With Larry Scott at the helm, new-look Pac-12 is poised for power
Pac-12 has two new teams, a mammoth new TV deal and cutting-edge coaches
Under Scott, the league has begun driving change rather than shrinking from it
League's leadership is finally as dynamic and creative as the product on the field
OK, we checked, and there's no truth to the rumor that the young ladies composing the Royal Court at the Rose Parade will henceforth compete for their spots in an American, Idol-style talent show to be televised exclusively on the Pac-12 Network and judged by a panel including Reggie Bush and one or more of the Kardashian sisters. Of course with all the other upgrades and upheaval overtaking the conference, you can see how such a rumor might get started. Football in the Pac-12 (né Pac-10) has been consistently cutting edge and creative. There was the precursor of the West Coast offense executed by Washington QB Sonny Sixkiller in the early 1970s followed by the Bill Walsh version at Stanford late in that decade. You had California's five-lateral kickoff return against the Cardinal in '82, followed two years later by Don (the Dawgfather) James' five-linebacker Purple Reign defense at Washington. Today there is the mind-bending, hurry-up spread offense favored by Chip Kelly at Oregon. On the field in this conference audacity and imagination have carried the day.
But for the longest time the prevailing attitude in the conference headquarters had been the opposite: staid, risk-averse, backward-looking. Before they were dead set against a playoff longtime commissioner Tom Hansen and the schools' presidents were against the BCS, because that system interfered with their ability to match the regular-season champs of the Big Ten and the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl. As one proplayoff athletic director acidly observed to me a few years back, "We've got an entire sport being held hostage by the Tournament of Roses Parade."
While other conferences added members and split themselves into divisions in order to host highly lucrative championship games, the tradition-worshiping grandees of this conference smugly shook their heads. They would never go down such a mercenary path. They didn't need the money that badly. Until they did. By the end of the last decade it had become painfully obvious that the Pac-10 was undervalued, with a second-rate TV deal that paid schools about $9 million a year. As budget cuts sliced into their bottom lines, Hansen's bosses reconsidered their attachment to tradition, and when Hansen announced in 2008 that he would step down the next year, the conference searched for a commish who could bring it into the 21st century.
Looks like they found the right guy. Under Larry Scott, a 46-year-old Harvard graduate who'd been chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, the Pac-12 is now driving change rather than shrinking from it. You knew things would be different when, at the new guy's direction, the conference hired Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to help it "reposition its brand," as one trade publication put it, "to highlight the nexus" to L.A.'s entertainment industry and the technology markets of the Silicon Valley. It sounded like a stretch, but the truth is, Scott has sparked a renaissance.
In April 2010, at the BCS meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., the new commissioner spoke of a desire to "look at everything with a fresh set of eyes." He rifted on the Pac-10's "untapped potential" and his determination to make it "as big and as successful as it can be going forward."
Who knew he was trafficking in understatement?
About six weeks later, after poaching Colorado from the Big 12, Scott came thi-i-i-i-s close to peeling off five more teams from that conference. That would have tolled the death knell for the Big 12 even as it ushered in college football's Age of the Superconference. But Texas -- the linchpin of the deal -- bailed late. The deal fell through, the Big 12 survived and Scott moved to plan B, plucking Utah from the Mountain West Conference. The Pac-12 was born.
Last October the conference unveiled new, six-team divisions: the North (the Northwest schools plus Cal and Stanford) and the South (USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State plus newcomers Utah and Colorado). The winners will play on Dec. 2, in the stadium of the team with the better conference record, in the first Pac-12 championship game.
Traditionalists raised objections -- first the rabbit-ear antenna on my TV stops working, and now THIS! -- but the move gave Scott the leverage that helped him negotiate the richest TV contract in the history of college athletics.
In a perfect storm for the Pac-12, Comcast came in high, offering $225 million a year. Then the lion laid down with the lamb: Bitter rivals ESPN and Fox came together on a bid, according to Sports Business Journal. This resulted in a windfall for the Pac-12. Starting in 2012, ESPN and Fox will pay the conference $3 billion over 12 years for the rights to football, men's basketball and other sports. It breaks down to $21 million a year per Pac-12 school.
And Scott isn't close to being finished. One item that made negotiations slightly sticky with Fox and ESPN was the Pac-12's insistence that it sometimes retain first crack at which games to broadcast -- on its own, brand-new TV network, which will be operational a year from now.
How do the changes brought by the new commish translate to the product on the field? Immediately and permanently. The divisional setup created problems. Each team will play a nine-game conference schedule. You play the five teams in your division -- that's a no-brainer. But the cross-divisional matchups were tougher to iron out. Because every Pac-12 school recruits heavily in the Los Angeles basin, games against USC at the Coliseum and UCLA at the Rose Bowl are at a premium.
Playing in-state rivals USC and UCLA every other year was not enough, protested Stanford and Cal. So an exception was carved out, at the expense of the Northwest schools. Unlike the other four teams in their division, the Bears and the Cardinal will play the Trojans and the Bruins every year, guaranteeing them an annual trip to L.A. That special treatment ensures that the Ducks, Beavers, Huskies and Cougars will only make two trips to recruiting-rich Los Angeles every four years. Meanwhile as divisionmates with USC and UCLA, newcomers Colorado and Utah will get an annual game in either the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl. This imbalance has some at the Northwest schools grumbling.
Scott also had to navigate how to divvy up the TV windfall. Under the old system part of the pot was distributed among all schools. The rest was disbursed based on how many times each school appeared on TV. This resulted in the L.A. teams always getting a bigger slice of the pie. Under the new TV deal members will share equally in television revenues after agreed-upon phase-ins for Utah and Colorado.
The L.A.-based teams remain the marquee programs even as the balance of power in the conference has swung. USC is on probation; UCLA would have to improve to be mediocre. Meanwhile Arizona and Arizona State may be poised to break out, and much of the good news in the Pac-12 comes from up north. Oregon has 15 starters returning to a team that came within a field goal of the national title; powerful Stanford will be led by Heisman front-runner Andrew Luck; Washington is surging; Oregon State is always dangerous under canny coach Mike Riley.
All told, the arrows are pointing in the right direction for the Pac-12, whose leadership, finally, is as dynamic and creative as the product it puts on the field.
This essay originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Pac-12 preview, on sale now.
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