LAS VEGAS — The Pac-12 is facing a series of momentous strategic and structural decisions this year as the college sports landscape undergoes massive transformation.
One matter will be resolved before the others.
The conference will decide within weeks whether it wants to expand — but not which schools it might add.
“We’ll have a decision in the next couple weeks about whether or not we’re looking at expansion,’’ commissioner George Kliavkoff told the Hotline. “If we do look at expansion, then it would be a process that we would go through.
“But the first decision is whether or not we want to expand.”
The Pac-12 has formed an expansion working group that features high-ranking campus officials, with each of the six travel partners represented.
Specifics have not been disclosed, but a slew of conference executives possess valuable experience in the realignment game.
For example, Washington State president Kirk Schulz held the same position at Kansas State a decade ago when Texas pondered a jump to the Pac-10 and the Big 12 almost collapsed. USC athletic director Mike Bohn was Colorado’s AD when the Buffaloes jumped from the Big 12 to the Pac-10 in 2011.
The decision to pursue expansion doesn’t require approval by the presidents and chancellors, but a three-quarters vote of the CEO Group would be necessary for formal invitations to be extended to any new members.
Kliavkoff has not specified which schools are interested in joining the Pac-12. But the list likely includes many, if not all of the universities in the Big 12, which is reeling after the departure of Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC.
However, multiple industry sources contacted by the Hotline in recent weeks believe the most likely outcome for the conference is to remain at 12.
“No schools really add value,” said a source not affiliated with the Pac-12.
Each Pac-12 athletic department will receive approximately $24 million this year from the regular-season broadcast agreements with ESPN and Fox, according to the term sheet of the Tier 1 contract obtained by the Hotline.
That figure is expected to soar when the next media rights deals are negotiated in 18-24 months.
Any new member would have to bring enough media value to increase the windfall for the existing schools and help the conference narrow the revenue gap with the Big Ten and SEC.
Without Texas and Oklahoma propping them up, none of the Big 12 universities are believed to carry enough media rights value to be worthwhile to the Pac-12.
“All the conversations I’ve had are really focused on closing the revenue gap,’’ Schulz told the Hotline recently. “That still drives a lot of the decision-making. You could pick schools that make us a 16- or 18-team conference, but the next question is, ‘OK, how does that close the revenue gap? …
“The second thing I hear a lot about is institutional fit. It’s not about a particular state. It’s more about similar styles institutionally. We have a major brand presence on the West Coast. If we add schools from different geographic regions, does that fit well?”
While Kliavkoff and his expansion advisors focus on the size of the conference, another group is diving deep into the structure of the football product.
Merton Hanks, the Pac-12’s chief of football operations, is working with all the athletic directors and head coaches to plot a strategy on several key issues:
— Whether to drop to eight conference games.
— If the division format should be continued or eliminated.
— How to tweak the conference schedule to give teams the best chance for success.
“Merton’s charge is to look at everything we decide at the conference level to optimize for College Football Playoff invitations,” Kliavkoff said. “The timeline is to have a first set of working recommendations by the end of the football season.
“Once we have recommendations, then some of them, I’m sure, we could do immediately — when we put bye weeks in for next year, as an example.
“But some of them, like whether we go to eight conference games instead of nine, may take a little longer because of obligations in our current media rights deal for how many conference games we play.”
The Pac-12 plays 54 conference games; remove one per team and the total drops to 48. ESPN and Fox assuredly would balk at a scenario in which those six openings were filled by non-conference matchups against creampuffs.
“Unless you come up with a solution that’s more attractive for TV for that ninth game,” Kliavkoff said, “you’re playing nine conference games.”
That model could change once the Pac-12’s new media rights contract begins in the fall or 2024, and there’s an obvious option that could intrigue potential media partners:
A scheduling partnership with the Big Ten and ACC that creates a series of high-profile matchups each season.
The three conferences are discussing a potential alliance in the wake of the SEC voting to add Texas and Oklahoma. According to a report in The Athletic, the alliance could be formally announced in the next week.
However, multiple industry sources have described the scheduling piece as secondary to matters of policy and governance. And no issue carries more immediacy for the tripartite alliance than a possible vote to delay expansion of the College Football Playoff until the next contract cycle.
If the 12-team format is implemented prior to the 2026 season, then ESPN would have the option to become the sole rights-holder in a non-competitive bidding process.
(ESPN’s hegemony over college football is a significant issue, as we explained last month.)
But by delaying expansion until the next contract cycle, the CFP could take all 11 games (over four rounds) to the open market and accept multiple bids, thereby driving up the price.
In addition, a postseason format that features several broadcast partners — for example: Fox and CBS and NBC — could spur each entity to pursue a deeper stake in the sport, as is the case in the NFL.
The Big Ten and Pac-12 will renegotiate their Tier 1 contracts in the next few years and would benefit from a landscape in which a slew of media companies are motivated to invest in regular-season broadcast packages.
The CFP is run by the Board of Managers, a group of 11 university presidents and chancellors representing each conference and Notre Dame.
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According to Bill Hancock, the CFP’s executive director, expansion would require a unanimous vote.
“As with any contract,” he said, “amending the CFP agreement would require the consent of all parties.”
Which means one conference could delay expansion until 2026 — if it was willing to risk alienating the other 10.
But if, for example, three conferences voted as a bloc, the situation becomes far more palatable for everyone involved.
The CFP managers are expected to meet again in late September and discuss the details and timing of expansion.
The outcome of that meeting will help guide the Pac-12’s strategic decisions currently under examination by Hanks, the coaches and the athletic directors.
“By the end of the season, we’ll have a much better sense for what that (CFP) expansion looks like and what the timeline is,’’ Kliavkoff said.
“If you’re optimizing for CFP invitations, then knowing what it’s going to look like a few years down the line is really important.”
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