Did the University of Washington just move to Oklahoma City?
No. UW did not replicate the stunt that cost Seattle the Sonics 15 years ago, and counting. The university and its football team remain in Montlake, where next year, and the year after that, and the year after that, six or seven games will be played at Husky Stadium, the self-proclaimed greatest setting in college sports. The Huskies also will play in those years six or seven road games, maybe including Pullman, which some consider a good thing. And the football program probably will make enough to sustain all the other UW sports that make little or no revenue.
So regarding the more hysterical responders among the People Who Wear Purple to the abandonment of the westerly Pac-12 by Washington and Oregon in favor of the midwesterly Big Ten, I have two words:
The Huskies are a part of a rearrangement. Not a relocation. And while the Pac-12 Conference and its antecedents survived 108 years and created many championships, heartfelt sentiments, scandals and intrigues, by the start of the 2024 school year it will be what the rotary phone is to modern telecommunications.
A relic. Deal with it.
The Pac-12 and the other big-time college sports conferences operate as part of a trade association (called the NCAA) to promote a mutual well-being of the industry (think: The Dairy Farmers of Washington). In contrast, the pro sports leagues that have come to dominate our sports-business consciousness are monopoly operators whose massive leverage includes the ability to extort their municipalities for financial benefits. Pay up tax dollars for facilities, or see a team relocate to another city more eager to bend over.
Pro sports are far more ruthless than big-time college sports, which are jealous of that. Because the programs are currently tied to those gosh-darn anvils called schools, the trade association members have no leverage to extort anyone except each other. They have given over financial control of their top programs to the entertainment industry (linear and cable networks and their streamer offspring). So the CEOs of ESPN/Disney and Fox Sports have become commissioners-without-portfolios, able to dictate business terms and conditions via their handsome rights fees.
Without saying so, the TV moguls determined the Pac-12 was inefficient, unworthy of rescue. Why?
Part of the reason is a matter of geography that is immutable. Largely in the Pacific time zone on Saturdays, many games were telecast when fans in the rest of the country were already passed out drunk. Even those Pac-12 games in national prime time typically draw smaller local TV ratings because college ball comes in second or worse in the league’s big cities awash in pro sports: Bay Area, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Seattle and Denver.
The marketing slogan of the all-powerful Southeastern Conference, rich in college towns, addresses the contrast slyly and succinctly: “It just means more.” Even though the networks try to claim the much-lamented Pac-12 late kickoffs are in a valuable TV time slot, that’s crap. In the digital ad world, they’re called remnants, an inventory of ads sold at a discounted rate because of smaller audiences.
A bigger reason for the demise was self-inflicted: The Pac-12 Networks. In 2011, then-new commissioner Larry Scott introduced an innovative platform bought by the schools: A wholly owned, 24-hour cable channel that would distribute all football and men’s basketball games not taken by the networks, plus all the non-revenue (Olympic) sports that rarely get TV time. The problem was that the biggest distributor in the West, DirecTV, refused to agree to Scott’s pricing, because it didn’t believe there was an audience beyond family/friends for the other sports. As a result, Pac-12 Networks were invisible to large swathes of the conference footprint.
The epic misjudgment was compounded by the naive belief of presidents and chancellors that their own network would serve as a contemporary, yippee-skippee postcard for all member schools, and underscore to the colleges’ liberal sensibilities of inclusion and equality by giving time to sports beyond football and basketball. The noble aspirations came without traction. DirecTV was correct.
As a result, Pac-12 per-school annual revenues among the Power 5 conferences fell behind the SEC, Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference, and barely ahead of the Big 12. Facing an entertainment industry in financial distress, George Kliavkoff, Scott’s successor, came in late and low with an exclusive proposal from Apple TV that was all streaming with no linear TV. The early-year revenues were well below the previous media-rights deal from ESPN and Fox. Oregon said no first. Washington said no second. The Pac-12 was dissolving: Every school for itself.
Arizona, Arizona State and Utah followed Colorado to the Big 12, leaving Washington State, Oregon State, Cal and Stanford adrift; a sudden, ignominious end years in the making.
Pat Chun, WSU’s athletics director, was predictably, publicly aggrieved.
“There’s a century of history that has gone by the wayside because this conference has mismanaged itself on a bunch of different levels,” he told the Spokesman Review. “And when you have poor leadership, one of the outcomes is failure. That’s what has happened to the Pac-12.”
College football is now in the awkward early stage of a years-long transition. Even if the Pac-12 had somehow stayed afloat, the increasingly harsh truth is, independent of conference affiliations, the haves in the sport are way ahead of the have-nots.
USA Today annually compiles revenue and expense data among 232 NCAA schools. In a June story about 2022 numbers among the public schools surveyed, Ohio State led with $252 million in revenues. Oregon’s $153 million was 19th. Washington was 25th at $145 million, behind seven Big Ten schools. WSU was 53rd at $85 million, just ahead of Oregon State at $83 million.
For the Cougars and Beavers to stay as competitive in football as they have been is remarkable. Money isn’t everything. But when it comes to the industry’s business future, it is the only thing.
For the 120-plus schools in the current top-tier Bowl Championship Series, the argument needs to be made for a British soccer-style system of tiers. The best big-budget schools play their like, then after the season, the worst several among them get relegated to a second tier. They are replaced in next season’s first tier by the best several from the second tier.
Three tiers of 40? Six tiers of 20? Those are the details to be negotiated with the TV overlords. The urgent need is for radical realignment into a national — not regional — system. National reform is exactly what the conferences are seeking from Congress in their pursuit of federal laws regulating the private money of name/image/likeness that is anonymously disrupting the industry.
If national rules are required for NIL, why not create a national sports league? The beauty of a system of relegation is that it automatically creates dramatic tension for ordinary games, which makes good sports TV and increases attention and revenues. Regarding the loss of geographic rivalries, the current realignment suggests that’s no longer a priority. There will be leagues with teams in all four lower-48 time zones.
In the ruthless world of sports entertainment, the Pac-12 leadership smugly believed itself above the fray, some sort of a special outfit not subject to the smarminess of the business of big-time college ball. If I had to pick a small but representative moment of too-late awareness, it was the time in the 2021 season when soon-to-be-fired UW football coach Jimmy Lake downplayed any recruiting rivalry with Oregon by saying, “We battle more academically prowess (sic) teams.” He followed that on game day by furiously chasing down his own player on the sidelines and swatting him on the helmet on national TV, then lying about it.
Those who care about college football need to get their collective swerve on and demand swift demolition and rapid national reformation. No one wants to see Lake appointed new commissioner of the Pac-4.