The Pac-12 once puffed itself up as the “Conference of Champions.”
Now, it’s the “Conference of Teams Trying to Get By With Less.”
And if the league’s current slump, on and off its fields and its courts and its studios and its headquarters, continues, that first title could become nothing more than a self-inflicted parody. A parody with a punchline drawing laughs from nobody at Utah or USC or Arizona State or Stanford or Washington. Of all the Power Five leagues, the Pac-12 is lagging behind in areas that matter most in modern college sports, foremost among them, money.
All of which combines to make it the weakest of the power leagues.
As Dennis Dodd, a respected national college sports voice, recently wrote in a column for cbssports.com, and later substantiated in an interview, if the Pac-12’s woes go on, the P5 could be reduced to the P4, with you know who being left behind. “If this was a country club,” Dodd wrote, “the Pac-12 would be in danger of losing its membership.”
The reasons are profound and troubling to administrators at the league’s schools, part of them being the schools’ own fault.
Let’s start with results in the major sports, especially the major sport — football. The Pac-12 hasn’t had a national champion in 14 years. A whole lot has happened on the college football landscape over that significant period of time, and one league in particular has been absent. And then, last season, Pac-12 teams had one of the worst bowl seasons any league could ever have. They won a grand total of one game — the Utes’ victory over West Virginia in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. The other teams?
USC lost to Ohio State, UCLA lost to Kansas State, Washington lost to Penn State, Stanford lost to TCU, Washington State lost to Michigan State, Arizona State lost to North Carolina State, Oregon lost to Boise State, Arizona lost to Purdue. Add up the differential, and the Pac-12 schools lost by 82 points.
When Utah joined the Pac-12, did anybody think there would be a year when it was the only school to uphold the league’s once-proud football prowess in the postseason?
Basketball in 2017-18 wasn’t any better. All the Pac-12 teams were eliminated in the NCAA Tournament before the second round, Arizona losing to Buffalo, and UCLA and Arizona State not even making it to the first round, both being knocked out in First Four games. USC, the league’s second-place team, was left out of the tournament completely, causing its coach, Andy Enfield, to say the selection committee “discredited” the Trojans’ “entire league schedule.”
Making matters worse were the league’s off-the-court woes, including USC and Arizona being implicated in an FBI probe into illegal recruiting.
Tough, tough times.
But it’s bigger than just that.
The Pac-12 is bringing up the rear in money generated for its schools, much of that deficit coming on account of the Pac-12 Networks’ structure not being as profitable as other P5 conference’s setups. It’s not as though the league is destitute, it did generate just over $500 million in payouts for its teams. But in the comparative sense, the league average of $30.9 million paid out was more than $10 million less per school than what SEC schools received.
None of that is lost on league presidents and athletic directors, who are reaching a point of great concern over the deficit.
“The gap between us and the other [leagues] continues to grow,” Arizona State AD Ray Anderson told Dodd. “We’ll be competitively disadvantaged even more so. That’s real money in terms of being able to compete, support facilities, support coaches and support programs.”
Said Washington State president Kirk Schulz: “The Pac-12 schools have got to be competitive with the ACC, the SEC and the Big Ten and Big 12, and we’re falling behind.”
Utah athletic director Chris Hill repeatedly has voiced his concerns over the conference’s revenue streams, relative to other leagues.
“I’m fairly critical of the Pac-12 organization,” Dodd quoted Cal chancellor Carol Christ as saying.
Looking back, it’s easy to determine the Pac-12 should have found a partner with which to build its networks and share its costs. It effectively did not and has not. Furthermore, anybody know whatever happened to the deal between the league and DirectTV?
“No one is satisfied with the [revenue] production of the Pac-12 Network,” Anderson said.
Dodd reported that the league gives out only 73 percent of its annual revenue to schools, while the other P5 leagues distribute more than 90 percent, a margin that Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who, by the way, is the highest paid ($4.8 million) commissioner of all the commissioners of all the conferences, attributes to an issue of accounting, but it’s pretty simple. Because it owns the Pac-12 Network, the league’s overhead is simply higher than its Power 5 peers.
It’s hard to say exactly when — or if, or how — the Pac-12 will be in a position to close the gap, financial and competitive, with the other power leagues. in a well-run consortium of schools, the money and the winning are closely associated.
Football is a key. Interest in football is key. The draw of football is key. But does any of that in the West match the absolute absorption of the game in, say, SEC and Big Ten and Big 12 country? Geography is an issue, considering that many football fans around the nation do not see, are not awake for, Pac-12 games that in other time zones start so late at night. Scheduling is something the league is addressing. Only plate tectonics — or league expansion toward the east — could rearrange the habits of football TV viewers.
There is a whole lot of recruitable talent available to Pac-12 teams, particularly in Southern California, but all around the league’s footprint. While many critics have a problem with the high salaries of coaches, those coaches — there are five new ones in the conference now — are central to building programs that win, that draw the eyeballs of viewers, that change the national perception of a league’s quality of play.
It’s a problem for the Pac-12 that observers — some of them powerful and influential — from around the country do not judge the league to be the equal of its P5 counterparts. What happened this past season did not help.
Bottom line: The Pac-12 needs more winning and more money to remedy its troubles, to keep up. Part of that burden falls on the individual schools and programs that are doing the complaining to get their competitive acts together and haul their parts of the load. It also most definitely needs better judgment and more focused vision from its leadership, highly paid as it is.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.