Pac-10 Makeover

September/October 2010

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Pac-10 Makeover

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes

The Pac-10 Conference went hunting for attention this summer, and the media pounced. Cutesy remarks abounded, as when an Arizona writer described the league's redesigned logo as "Extreme Makeover, Conference Edition." A Los Angeles Times columnist observed that, "In terms of noise levels, the league went from one kazoo to 50,000 vuvuzelas." As noted by the Associated Press, the conference's new, "more aggressive attitude"—its expansion campaign—was fueled by bold financial aspirations. "This isn't your grandfather's conference," commissioner Larry Scott told the New York Times.

Make no mistake about the hefty size of the business factors underpinning the publicity surge. Sure, a PR assault on New York and ESPN's Connecticut headquarters made for happy-go-lucky photo opportunities, including a shot of Scott and the 10 football coaches on the NASDAQ podium for the opening bell. But that East Coast expedition came on the heels of a head-snapping adventure in expansion, with the universities of Colorado and Utah agreeing to join the conference after more grandiose plans involving Texas and Oklahoma collapsed. What lies ahead is a conference restructuring that has Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby's full attention.

As of early August, little was resolved on the hottest issue: how to divide the 12 teams into two football divisions, enabling the conference to stage a championship game between the division leaders. Officially, the league was only "exploring the possibility" of such a game, but the value of such a marquee event and its potential TV revenue was among the big incentives for expansion.

The big hitch was working out the divisional alignments, which would dictate scheduling and how often teams play each other. Utah and Colorado don't join the competition until 2011, but press reports were rampant about immediate tension over how often teams would be scheduled against Southern Cal and UCLA. In part, that's because the road trips and media coverage for those games give the other teams a chance to showcase themselves in Los Angeles, which is rich in potential recruits.

The scheduling logistics and politics, which are dominated by football considerations but involve all the league's sports, were not expected to be completely worked out before October, when school presidents and chancellors will meet.

But no matter what eventually happens, Bowlsby says it's "inconceivable" that anything would interfere with Big Game continuing annually.

Bowlsby said he had gotten very little reaction about the expansion from Stanford coaches. And football coach Jim Harbaugh was quoted as saying his only concern was winning the conference title regardless of any expansion changes. Harbaugh also told Stanford by email during the East Coast publicity tour that "The idea that everyone thinks they have to play in L.A. every year is overstated."

The most significant financial decisions over the next couple of years will occur during negotiations for much richer TV deals. The current contracts for football have two seasons to run. After that comes the opportunity to capitalize on better TV exposure thanks to a broader base of fans (including the Denver market) and more dramatic scheduling (such as the championship football showdown). Further expansion isn't out of the question.

Bowlsby is in the forefront of conference leaders thinking creatively about potential audiences, whether through deals to sell TV rights or the possibility of starting the conference's own network. An obvious change includes being more accommodating to networks such as ESPN on the starting times of games. But he also thinks there's a global appeal for some sports—basketball, soccer, volleyball—and that "We can take that TV into the Pacific Rim and Latin America."

Denver first, Tokyo and Caracas just a bit later.

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