The Big 12 and Pac-12 will not merge. That much we know.
Still, there remain a number of plausible conference realignment scenarios that could change the face of the Pac-12 completely, setting the University of Utah on a new path.
One popular possibility reported on and bandied about since the news broke June 30 that UCLA and USC are leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten is that the Big 12 would try and poach between 4-6 schools. The most-popular grouping within those rumors has been the ‘Four Corners’ schools, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and Arizona State, which would get the Big 12 to 16 teams.
However the dust settles on this latest round of realignment, Utah is thought to be in a better, more advantageous position than a handful of other remaining Pac-12 members.
“Utah is healthy, certainly healthier than most of the rest of the Pac-12,” one league source told The Salt Lake Tribune recently. “If we’re calling Washington and Oregon the healthiest, the schools in the best spot moving forward, I would have Utah at No. 3. They’re going to be fine no matter what happens.”
So what are the strengths of Utah’s realignment resume?
Academics is not the No. 1 bullet point when discussing football, athletics, and potential realignment, but still they matter when you look at the overall health of a candidate and how that candidate may fit into a group of institutions, not all of whom may be likeminded.
For example, the Pac-12 paints itself as a collective academic heavyweight. Same with the Big Ten, but not so much with the Big 12.
In 2019, Utah joined the 65-member Association of American Universities (AAU), an organization of American research schools whose goal is to maintain a strong system of academic research and education. AAU membership is considered a gold standard of higher education in the United States.
Along with that, Utah is one of 146 schools in the United States with an “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity” designation. In layman’s terms, Utah is putting a lot of resources into research, including a lot of people conducting that research.
For what it’s worth, Utah’s U.S. News ranking of No. 99 among national universities, is higher than nine current or future Big 12 members. That group does not include BYU, which is currently No. 79.
Strong football infrastructure
In the years since it accepted an offer to join the then-Pac-10, Utah has been unafraid to spend money and lean on its donor base to help improve its facilities.
The 120,000-square foot Eccles Football Center opened in 2013 at a cost of $34 million, with $17 million of that coming from donations and new Pac-12 revenue.
A massive upgrade to the south end zone at Rice-Eccles Stadium, including upping the capacity to 51,444, was completed in time for the 2021 season at a cost of $80 million, including a $17.5 million lead gift from the Garff family. That figure represented the largest in Utah athletics history.
Most recently, the Utah Senate and House in March approved bonding for a proposed $62 million football practice facility. Assuming things remain on time, construction is tentatively scheduled to begin in July 2023, with completion slated for fall 2024.
A willingness to spend and build is one thing, the willingness to keep doing those things over a period of many years is quite another. That can’t be viewed as anything but a checkmark for Utah.
A rabid fanbase
Maybe it gets lost in times like this, when much of the realignment focus zeroes in on valuation and how much ESPN, FOX, and the like are willing to pay to broadcast the Pac-12, but it should be noted that Utah fans support this program.
By supporting this program, we mean putting fans putting their money where their mouths are. Utah football has sold out 70 consecutive games at Rice-Eccles Stadium dating back to the 2010 opener vs. the University of Pittsburgh when the Utes were still members of the Mountain West.
That sellout streak includes the 2021 season, which saw the Rice-Eccles capacity rise from 45,807 to 51,444. Across six home dates in 2021, Utah averaged 51,817 fans per game, meaning it hosted six capacity-plus crowds along its march to the Rose Bowl.
There is no reason to believe that the sellout streak will not continue for years to come. In the short term, Utah expects to sell out its six home dates for 2022, which includes a potentially-monstrous clash on Oct. 15 with USC, which could have Pac-12 championship game and College Football Playoff implications.
A burgeoning market
Any website or organization that tracks population growth among cities and states in the United States will have the state of Utah among the fastest growing in the country.
According to the most-recently available U.S. Census data, Utah grew 1.7% between 2020 and 2021, tied with Montana for the second-largest growth in the country over that time period, behind only Idaho at 2.9%.
Within Utah, South Jordan, Logan, Provo and Orem all pop up on fastest-growing cities lists. If you take a look around Salt Lake City, which grew 1.02% from 2021 to 2022, there is constant, ongoing construction of houses, condominiums, and apartment buildings.
All of the building, all of the growth, all of the new population helps equate to more people with televisions, or at least internet streaming capabilities, potentially watching sports.
To that end, according to the 2021 Nielsen Designated Market Area (DMA) rankings, which covers the 2020-21 television season, Salt Lake City had America’s 30th-largest TV market at 1,100,260 TV households. That figure was up from 2020, when the market was at 952,470 TV homes.
As far as TV markets go, Salt Lake City is not San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose, nor is it Phoenix, Seattle, or even Portland. Is the market big enough, with enough growth potential, that it will not be cast aside as realignment decisions begin to come into better focus?
We may soon find out.
Power 5 Desirability
Want to dive deeper into the numbers?
Sports Illustrated recently ranked college football’s Power Five programs “desirability” based on a number of factors: football success, academics, attendance, broadcast viewership and an all-sports ranking for each school.
Utah was tied with Virginia Tech at No. 35 (out of 69 programs), which puts it behind Washington (15) and Oregon (22) in the new Pac-12 landscape.
BYU ranked 40th, behind Kentucky and ahead of Purdue.
Here’s how the Utes and Cougars stacked up in SI’s assessment:
Football rank: 17
All sports: 42
Football rank: 50
All sports: 27
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