditto for BYU, even though the Cougars bring a larger fan base and TV market to the table. No one in the Pac-10 will say it aloud, but a religious school like BYU isn't getting an invitation.
We all keep hearing Utah would be a good fit, even if its in-state rival wouldn't, and how Colorado would be a nice addition, too. But to make expansion worthwhile -- to add serious value to the league, which is the goal -- there's only one school the Pac-10 should pursue:
After that, the league can go ahead and nab Colorado or Utah to complete the Pac-12. But if the Pac-10 is serious about expansion, Texas has to be the primary target. Otherwise, the idea might not make sense -- or more to the point, not enough dollars and cents.
It came as a shock this week when Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said the league was looking "seriously" at expansion. Sure, he was brought in last summer to shake things up, to propel the Pac-10 into the postmodern era of college athletics. But it has been 32 years since the Pac-8 added Arizona and Arizona State. Since then, while other conferences dissolved, formed, merged, evolved -- and sometimes grew into revenue-producing monsters -- the Pac-10 ambled placidly along. The league had to be dragged into the BCS. Old timers continue to grumble at its impact on the Rose Bowl. You sometimes get the sense the conference would be content to remain forever in 1958.
Expansion? That's crazy talk, fodder only for radio talk shows and message boards. Or it seemed so, even last summer when Scott replaced Tom Hansen. During a wide-ranging interview session with several writers at the league's annual football media day, Scott indicated expansion wasn't a priority for the Pac-10 presidents during the hiring process.
"It is not a topic that has come up in any serious way," he said then. "...I don't imagine this is something that I will lead us to discuss before our next rounds of television discussions."
Yet here we are. In anticipation of the next round of television discussions -- the Pac-10's deals are up after the 2011-12 school year -- Scott is saying it's time for "serious analysis and serious conversations" about expansion. What changed in six or seven months? Scott says it makes sense to consider expansion before negotiating a long-term TV deal (or forming a TV network, or maybe both -- but that's a topic for another day) because of the opportunity expansion presents to add value to the league.
Scott has said from his first day on the job that the Pac-10 is undervalued; he was hired to change that. The Pac-10's payday from Fox and ESPN/ABC was $43 million in 2008. Compare that to the Big Ten, which realized $66 million from the Big Ten Network alone. Or the SEC, which just signed long-term deals with CBS and ESPN worth $3 billion over 15 years.
Scott also admits the recent rumblings from the Big Ten have sparked "intrigue" within the Pac-10. If the Big Ten adds a school or three, it could set off a dramatic alteration of the college landscape. At this point it's mostly wild speculation, but the conferences are engaging in the same conversations: What if? How does the Pac-10 position itself, and who gets left behind?
This brings us back to Texas. Utah is a decent choice to join the league, Colorado would be a good fit, and the league should pursue either or both. But there's a reason Texas is reportedly being targeted by the Big Ten -- and why Austin should be Scott's first stop (and also, why he should keep visiting).
We're talking about one of the nation's premier athletic programs, and a bona fide cash cow (for the 2008-09 school year, Texas brought in $138 million in revenue, with profits of $25 million; the football program generated profits of nearly $60 million). Start with the TV markets -- Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston and, of course, Austin -- but don't forget the Longhorns are also a national draw (in the Pac-10, only USC turns on as many TV sets). It's hard to define that value, but it's big.
Although the expansion discussion is driven by football, Pac-10 presidents will have to consider the increased costs to the rest of their athletic programs, things like flights for the volleyball and swimming teams. But more importantly, there's the prospect of slicing the pie 12 ways instead of 10.
That's where the new TV deal comes in, with what Scott hopes is a huge payday. But that's also where the added value of any new members becomes an important factor. What value, then, do Colorado and Utah (or Utah and BYU) bring?
"There's a whole analysis you would go through in terms of cost benefit," Scott said.
But Texas? That cost would benefit.
It's a high-stakes game, sure. If Texas was willing to listen to the Pac-10, there would be others calling (like the Big Ten, and hello, SEC?). Texas turned the Pac-10 down once already, after the Southwest Conference dissolved and before the Big 12 formed. It has a good deal with the Big 12's unbalanced revenue distribution, which rewards the most successful programs (and is a source of serious discontent within the league), and it could leverage the interest from other leagues into a better deal. But with Missouri a potential candidate for Big Ten expansion and Colorado a possible Pac-10 member, how stable is the Big 12, anyway?
Would the Longhorns leap? Probably not. As we've noted, the school already makes plenty of money, and it's exploring the formation of its own TV network, which could produce even more revenue. Also, the state legislature could get involved, as it did in the early 1990s, to protect other state schools. But Scott needs to at least ask the question and learn the answer. And if it means inviting Texas A&M, too, go for it.
Otherwise, it might be better to stand pat. By adding Utah (and BYU, if it's a package deal) and/or Colorado, the Pac-10 would get good, competitive athletic programs and fairly large TV markets (Salt Lake City is No. 31, Denver is No. 16, according to Nielsen Media Research). But the Seattle Times' Bud Withers wrote this week of a conversation with a Pac-10 source who said a previous cost-benefit analysis showed adding the pair "didn't really do much." And remember, the goal isn't to elevate the new members, but the conference.
In the last few days, several well-connected Pac-10 insiders I spoke with were skeptical that expansion would occur, partly because of the conference's cautious predisposition, mostly because of the lack of viable (read: valuable) candidates. But one insider suggested it's more likely now than ever, because of the ever-increasing financial demands on college athletic departments -- and the reality that the Pac-10 has fallen well behind the SEC and Big Ten in revenues, and can't afford to fall further.
The Pac-10 types keep talking about academic and cultural fits. Translation: No way will the Pac-10 invite state schools named after their cities or religious private schools. When they mention Utah and Colorado, it's by default: Schools roughly in the region that feature the athletics, academic and cultural prerequisites. Not many schools qualify.
That's why, when asked for his idea of perfect fits, Oregon athletic director Mike Bellotti suggested Penn State and Alabama. He was kidding, intentionally naming schools outside the league's supposed geographic footprint. But in the same list, Bellotti mentioned Texas -- which shouldn't be a joke.
Can the Pac-10 corral the Longhorns? Probably not, but it's worth a try. Without Texas, expansion might not be worth the effort.
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