For a pleasant and dignified man in a collegiate athletic politburo of the powerful but generally faceless, it was eye-opening to see Tom Hansen become such a convenient punching bag in his final days as commissioner of the Pacific-10 Conference.
But in this most provincial of cultures, no fan can stand for the company his team keeps to be an afterthought nationally. A couple of hosings in the BCS shuffle, a bowl lineup with only one significant game and a basketball TV package that can’t even be accessed by a businessman in a Bay Area Marriott did not speak well of the Pac-10 – and so few lamented Hansen’s retirement. But neither did they do backflips over the announcement of his replacement, Larry Scott.
Harvard tennis player. No collegiate administrative experience. CEO of the Serena-and-Venus Association.
Voters acclaim political outsiders but rarely elect them.
So you have to admire this particular roll of the dice by the presidents of the Pac-10 schools.
“It’s obvious to everyone why I was invited in,” Scott said during a visit to Pullman and Spokane on Monday. “I have a mandate to ask why we are doing things the way we have done them.”
At the moment, asking is about all he can do. Yes, there was a pretty flare sent up last week with the report of the league being on the verge of a four-year deal to send its runner-up to the Alamo Bowl for a $3 million payday starting in 2010. It will be Scott’s pleasure to announce it, even though the groundwork began well before he signed up for direct deposit on July 1.
Otherwise, the TV contracts don’t end until 2012. The basketball tournament is stuck at Los Angeles’ Staples Center until then, too. The latest BCS horse-by-committee is with us until 2014. The current bowl tie-ups have another year to run “and we’ve got to more aggressively market the conference nationally before we can expect there will be any demand,” Scott said, meaning east of the Alamo.
In other words, for at least two more years the Pac-10 will have to live with the perception that it’s being lapped in the run for the money. The Big Ten, of course, has concocted a 25-year, $2.8 billion deal to launch its own television network; the Southeastern Conference has leveraged ESPN and CBS for a more traditional deal worth $3 billion over 15 years.
“The SEC and Big Ten have set a new bar,” Scott said. “There is a great opportunity in front of us and whatever we decide is going to be a long-term deal, but it’s a few years down the road. Certainly the Pac-10 compared to the other leagues has been significantly undervalued. But until we’re out in the marketplace, it’s hard to predict where the economy will be and what the competitive set will be in terms of networks that have college football and basketball as a priority.”
And only then will we know whether Scott will have had any success at bridging a “disconnect” that it doesn’t take a Harvard education to grasp.
“The Pac-10 gets written off when people talk about the strongest football programs in the country,” he said, “and the facts don’t support that.”
Scott is in love with the Pac-10’s unparalleled broad-based sports excellence – the old “Conference of Champions” banner – and superiority in women’s sports. And as a Harvard man should, he is thrilled that these schools are also “best in class academically, pretty special in this day and age when there’s so much pressure to win.” But he also knows that football and to a lesser extent basketball drive public perception, and he’s mystified why things like the Pac-10’s 5-0 bowl record last year and a winning record against every conference since 2000 get ignored.
“The idea that it’s USC plus nine is unfairly interpreted across the country,” he said. “Whenever USC loses in conference it’s, ‘They had a bad week,’ not, ‘Boy, does the Pac-10 have incredible depth.’
“And this is critical in both football and basketball because so much is determined subjectively. It’s not just what you do on the field or court. There’s polls and selection committees. Perception matters at the end of the day – in access, seeding, revenue and exposure. Some of the things that impact that aren’t going to change – geography, media concentration – but it doesn’t tell me there aren’t ways to overcome it. There may be non-traditional approaches – and we may just have to work harder than the next guy to tell our story.”
What a coincidence. Turns out he is the next guy.