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When chips are down, Pac-12’s Scott chooses to look to Vegas

Sat., Dec. 24, 2011

So Larry Scott – you may know him better by his stage name, marketing magician Brandini the Magnificent – wants to move the Pac-12 basketball tournament to Las Vegas.

Say, there’s an outside-the-box idea.

Conference tournaments are stacking up in Vegas like rubes in the cab queue at the airport. The Mountain West has been more or less a fixture at member UNLV’s Thomas and Mack Center. The West Coast Conference made the bold move to the Orleans Arena in 2009 and hit the jackpot, and the WAC followed last year. Both of those conferences lusted after a neutral “destination” that would lure the tepid as well as the rabid fans.

Going on that motivation, the Big Sky Conference might want to consider moving its entire regular season there.

As commodore of the Pac-12, Brandini – er, Scott – has something of a barnacle on his boat. The league stages its tournament at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, stubbornly ignoring that the populace there is only mildly interested in UCLA and USC basketball when it’s good, indifferent the rest of the time and can’t name another Pac-12 school. Meanwhile, L.A. – despite attractions like Disneyland, Hollywood and the Slauson Cutoff – is no longer regarded as a “destination,” presumably because the only thing you can bet on there is the body count. So Staples takes on the atmosphere of a zoning hearing and, as Scott implied to Bloomberg Businessweek, “looks awful on TV.”

But he has also said that he wants “a strong collegiate atmosphere around the basketball tournament.”

That’s reassuring. To this point, it’s been hard to tell whether Scott has wanted to do anything but play footsy with Texas and mine gold by selling Acuras and Bud Lite off the sweat of college kids. Of course, by “a strong collegiate atmosphere” he could mean casual Friday on Madison Avenue, with everyone wearing Officially Licensed T-shirts.

Now, TV can help with the atmosphere stuff. The Pac-12’s new cable partner, ESPN, manufactured a moment recently at the Xavier-Cincinnati donnybrook that was way collegiate. After the game-aborting brawl was replayed for the 174th and final time, ESPN’s cameras did an end-of-telecast cutaway to well-scrubbed cheerleaders huddled in the traditional half-circle, shaking their pompoms and beaming with Stepford intensity.

Yay team! Go! Sucker punch! Win!

Even the WCC’s event in Vegas, successful as it is, hasn’t been particularly collegiate. The Orleans puts a few banners up over the blackjack tables, but there are no tent cities or retired jerseys in the rafters or the raucous environment that screams “college sports.” In other words, it’s like every other conference tournament: a money-making enterprise that has no necessary competitive purpose.

So what’s wrong with the Pac-12 taking its show to the MGM Grand?

Well, nothing, as far as that goes.

Except that as a purported eminence in the college athletic world, the Pac-12 is coming off a little desperate. Scott would see it as solving a marketing problem, but in fact he’s running away from it.

What does it say when you can’t sell the game within your own geographic footprint, or won’t try?

Actually, the Pac-12 has markets eager to give it a shot – Seattle and Salt Lake City for starters. But there seems to be the notion that rotating sites is minor league, though the ACC’s playoff has been to five venues in the last seven years.

The problem is the product.

Surely you know of the Pac-12’s woes this season. No ranked teams. No victories over ranked teams. Twenty losses to teams with an RPI of 100 or worse. The marquee wins? Try Cal over Denver (26) or Stanford over Colorado State (44).

Nothing spelled calamity quite like preseason favorite UCLA’s pratfall out of the gate, with losses to Loyola Marymount and Middle Tennessee and coach Ben Howland’s indecisive dance with ill-behaved forward Reeves Nelson, who finally got the boot.

Hey, it happens. SEC teams have lost this year to Austin Peay, Elon and Coastal Carolina. But they’re also 26-21 against the five other BCS conferences. The Pac-12 is 10-19, and 3-10 against the Mountain West.

But this isn’t simply about current events. The Pac-12 loves to trot out that “Conference of Champions” trademark, but it’s mostly the conference of tennis champions, or water polo. The last time the league ruled over March Madness was 1997. Two schools – UCLA and Arizona – have reached the Final Four in the 2000s. The Big Ten and Big East have sent five each in that time.

That tends to deflate the recent alibi of all the early defections to the NBA, as if other conferences don’t deal with the same talent drain.

The league just made some splashy football hires who figure to turn up the temperature nationally, and has facility projects under way on virtually every campus. Some of the money from that outsized TV contract had better be invested in basketball, as well, or the game will get away from the Pac-12.

Or maybe they can just take their stack to Vegas, and double down.

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