The Pac-10 / Big 12 Merger

Most of the rumors of impending conference shifts this off season have been easy to ignore. But this week’s bombshell out of (a Yahoo company and well-respected outfit) that the Pac-10 is prepared to absorb half of the Big 12 to create a 16-team mega-conference can’t be easily dismissed. It’s an out-of-the-blue concept and obviously would totally reshape the college football world. And it’s pretty damned brilliant.

We’ll see what ultimately happens, but one thing is clear. This wouldn’t be teams joining the Pac-10; this would be a merger – the creation of a new “super conference” that has the powers of the Big 12 and all of the Pac-10 as its base.

It’s not entirely correct to compare this to a corporate merger, since a “conference” is only an entity created by its member schools. It’s a marketing alliance; a co-op. But by the same token, there’s not much equity that exists with a conference itself; its value is derived from the value of its schools and their relation to each other (rivalries, regional connections, etc.).

So there’s a simple question that can be asked of all of these “co-ops” (conferences): Is what you have now better than viable alternatives? That question can also be asked of individual schools, of course, but this Pac-10 / Big 12 thing raises it to the conference level. And this is primarily a football question, though “viable” really comes into play for other sports where concerns like geography/travel requirements are a huge factor with the number of games and lack of positive cash flow.

The SEC would be hard-pressed to find something better. This is a cohesive regional conference with intense rivalries, a long history and a wealth of quality football programs. Six of the conferences 12 schools have finished in the top 5 in the past decade, and only three schools (Vandy, Kentucky and Mississippi State) have failed to post a top-15 finish in that stretch. And, of course, there are those five national championships (plus the one Auburn deserves) since 2003. There could be room for expansion (hello, Clemson and Florida State) in a way that makes sense for the SEC, but ESPN and CBS have given the conference three billion endorsements for what it’s doing already.

The Big Ten, of course, is itching to grow its cable network. Right now it has a good geographic fit, strong traditional rivalries and a proud history. But it struggles for relevancy in the modern era. It may have a plan to cobble together a “super conference”, and the Pac-10 / Big 12 thing may help them out tremendously (I’ll get to that). Clearly the Big Ten sees a “better” alternative than the status quo.

Then there’s the ACC and the Big East, which both might just be in a heap of trouble. Neither is in a great position right now (the Big East is nearly dead already), and neither have particularly good options. Where there has been concern about the Big 12 being picked to death, there should also be concern about the ACC and Big East dying on the vine.

Well, then, what about the Pac-10 and the Big 12?

I like the Pac-10 a lot. They have been too influenced by USC this decade, but it’s really a great football conference. The root teams of the old (and I do mean old – 1915 to be exact) Pacific Coast Conference include Washington and Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA. Way before the era of college football as a national TV sport, those rivalries were raging strong. In 1935, 94,000 people watched Stanford/Cal in Stanford Stadium – Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium had 17,860 seats at the time. I loved being out at the rickety old Husky Stadium last fall for LSU’s game against Washington, and I get the sense that Pac-10 football is a lot of fun. And it’s a solid conference, with eight of its 10 teams scoring top-15 finishes in the past 10 years; plus Stanford finished 16th once. Only Arizona has failed to crack the top-20 in the past decade.

Where the conference suffers, though, is in exposure. Even with USC’s success of late, the Pac-10 struggles for national attention. A lot of that is the time zone – much of America has gone to bed before the Pac-10′s Saturday finishes, and the sports world moves on to the NFL at about 10 a.m. Eastern on Sunday. Getting bigger would help the Pac-10 get more attention.

The Big 12′s problem is a lack of cohesiveness. Cobbed together from the Big 8 and the remnants of the Southwest Conference just 14 years ago, this is a conference born of a shotgun wedding. The SWC was “every team in Texas … plus Arkansas”, while the Big 8 spanned six states across the Great Plains. Outside of Texas (SWC) vs. Oklahoma (Big 8), there’s no great rivalry that spans the two original conferences. Joining a conference with the Sooners was good for Texas, but you have to wonder how much the folks in Austin really like being add-ons to the Big 8. Frankly, the teams of the Big 12 don’t have a lot to lose in looking at ways their conference might cease to exist.

And this reported plan with the Pac-10 may just be that way. The headline, of course, is that Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and Colorado would be invited into the Pac-10. Those six teams would join Arizona and Arizona State in the “non-Pacific” division of the new super conference. Other than Colorado being sort of a bolt-on team in geographic terms and there being a hole called “New Mexico” between Arizona and Texas, that’s a pretty nice football division. It’s the Big 12 South where you swap Colorado for Baylor (which is like hitting the lottery), and you pick up a decent team in Arizona State and a could-one-day-be-decent(maybe) team in Arizona.

Then instead of rotating a few games with Nebraska and a bunch of crap schools (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri), you toss USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State, Washington and Washington State into the mix. And, presumably, the winners of each division face off in a bigger-than-anything-now (how about USC / Texas?) Championship Game.

And out on the west coast they have re-assembled all of the glory teams of the old Pacific Coast Conference into a division. Maybe in this model there are eight conference games (the Pac-10 plays nine now), you play everybody in your division and just one team on the other side. All of a sudden you’ve brought back strong regionalism and turned the new super conference into one that matters as much – if not more than – as any other conference out there.

Win, win, win and win. And win some more.

The inventory of 16 non-joke (ala Vandy, Duke, etc.) football programs playing strong sectional schedules all season plus some nice intersectional games (again, USC / Texas, Oklahoma / Cal, Okla. State / Oregon – highly watchable) capped by a huge Championship Game is the kind of thing a Fox or CBS could build entire networks around (both broadcast and cable; a turbocharged Big Ten Network). And this wouldn’t just be the Big Ten’s game of getting into as many cable markets as possible – this would be high-quality college football, and also serve the purpose of whittling down the qualifying field for BCS Championship Games; the sort-of playoff idea.

A bold, strong idea. And I like it.

Of the non-invited, Missouri and Nebraska would likely have happy new homes in the Big Ten. Kansas could also talk its way into a “Big Sixteen”. Iowa State and Baylor – who cares? Join the Mountain West or something. Kansas State is a ‘tweener – almost respectable enough to care where it goes. Hey, you could rule Conference USA!

The point is I don’t think (outside of Kansas State) any of the Big 12 schools would have a problem with a planned demise of the conference. The six that would join the Pac-10 teams should be thrilled with that plan; Missouri, Nebraska and Kansas would slide nicely into The Really Big Ten. Iowa State and Baylor are going nowhere in the Big 12; they need smaller ponds to play in.

And if it works out best for the Big 12 to dissolve, so be it.

Update: With the Pac-10 meetings underway and fallout coming from the original Rivals story, things are getting clearer – and muddier.

Apparently the creation of a “Pac-10 Network” in the mold of the Big Ten Network is a given. For its own sake, I hope the conference doesn’t think that small. The west is already isolated, and if the super conference’s focus is carriage rates for cable markets instead of national exposure, that’ll be a mistake. With 16 teams including Texas, Oklahoma, USC and Oregon, they would have an opportunity to build a powerful national brand. They shouldn’t make 77% of the U.S. population hunt for their games on specialty cable networks they may not even have. Sure, USC / Oklahoma would get on a national network, but they need to get the Oregon State (8-5) / Stanford (8-5) type of games – that was shown on Fox Sports Network last year – the kind of exposure Auburn (8-5) / Tennessee (7-6) gets – that game was on ESPN in prime time.

Likewise, the (apparently not favored) options of staying at ten teams or moving to 12 might make the Pac-10/12 a viable cable network, but it would lose the opportunity to create a powerful football brand.

But apparently the SEC is the only conference that has actually focused on growing the value of the brand – now worth $3 billion over 15 years to ESPN and CBS – instead of just growing revenue.

And Texas legislators are looking to pressure Baylor in (instead of Colorado), which would be a shame. Baylor’s political connections got it into the Big 12 when the SWC dissolved, and its yet to post a winning season in the 14 years since. Colorado has not been any better of late, but has at least posted seven winning seasons in the Big 12.

Rice, SMU, Houston and TCU (I bet they wish they could take that one back) got thrown to the side when the SWC dissolved. It’s Baylor’s turn now.

“We’re gonna force you to take Baylor” can’t be something that’s making the Pac-10 people lean harder toward the super-conference idea.

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