If you’re wondering how we got here, with a 108-year old college sports institution on the verge of collapse, think about the world like a television executive.
You run ESPN and Fox. You’ve made huge, multi-year financial commitments to various college sports conferences at a time when the cable business is struggling.
After locking up the SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12, the Pac-12 was the last one sitting out there waiting for its next deal. Without Southern California and UCLA, though, the Pac-12 was down to just a handful of programs with television cachet.
Oregon is a national brand backed by Nike’s dollars and ambition. Washington is located in a major market and has a good history. Colorado has Deion Sanders. Arizona basketball is an annual national title contender, and Arizona State is a massive entity with 150,000 students under its umbrella.
The rest of them? As a television property, you could it take it or leave it. It was late-night filler, barely distinguishable from what the networks already have with Boise State and others in the Mountain West.
Television runs college sports. That has been true since the 1984 NCAA vs Oklahoma Board of Regents Supreme Court case where schools won the ability to sell their broadcast rights.
But it has never been more true than now.
Why are Oregon and Washington headed to the Big Ten, while Arizona, Arizona State and Utah will join Colorado in the Big 12?
In the simplest terms, it comes down to this: By stripping the Pac-12 down for parts, ESPN and Fox are going to end up getting the teams they wanted, without having to pay the teams they didn’t want.
Sorry, Stanford. Best of luck, Cal. Oregon State and Washington State? I’m sorry, who are you again?
Tradition? Geography? Academic might? Clearly, none of that stuff mattered to the schools or the TV networks pulling the strings.
Despite some clear misgivings about breaking up the Pac-12, it’s good for the Big Ten’s media partners to have Oregon-Ohio State or Washington-Michigan games on their primary networks. These are big brands, big markets and teams that are typically ranked in the Top 25, which means several million viewers every Saturday.
The same goes for the Big 12, which will span four time zones, offer in-state blood feuds (Brigham Young-Utah, anyone?), as well as bring more must-see hoops matchups to the table when Arizona plays Kansas, Baylor and the rest.
None of this is a coincidence. None of it happened because schools want to be in 16- or 18-member leagues that require thousands of miles of travel.
But it is what the constant need for more television money has wrought, and that should terrify everyone about the long-term future of college sports.
Sure, Stanford hasn’t been good in football for a few years but we are talking about one of the most renowned universities in the world with national championship-winning programs in a ton of Olympic sports. You’re telling me they don’t have a place anymore at the big boy table?
Cal has been a picture of athletics mismanagement, but it’s the flagship of the best public university system in the country located in the Bay Area for goodness sakes. They’re now in the minor leagues?
Oregon State and Washington State may be more remote geographically, but those schools have real fan bases, have made real investments in sports and added a lot of texture to what the Pac-12 used to be. Why are they suddenly kicked out of the club while the likes of Rutgers, Northwestern, Vanderbilt and so many others remain in?
It’s not only nonsensical, it’s diabolical. And if you’re not one of the top 30 or 40 programs, it should be frightening.
Think carefully about what just happened. Instead of staying in a Pac-12 that they could have dominated while having most of their games broadcast in the streaming Apple TV service, Oregon and Washington have chosen instead to join a far-flung conference where they will initially receive less than a full share of the media rights that the likes of Purdue and Minnesota will be making.
And given that there’s no major upside here for the other Big Ten schools to add two more good programs that make competition tougher and travel more difficult, it strains credulity to think they did it without the blessing and perhaps even a nudge from their TV partners.
It is probably going to prove good business for Fox and ESPN to fill their college football programming slots with more of the elite brands while having one less conference to worry about.
That’s what they pulled off this time. What might they have up their sleeve for the next go-round? When the SEC comes up for bid at the beginning of the next decade, are they going to want to continue paying Mississippi State and Missouri the same as Georgia and Alabama? Or, presented the other way, will Georgia and Alabama want to share with those schools when they might have a chance to partner with even bigger brands that can help land an even bigger TV deal?
Unless Congress or college presidents put a stop to this, there’s going to be no end to this consolidation of money and power. Every decade when these media deals come up for renewal, institutions that have spent hundreds of millions to compete at the highest level are going to be on the chopping block. Even century-old conferences aren’t immune.
It may not be the future that the stakeholders of college sports say they want. But as long as the TV networks are in charge, it’s what they are going to get.
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