The Utah Utes are relishing Saturday's game against a Pac-10 opponent for the chance to once again prove they can compete with a team from a Bowl Championship Series conference.
But what if more was on the line than just pride? What if Utah's trip to Eugene to play Oregon was a Pac-10 conference game, with a Rose Bowl berth on the line? Can you imagine?
Many Utah fans do fantasize about their school being in the Pac-10. It seems like any time the conference and expansion are mentioned together rumors fly that Utah will leave the Mountain West Conference and its frustrating television deals behind and head for the richer pastures on the West Coast.
Speculation about Utah, and perhaps Colorado joining the Pac-10 spread earlier this month after new Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said that expansion might be an option worth exploring during a radio interview. Scott's comments caused an immediate stir, because the Pac-10's official stance, for at least a decade now, has been that it is happy with its current alignment and not interested in adding new members.
Could it really happen?
The subject, while intriguing to fans, is so sensitive in the Utah athletic department that Ute athletic director Chris Hill refused to discuss the topic, saying he "didn't want to speculate on speculation."
Hill has good reason for staying mum: There are few compelling arguments, if any, to be made for Utah not to bolt the MWC if a Pac-10 invitation is ever extended.
Despite all the accomplishments and advancements the MWC has made in recent years, it still doesn't have an automatic bid into the BCS. Nor does it have the high-profile TV deals, better bowl matchups and national prestige that come with being a part of the Pac-10.
Outwardly, at least, Utah appears to fit the conference's profile. The university is a major research institution and boasts BCS-level athletic facilities, particularly its football stadium and complex. The Utes are not in a huge television market, but the Salt Lake metro area is in the top 40 nationally, and growing. (Because of its proximity to Denver, Colorado is in a top 20 television market.)
BYU, too, has periodically been mentioned as a possible Pac-10 candidate, but might be a more difficult fit in the conference. It doesn't fit the research institution profile of the rest of the league and presents scheduling issues because the Cougars don't play on Sundays. BYU does have a more visible national profile than Utah, thanks to its large national following, owing to its LDS Church affiliation. Yet, it is hard to see the Pac-10 taking two schools from the same television market if expansion ever happens.
And expansion is still a big if. Scott said the only reason he has been talking so much about the topic is because he keeps getting asked about it. The former chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association said he wants to get acquainted with current Pac-10 members before he starts looking at others as possible expansion candidates.
"I've only been on the job 10 weeks and there is admittedly a learning curve coming from outside the conference," Scott said. "The highest priority right now is getting to know the Pac-10 where I'm working, and that will take some time. Right now I'm visiting campuses, coaches and faculty reps and getting a feel of the conference. I just want to get through the football season."
Scott has been on the job long enough to understand that expansion isn't as simple as calling up a school and asking it to join.
"Expansion isn't just about football, but every sport," he said. "There are ramifications of conference affiliations, travel costs, competitiveness across the board in all sports, academic affiliations and a whole host of issues. It's a complicated topic and it hasn't been identified for me as the top priority by the presidents."
Of more importance is getting a new TV deal for the Pac-10 that keeps pace with other major conferences. Both the basketball and football TV deals expire after the 2011-12 academic year.
According to the Orange County Register , the Pac-10 receives approximately $43-million annually to split among its 10 members from its TV contracts with Fox and ABC/ESPN. In comparison, the Big Ten received $66 million from the Big Ten Network alone in 2008 and the SEC made headlines with its $2.25 billion, 15-year deal with ESPN a year ago.
Scott may not yet be familiar with all the teams in the Pac-10, but as someone who worked hard to get the WTA more media exposure and who was hired in part for that aggressiveness, he knows all about the importance of TV contracts.
"My view is my biggest contribution I can make will be how to structure the next TV agreements," he said. "I see the importance of revenue, exposure and marketing platform of TV partners. TV partners are the most strategic partners to communicate about your athletic program. It's vital in this day and age to have that media coverage."
The Utes seem to have few concerns about actually competing in the Pac-10.
"I think our record speaks for itself," Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham said, nodding to the Utes' 6-2 record against Pac-10 teams since 2003.
However, it should be noted that Arizona State has only been an occasional Rose Bowl participant, and Arizona has yet to play in Pasadena since the two schools left the WAC and joined the Pac-10 in the late '70s. At least initially, the Utes would probably face a similar uphill climb.
But logistically, it probably could work. All of Utah's athletic programs, from soccer to basketball to volleyball, already regularly schedule Pac-10 opponents. Being in the Pac-10 would also provide a home for Utah's gymnastics program, which is independent since the MWC doesn't sponsor the sport.
Tapping into the Pac-10's wider media exposure and enhanced revenue streams would be a major reason to break away from the MWC, since bigger TV deals ultimately mean bigger budgets with which to work.
The Utes reported they netted only $1.2 million in national TV rights through the conference, according to its 2008-09 budget and are working with an overall athletic department budget of $26 million.
According to Bloomberg News , the average athletic budget in the Pac-10 is $46.6 million compared to just $25.8 million for MWC teams. Oregon's budget is $65 million for the 2009-10 season according to the Eugene Register Guard.
That's quite a budget gap, and one the Utes are likely to be stuck with as long as they remain in a non-BCS conference -- unless the system changes, or Utah is invited to join a BCS league like the Pac-10.
For that kind of opportunity, the Utes are certainly available.
New Mexico $26 million
Utah $26 million
UNLV $26.8 million
CSU $21.5 million
San Diego State $32 million
Wyoming $22.3 million
UCLA $64.5 million
Oregon State $46.0 million
California $56 million
Arizona $42 million
ASU $41 million
Washington State $30 million
Source: Bloomberg News
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Saturday, 1:30 p.m., TV: ESPN