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Blanchette: Cougars reap raise in giant Pac-12 TV deal

Thu., May 5, 2011

The wildest thing about the Pac-12’s new TV deal and all that crazy-stupid money ESPN and Fox are paying the schools?

They’ll spend it.

Every year for an even dozen beginning in 2012, Washington State and its Pacific-12 Conference brothers and sisters will realize an average of almost $21 million apiece from a staggering deal formally announced Wednesday by commissioner Larry Scott, who should be working on commission. The net gain will be something less – in many cases, schools will have to buy back local media rights they’d sold off that now belong to the collective – and the payouts are lower in the early years of the contract. But even at that, the Cougars will see $10 million or more in the first year alone.

If it hasn’t been precisely earmarked yet, it will be. A track coach will get a raise, the crew team will get a new shell, tuition’s going up, the basketball team will charter back from Arizona, a Spielberg wannabe will be hired to shoot a new recruiting video, another fundraiser will be brought aboard, the new football facility will need an iPod in every locker. Maybe a head coach will be bought out and they’ll make it rain on his replacement.

Meanwhile, at a Pac-12 school where they’ve already bought and paid for those things, they’ll spend their windfall on something else.

But why would college athletics think to curtail its appetites when the networks are lining up to write a $3 billion check?

Restraint was not the order of the day, naturally, when Scott outlined his megadeal, the equivalent of a 12-run homer for a conference that all too recently was often a Left Coast afterthought to Mediaworld – a league where the games started too late, only USC mattered and the basketball wasn’t ACC enough or the football SEC enough.

Now it has the richest broadcast/cable rights deal of all, and will launch its own channel beginning in 2012 which will carry at least three football games a week (another bump to your cable or dish bill). Now all the conference games – football and men’s basketball – will be on TV. Even better, a bunch of them will be on ESPN and not just Fox Sports Wheredat.

“The exposure,” WSU athletic director Bill Moos said, “is almost as important as the money, for our fans and recruiting and the perception of the conference. It says a lot about the respect that folks have for the Pac-12.”

Maybe. But it says more about timing and the state of television and Scott’s savvy in exploiting the market.

As Fox Sports president Randy Freer noted, “College (programming) has been undervalued over the years.” The Pac-12 – officially, it doesn’t become that until July 1 – wound up batting cleanup behind all the other BCS conferences in the rights renewal order. Since the last Pac-10 contract seven years ago, 24-hour sports channels have become more common than HSN knockoffs. And they all have needs. ESPN lost the NHL to Comcast; Time Warner took the Lakers from Fox, which is also stuck with “As the McCourts Turn” for a baseball property.

For its payoff, the Pac-12 will play football on the odd Thursday and Friday as well as Saturday, and basketball on at least two weeknights. And the TV partners didn’t sound too jazzed about any groundswell to rotate the basketball tournament out of Los Angeles.

But the availability of so many games to viewers who have complained mightily about the old Fox contract is pretty much an unqualified win for them and the schools both. And then there’s the money.

Within a couple of years, Wazzu will have increased its $30 million annual budget 67 percent – and still not be any closer to its rivals without donor gains. And so Moos couldn’t really answer if this mother lode helps the Cougars any more than anyone else.

“But it will allow us to make sure our programs are as healthy as they can be,” he said. “I’m talking about travel, recruiting, all these things. And we’re focused, of course, on facility enhancements – to get ourselves caught up.”

Scott fairly gushed about how this contract “will save sports” that otherwise might have been cut, and even said, “If we’re able to add one sport throughout the conference as a result, that would give me more satisfaction than the money distribution.”

But don’t look for that around here. Washington A.D. Scott Woodward isn’t going to reinstate swimming, axed just a couple of years ago, and Moos isn’t bullish about adding softball.

“We’ve got so much to take care of first,” he said.

See? Seems as if the money’s already spent.

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