Not Good Enough For The Pac-10?

Tobi WritesAnalyst IMay 10, 2010

If the only rumor on Pac-10 expansion out there is to believed, the Pac-10 has decided that the only school in the Big 12 that both fits their profile and that they feel they might have the votes to add is Colorado. 

What's more amazing is that rather than attempt a larger expansion with top Big 12 schools like Kansas and OU—what would likely be required to land central timezone powerhouses, the University of Texas and Texas A&M—the Pac-10 appears to have written off the other Big 12 schools as non-viable expansion candidates and is looking exclusively at Utah, a school that might effectively put a period at the end of Pac-10 expansion.*

(*If UT were to take the unlikely path of joining the Pac-10 after Utah was added, UT would be in the same division as Utah.  This means that every other year UT—a warm weather team—would have to take something of a long flight to cold Utah to play an annual top 25 caliber team with a long history of pulling upsets in a game at high altitude.  It screams "trap game".  It could regularly keep UT out of the national title game.  That possibility would be a huge negative in the potential of the Pac-10 ever landing UT.  No UT, no large expansion to the Central time zone.)

Instead, the Pac-10 is working on a plan to seek a partnership with what remains of the Big 12 in negotiating future TV deals (presumably after the Pac-10 has taken Colorado and the Big Ten has taken what they want from the conference. There is currently a reported leak suggesting the Big Ten will take Missouri and Nebraska . The validity of the report may be questionable, but that is the only report currently out there) .

There would be a minor gem or two like BYU or Louisville out there for the Big 12, but as those are small market powers, to offer TV networks a big enough conference audience the Big 12 may very well have to rebuild with quantity rather than quality by adding less robust athletic programs or a series of small market programs like Colorado State, New Mexico, Memphis, and Cincinnati.  Maybe even Boise State.

In a very insulting version of having their cake and eating it too, the Pac-10 is telling schools like Oklahoma and Kansas that they aren't good enough to join the Pac-10 academically, but "Oh... by the way, would you mind providing the same assistance with our TV problem that we would get if we brought you in as full members?"


The problem with the pacific (time zone)

The problem the Pac-10 currently has is that they happen to dominate the furthest west timezone in the continental U.S.  Eight of their 10 schools are in the Pacific time zone and the last two are in the Mountain time zone which offers only slightly better benefits.

The Mountain time zone is by far the least populated time zone in America.  The Pacific is the second least. 

US time zones     Population (in millions)

Eastern Time zone       142
Central Time zone         85
Mountain Time zone      19
Pacific Time zone          49

The teams out west are at a competitive disadvantage as a prime time start for them (7 p.m. Pacific) is very late in the Eastern time zone (10 p.m. Eastern), where most Americans live.

This forces the Pac-10 to start their games earlier to pursue a national audience.   To start play at 7 p.m. Eastern, Pac-10 schools would have to kick off at 4 p.m.

There are a lot less entertainment options for the outdoorsy people on the West Coast when the sun goes down.  A mid-afternoon start puts Pac-10 schools competing with hiking, trips to the beach, fishing, and most of the other hobbies of their fan base.  Not to mention fans who have to work during the days on weekends.  It not only hurts game day attendance, but also TV viewership.  

Each game your fans watch live or on TV builds your fanbase.  Each viewer lost amounts to lost revenue up front and lost contributions down the road (in the form of donations, merchandise, future ticket sales, etc.).  I suspect this is a big portion of why attendance in the Pac-10 lags behind other premier BCS conferences like the Big 10 and SEC.

Adding two more gameday sites in the Mountain time zone helps a little in that it would give the conference on average two out of six games starting an hour earlier, rather than one out of five. So adding Utah and Colorado would offer the Pac-10 better odds of being able to offer a national audience game starting at 9 p.m. Eastern.  That is still not a great sell.

A partnership of sorts with the Big 12 to pursue a better TV deal would allow the Pac-10 to offer 24+ teams ranging from the Pacific to the Central time zones.  The proposed execution suggests a multi-conference version of the Big Ten Network, but I suspect even selling their games as content to a network, a similar dynamic would emerge. 

The larger footprint would theoretically allow both conferences to improve on their own as they should be able to better tap viewers in each other's conference footprints.


Rethinking the deal

It seems it may be worth it for schools like OU, Kansas, and even Texas Tech to work together to engineer a merger with the Pac-10 rather than taking the junior partner conference deal that seems to be emerging.

Things that might work strongly in the favor of the Pac-10's expansion plan—like the idea of admitting BYU into the Big 12 (If BYU was forced to stay in the Mountain West conference, it's long-term BCS future would be in question, while Utah's would not. Politically that might be a poison pill in Utah, blocking the Utes from accepting a Pac-10 offer.)—should probably be pushed against.

Tech Alumni and Boosters should be pushing in the state legislature for some type of move that includes UT, A&M, and Tech moving to the Pac-10 as a group (really, part of a group).  Tech's academics are marginal for a Pac-10 candidate, but there is a great deal of support in the state to designate at least one more "research university" to join UT and A&M as Texas public institutions with that designation. 

Tech and Houston appear to be the front-runners to land this designation and the state funding that comes with it.  Tech worming their way into the Pac-10 would likely earn the Lubbock university that third designation in the state and would dramatically help their efforts to increase their annual research budget.  UT and A&M would likely be on board for it as well, as Tech is a loyal part of UT's voting block in conference, offers reasonable travel, is a cherished rival, and draws well.

Getting UT to tell the Pac-10 they will never join the Pac-10 as a distant outlier would help, and telling the powers that be that the Longhorns have no interest in being in the same division as Utah would be an eye-opener for the Pac-10 as well. 

Having A&M and OU talk about possibly seeking SEC membership rather than riding out life in a diminished Big 12 might help.  Having A&M express an eagerness to join the Pac-10 in certain scenarios, like if Tech, OU, and Kansas came along too,  would be helpful.

OU and Kansas need to start pushing their states to help them in increasing their research budgets.  There is an opportunity approaching for each state to have their flagship become one of the true elite academic schools in the U.S.

A deal that puts Colorado, OU, Kansas, UT, A&M, and Texas Tech into the Pac-10 as a package deal would guarantee the Pac-10 remains a peer to the Big Ten long term and would put these state flagship Big 12 schools (and near flagship Tech) in long-term growth positions as research universities.

Side deals with schools like Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State could make it tolerable for them to accept being pushed to a lower tier BCS conference.

The left behind teams could join a conference (perhaps the MWC, or even better for the state of Texas and more profitable for the member schools, join a new 16 team Southwest Conference designed to be a BCS autoqualifier that might be based on those schools and the CUSA West schools supplimented by sensible additions like BYU, CSU, UNM, Louisville, Baylor, TCU, and either Memphis or Boise) and the elite heading to the Pac-10 could push to see it becomes a fifth BCS conference.

The departing schools could also play the left behind publics in OOC games giving those left behind schools a raised strength of schedule that will keep them in the national title hunt in football when they have great years and an edge in making the NCAA tourney in basketball.

This kind of proposition seems to leave most schools in the Big 12 and Pac-10 (as well as the other schools in their footprints) in a much stronger long-term position.

For that reason, you would probably get approval from most of the Pac-10 schools.


Pac-10 resistance

So why is this kind of thing not being talked about now?  Probably because the Pac-10 requires unanimous consent on expansion votes.

The biggest resistance to this type of plan would probably come from the Arizona schools and the best academic schools in the conference.

Any division of a Pac-10 conference with more than 14 members would likely have the Arizona schools in a southwest division.  The Arizona schools value their games in California and the recruiting benefits they derive from them.  Perhaps they would accept the proposal based on better long term finances and the fact that it could very well help their basketball programs by gaining better access to basketball recruiting hotbeds in Texas.  Still, it seems a likely issue.

The original five teams in the Athletic Association of Western Universities (what would one day become the Pac-10) function at a higher academic level than the rest of the conference.  

The Big Five—Stanford, Cal, USC, UCLA, and Washington—are all in the top half of the US News and World Report College Rankings Tier 1 category, in addition to having research budgets ranked in the top 30 in the nation. 

Arizona comes close to meeting that gold standard, but the rest of the Pac-10 schools that have not developed like the Pac-10 academic elites were assured they would if they admitted them.

There is a lot of "once burned, twice shy" in the academic elites' view of expansion. Cal, Washington, and UCLA, as public schools tied to state finances, might accept the big picture of improved finances in the long-term.  USC and Stanford, as private schools, might be harder to convince to add members who do not meet their exacting academic and research standards.

Finally, if, as rumored, Stanford was in fact the lone vote against offering UT a slot in the Pac-10 last time in an effort to protect their dominance in the Olympic sports, that might be an issue this time in securing their vote.


Getting past the objections

If the majority of Pac-10 schools want to pursue this kind of 16-team affiliation there are things that could be done to overcome objections.


The Arizona schools

The other eight schools would be okay with the two Arizona schools joining the Southwest division with all of the Pac-8 rivalries being protected, but perhaps a concession would need to be made to get the vote of the Arizona schools.

Two of the existing Pac-10 schools would need to play in the Southwest division in a 16 team conference. 

Splitting the pain would probably be enough, with the Northern schools giving up one of their four California matchups each year.

Perhaps the Arizona schools could take those Southwest division positions in basketball and the non-revenue sports in exchange for Cal and UCLA rotating in and out of one of the spots in football.  Arizona and ASU would alternate in and out of the other slot.

The schools could rotate out every two years.  Each pair could alternate, so in 2015 Arizona would move to the Southwest division and ASU would move to the Pacific division for two years.  In 2016, Cal would move to the Southwest Division and UCLA to the Pacific Division for two years.

An eight game conference schedule (seven division games and one out of division game—an opportunity to assure core rivalries are not lost—for Arizona to play ASU and Cal to play Stanford and USC to play UCLA each year) would seem to give every Pac-10 team a reasonably fair shot at success.

The Arizona schools would be able to offer California and Texas recruits a chance to play in front of their families in state during their careers.  A smart coach would be able to pick off a couple of elite players from Texas and California to supplement their recruits from Arizona and compete for a conference title.

It could actually be a better position than those schools are in today.

With the competitive aspect squared away, Arizona's schools would probably be willing to vote for the better financial future five more Big 12 elites offer vs. the admission of Utah.



USC might be on board as long as they don't have to play football as an outlier in the Southwest division.  Ever.



Stanford would be tough to convince.

Perhaps concessions could be made for Stanford's Olympic sports dominance, if that is really a deal-breaker.  Maybe the two divisions could play as two entirely separate conferences in the non-revenue sports.  That way UT could regularly finish first in the Olympic sports in the Southwest-8 Olympic Sports Conference and Stanford could finish first in the Pac-8 Olympic Sports conference, protecting Stanford's multi-sport dominance.

The same folks who run the Summit Conference run the Great West, so there is precedence.

As far as academic reputation and research go—Stanford's likely objection to everyone else besides UT and Colorado is probably entirely due to the failings of Oregon, Oregon State, Washington State, and Arizona State to join the rest of the conference as elite academic schools, or at least schools with a very strong commitment to research.

The carrot hasn't worked in getting all member schools on board with the research consortium idea.  Perhaps a concession to allow a little of the stick might help.

Supposing all Pac-10 members were forced to reach a minimum threshold every 10 years to remain a member of the Pac-10.  A reasonable, but challenging goal.

I am proposing a permanent recurring decennial evaluation of the conference revocable only by unanimous consent.

Maybe every school doing less than $225M in annual research today would have to show consistent annual growth of their research budget culminating with at least $275 Million in research in the 2020 and 2021 calendar years or a doubling of their current research budget reflected in 2020 and 2021 for schools like OU and a threshold like $125M in 2020 and 2021 for schools like Oregon and Tech, who would be starting out way behind the curve.

Any school failing to meet the goals at the decade evaluation mark will be dismissed from the conference and replacements will be evaluated and discussed.

It is a fair system and it underscores for all that the Pac-10 is not just an athletic conference, it is also an affiliation of universities who take research seriously.  It also gives comparatively heavy research schools like Hawaii, Colorado State, New Mexico, Utah, and New Mexico State—schools that are doing what a research consortium should want in conference—legitimate hope for eventual inclusion. 

This decennial evaluations would assure Stanford that the conference would not lose it's high level of academic esteem.

In exchange for that Stanford could give some concessions, perhaps allowing the conference to go from a unanimous expansion vote—where one school can kill a candidate's chances—to a system where 2-to-3 schools have to agree that a new member is inadequate in lieu of the larger membership. 

The admission of a large block of schools all pushing to prove they belong by improving their research budgets would do a lot to create the kind of conference-wide desire for research dominance that the Big 5 have always wanted out of the Pac-10.


But the first step is to fight the Pac-10's current plan

If the residents of Texas want a third major university to emerge sooner rather than later—if the residents of Kansas and Oklahoma want their state flagships to be perceived as of equal caliber to the elite state flagships across the country—these schools and states need to be taking action now to try to manufacture the kind of future they want by working to torpedo the Pac-10's current apparent expansion plan.


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