Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Pac-16? Let's Hope Not

Change is afoot in college sports. It probably won't surprise you to know that it's all about the big getting bigger and the rich getting richer.

There's plenty of chatter up and down the West Coast about the decision by the Pac-1o to explore expansion possibilities. Theories abound, ranging from the addition of a couple of schools to a mega-conference with 16 schools. In the latter scenario, the Pac-10 could invite Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State.

We've had a great little thing going here in the Far West. 5 pairs of natural rivals (the Arizonas, the SoCals, the Bay Areas, the Oregons, and the Washingtons). Reasonable travel costs. A perfect size, allowing for every school to face every other once a year in football and twice in basketball. Too good to last.

Much of what happens next will be driven by a nationwide game of musical chairs. The Big Ten is eager to grow its footprint. If it turns its expansion plans toward the Big 12 and that conference begins to fracture, some experts think a few Big 12 schools could be in play (thus, the 6 "refugees" in the "Pac-16" scenario above).

Make no mistake: this is all about money. The Pac-10 covets the kind of TV exposure and revenue already enjoyed by the Big Ten and the SEC. Reports indicate those conferences hand out 2 or 3 times as much to their members each year as Pac-10 schools receive.

But the Pac-10 already holds some pretty high media ground. Its current membership includes schools representing 4 of the top 15 TV markets (and 5 of the top 20 if you count Sacramento, which has historic interest in the four California Pac-10 schools). Adding new schools has to pencil out: you need enough potential media revenue to offset the added travel costs. Of those Big 12 "refugees", only Texas or maybe Texas A&M bring much to the party: both the Dallas and Houston TV markets are in the top 10. Colorado? The Oklahoma schools? Not so much.

In a perfect world, I'd be happy to see the Pac-10 stay the Pac-10. I like the conference just the way it is. But if growth is inevitable, let's hope the conference resists the urge to go long. 16 teams means two divisions, with the Arizona schools undoubtedly moving to join the new entries. That scrambles the schedule, ending the tidy annual rotation (and depriving Cal and Stanford fans of an excuse for autumn trips to Tempe and Tucson).

A Pac-12 (adding Texas and Texas A&M) is a manageable alternative with attractive media possibilities. If expansion has to happen, let's hope the conference sees the merits of taking a small bite rather than a big gulp.

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