Scott D. Pierce: Pac-12 on The CW or ION? Embarrassing, but could be worse.

The conference is more likely to build its fan base on broadcast or cable than by going to a streaming service.

One day soon, some University of Utah football games could air on CW affiliate KUCW-Channel 30. Or Ion affiliate KUPX-Channel 16. And that’s not the worst thing that could happen to the Utes and the rest of whoever is still in, or joins, the Pac-12.

And don’t get me wrong. Just talking to The CW and/or Ion is pretty embarrassing, and bad for the league’s image. But there seems to be a basic misunderstanding of what The CW and Ion are.

(AP Photo | Ralph Freso, File) This Aug. 29, 2019, file photo shows the PAC-12 logo at Sun Devil Stadium.

The Pac-12 TV deal

Nothing will change for the 2023 football season. USC and UCLA are still in the league, and games will air on various Fox and ESPN channels. But that deal ends next year.

There are reports that the league has talked to The CW and/or Ion. Maybe about a few games on those channels to go along with streaming deals with Amazon or Apple TV+. Or maybe the streamers have dropped out. As have, reportedly, CBS, ABC/ESPN and Fox. And, reportedly, NBC has shown no interest.

Not surprisingly, Pac-12 detractors/BYU fans/even some Utah fans are making fun of this. And some of them are making truly ignorant comments, like suggesting that The CW needs Pac-12 football as companion programming to go with “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Dawson’s Creek.”

“Buffy” and “Dawson’s” ended two decades ago, three years before The WB and UPN merged to create The CW. Duh. Although maybe these weak attempts at humor say something about how little attention most people pay to The CW. The most-watched series on the network, “Walker,” is averaging about 725,000 viewers this season.

Hey, I get that, after 11 years of Ute fans taunting Cougar fans because Utah was in a Power Five conference and BYU was not, Cougar fans are enjoying the Pac-12′s troubles. And they’re enjoying how the Big 12 commissioner seemingly outmaneuvered his Pac-12 counterpart by renewing his league’s deal with ESPN and Fox a year early, leaving the Pac-12 hanging.

Yes, the Pac-12 on The CW and Ion seem ridiculous. But they are major media outlets with wide distribution. And it’s worth remembering that a lot of us sneered when Fox outbid CBS for part of the NFL package almost three decades ago, and had to build a sports division from scratch. No, Pac-12 football is definitely not the NFL, but the comparison is not without merit.

If there’s good money to be made by signing on with The CW and Ion — a huge if — there are reasons to do so.

(The CW) Reportedly, the Pac-12 has talked to The CW about the network airing some of the league's football games.

Broadcast and cable TV is good for sports

You can argue that broadcast TV and cable no longer matter, but you’d be wrong. The behemoths of college sports, the Big Ten and the SEC, could have signed streaming deals, but they went primarily with linear (broadcast and cable) outlets — Fox, CBS and NBC for the Big Ten; ESPN/ABC for the SEC.

They did that for the money and to make a good number of their games available to pretty much everyone. ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are in almost all 121 million American homes that have a TV. ESPN is in about 74 million homes. FS1, SEC Network, Big Ten Network, ESPN2 and ESPNU are in fewer, but at least they’re where fans go looking for college football.

The Pac-12 could, perhaps, sign an all-streaming deal with Amazon or Apple. It might even be able to get $30 million-ish per team per year from a streamer, more or less matching what the Big 12 is getting. But who is going to see those games? It’s not like anyone will be flipping through channels and find a Pac-12 game on Amazon or Apple TV+. You would have to pay for the streaming service and, perhaps, pay to subscribe to Pac-12 games.

I have the same concerns about Major League Soccer’s deal with Apple TV+. Nobody who isn’t already a fan is going to pay $79 or $99 a season to see games — so how do you grow your fanbase?

If you’re already a Utah fan, streaming would be great. You can subscribe and watch games no matter where you are. The danger is that going all-streaming will shrink the Pac-12 fanbase, which is already far smaller than the SEC’s and the Big Ten’s. (And, some would argue, the Big 12′s.) And that would cost the Pac-12 money and, possibly, members when it’s time to negotiate the next deal.

Keep in mind that The CW is now 75% owned by Nexstar, a huge media company with deep pockets. It’s the biggest TV station owner in the United States, with about 200 stations that reach virtually all Americans. In Utah, Nexstar owns both CW affiliate KUCW-Channel 30 and ABC affiliate KTVX-Channel 4.

(Ion Television) Reportedly, the Pac-12 has talked to Ion about the network airing some of the league's football games.

The CW reaches about 92 million homes; most of Nexstar’s stations are ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox affiliates. It’s possible some of those stations could air Pac-12 games that are on The CW. It’s also possible that CBS-owned affiliates of The CW could refuse to air Pac-12 games, so as not to compete with CBS’s Big Ten games. Whatever the case, CW games would almost certainly be the most-distributed the Pac-12 has.

Ion isn’t as big, but its parent company, E.W. Scripps, is the ninth-largest TV station owner in the country, with 61 stations in 41 markets. In Utah, it owns Fox affiliate KSTU-Channel 13 as well as Ion outlet KUPX-Channel 16.

I realize that a lot of you aren’t sure where to find The CW or Ion over the air or on your cable or satellite systems. But how many of you had heard of TruTV before it started airing NCAA men’s basketball games? And you figured out where to find that channel.

Still … are non-fans going to find Pac-12 games on The CW and Ion? They’re not channels most sports fans are accustomed to watching.

Would signing a deal with The CW and/or Ion be a risk? Sure. Would it be embarrassing? Absolutely.

But an all-streaming deal would be worse.

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