Pac-12 Conference dug its own grave

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The expected death of the "Conference of Champions" after five more schools defected Friday was self-inflicted, leaving the Pac-12 with just four teams and a most uncertain future.

LAS VEGAS — They’re still sifting through the carnage of what was the destruction of the “Conference of Champions.”

The Pacific 12 is no more. At least the Pac-12 Conference we knew and were accustomed to after the dismantling of the league Friday which saw Oregon and Washington leave for the Big Ten and Arizona, Arizona State and Utah go to the Big 12 to join Colorado, which had announced a few days prior it was moving on to the Big 12’s greener television pastures.

Oh, there’s still a Pac-12 for the upcoming year, so enjoy seeing USC and UCLA play Cal and Stanford. And There’ll still be a Civil War between Oregon and Oregon State and an Apple Cup between Washington and Washington State. And Bill Walton will still be yakking on TV, though I imagine he’s heartsick today over what transpired on Friday. So the funeral is still 11 months away.

How did this happen? You can assign blame to a lot of places. To me, it’s two culprits: The two most recent commissioners — Larry Scott and George Kliavkoff for their ineptitude when it came to understanding and reading the media market as it pertained to securing a lucrative TV rights deal or deals. Then, there are the presidents who through their arrogance and cluelessness, allowed this to take place. 

So what’s next? 

For me, the answer is for the remaining Pac-12 schools — Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State — to join the Mountain West and have Gloria Nevarez continue to run the league as commissioner. She has shown excellent leadership in her brief time in charge of the Colorado Springs-based league, which has 11 full-time members.

Washington State and Oregon State fit the Mountain West’s geographic footprint and scholastically, are solid institutions. Stanford, which would obviously be the league’s top academic school given its worldwide prestige along with an overall athletic program which is near or at the top nationally annually, could conceivably try and go it alone as an independent. Whether Cal would opt for independence, I’m not sure that would fly. But having the Golden Bears in the same league as San Jose State would be a good fit from a travel perspective.

But there’s a flaw in my plan. Money.

Currently, each Mountain West school receives approximately $4 million annually from the conference’s media rights deal. Had the Pac-12 stayed intact and the schools had accepted the new deal Kliavkoff had negotiated with Apple TV, the revenue would’ve been five times that, though that $20 million figure that has been reported would potentially go up depending on the number of subscribers to Apple TV that could be generated. 

The problem was the Pac-12’s current deal with ESPN and Fox was giving the members over $37 million and the Apple TV deal is substantially less than that, no matter how optimistic the numbers would be. While the other Power 5 leagues were securing their media rights deals going through the remainder of this decade and into the 2030s, Kliavkoff appeared to be asleep at the switch. And by the time he got to the table, all that was left were the crumbs. Which explains the mass exodus and why USC and UCLA proved how smart they were by aligning themselves with the Big Ten early and secured a full stake of TV revenue.

I don’t know that the remaining Pac-12 schools would come into the Mountain West for $4 million and I doubt ESPN and Fox, the MWC’s current TV partners, would up the ante just because Oregon State and Washington State would be in the league, or for that matter, Cal and Stanford, which play in the nation’s No. 6 media market in the country in the San Francisco Bay Area. But it’s a market that is geared more toward pro sports (the 49ers, Warriors, Giants and, to a certain extent, the Sharks) than college athletics. The demographics wouldn’t justify the numbers.

And at a time where athletes are getting NIL deals and the transfer portal has turned college sports into a massive free agent market, you need TV revenue to exist. Because if your league is not in a position to play for the college football national title, you’re cooked.

The reality is there’s no easy solution for this. The remaining Pac-12 schools are diverse and have different agendas. Can they come to a consensus? Does a combined Pac-12/Mountain West qualify as a Power 5 conference? I’m not entirely sure it does. Even if it adds Cal and Stanford. Even if you rebrand it. I just don’t see where the television revenue increases dramatically enough for it to work.

The Mountain West’s TV deal runs through 2026. That’s less than three years from now. So a lot can change between now and then. And I’d like to think Nevarez is working on finding revenue streams to help bolster her league. So if I’m Washington State and Oregon State, I’m giving her a call to see about joining the Mountain West.

Meanwhile, here in Vegas, where the Pac-12 has put down roots for its football title game and basketball postseason tournaments, UNLV has been maintaining radio silence throughout the Pac-12’s bloodletting. President Keith Whitfield has been wise to keep his communication with other leagues under wraps. Ditto for athletic director Erick Harper. They didn’t go down the same path as San Diego State and give public notice they were leaving the Mountain West without having a place to go.

And speaking of San Diego State, how fortunate was it for the Aztecs that their ill-advised attempt to run away from home was stifled and all was forgiven? 

I asked Rebels football coach Barry Odom, who knows something about big conferences from his time in the Big 12 with Missouri and the Southeastern Conference with Arkansas about the realignment bombs that were falling Friday. He wisely replied that those decisions are above his pay scale and that his focus is on making UNLV football successful on the field, which of course is the absolute right answer.

We’ll see if a merger comes to pass. For now, enjoy your time left with the terminal patient that is the Pac-12. And send Bill Walton a sympathy card while you’re at it.