We’re a week in with no clue how it will end, but this much is clear: 2021 is the most important year in Pac-12 football history.
It’s the last chance for the conference to reclaim lost ground.
It’s the bridge to a more prosperous future.
It’s the moment in time when the Pac-12’s diminishing stature rams into the media rights negotiations at the heart of the conference’s future.
Those negotiations are critical to expanding football resources, increasing exposure and allowing the conference to close the revenue gap and compete on the field with its Power Five peers over the coming decades.
Those negotiations are everything for the Pac-12, and the framework will be set in 2021.
The teams must win, the conference office must execute, and the collective must work in harmony to ensure maximum valuation is attainable when the Pac-12 negotiates with ESPN, Fox, CBS, NBC, Turner, Apple, Amazon or Facebook.
Name your network, pick your distributor — they’re watching, and they know the Pac-12 is desperate for cash and eyeballs.
“2021 is an enormous season moving into those media rights deals, in terms of where the Pac-12 stands in the Power Five,’’ said Brock Huard, the FOX analyst and former Washington quarterback.
“It’s been so gloom and doom about where you stand, and rightfully so. But the one saving grace is that you can change the narrative.”
The Pac-12 hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2014 season (Oregon) or produced a playoff team since 2016 (Washington).
Its top teams have lost a barrage of marquee games on Labor Day weekend and in the New Year’s Six bowl games.
Its scheduling policies, media exposure and officiating have, at various points, served to undermine the on-field product and heaped evidence onto the “doom and gloom” narrative.
Then came 2020, and an acceleration of the irrelevance:
The Pac-12 started later than its peers, never entered the playoff discussion, didn’t produce a top-10 team and was beaten soundly in its only two bowl appearances (Colorado in the Alamo and Oregon in the Fiesta).
And on the sport’s biggest day, with ESPN devoting an entire afternoon to coverage of the playoff pairings and major bowl matchups, the Pac-12 wasn’t mentioned for the first two-and-a-half hours of the broadcast.
On the sport’s biggest day, on the industry’s most influential network, the Pac-12 essentially didn’t exist.
“That should set off fire alarms that right now you aren’t part of the national narrative,’’ Huard said.
“And the way that changes is, you’ve got to win those games.’’
The 2021 season provides ample opportunity, immediately, to change that narrative:
— Week One
LSU at UCLA
— Week Two
Texas A&M at Colorado
Oregon at Ohio State
Washington at Michigan
But for all the rocket fuel victories would provide, the Pac-12 cannot remove itself from the national stage with cannibalism in conference play.
It needs at least one playoff contender — a team that’s part of the fierce debate that engulfs the sport in November.
It needs the Los Angeles schools to be relevant, because media markets shape media negotiations.
It needs players to contend for the Heisman Trophy, fans to fill the stadiums, and top-10 matchups to draw big ratings in primetime affairs.
Because once 2021 is over, folks, it will be too late. The national narrative will be set and the Pac-12’s media rights valuation established.
The Pac-12’s current deals with ESPN and Fox run through the spring of 2024, but new agreements (or extensions) are typically signed 12-15 months in advance of the expiration date.
On the Pac-12’s timeline, that means the contracts for the next cycle will be in place by the spring of 2023, at the latest.
But the negotiations themselves take time — time for exclusive negotiating windows with current partners, time for offers on the open market, time for final bids and details and approvals.
That multi-month process is expected to begin in late 2022 or early 2023.
Except the timeline actually begins well before that point, because the conference and potential bidders must establish their strategies and set their valuation levels before sitting down at the table.
In other words: The strategy and valuation will be set before the 2022 season concludes — and perhaps before it starts.
That makes the 2021 season — and resulting momentum — critical for the conference.
“It’s directionally true that good on-the-field performance in both 2021 and 2022 will certainly remind everyone about the true media value of the Pac-12,’’ said Patrick Crakes an independent media consultant and former VP for content strategy at Fox Sports.
“That said, the core value is probably set now. We know (college football) has tremendous value, but of all the (Power Five), the Pac-12 has the most issues.”
Some are beyond its control: The time zones, the population base, the number of living alumni, the modest level of fan affinity compared to other conferences.
But some issues are very much within its control: Scheduling for success, avoiding officiating controversies, winning major intersectional games, competing for playoff berths, contending for the Heisman Trophy and producing in-season matchups that draw national attention.
We saw it all unfold, in ideal fashion for the conference, back in 2010.
That was the last season before the current media contracts were negotiated.
Oregon, LaMichael James and Chip Kelly reached the BCS title game.
Stanford, Andrew Luck and Jim Harbaugh won the Orange Bowl.
USC still carried its dynastic afterglow, generated national attention and drew big audiences.
The conference started the season with three teams in the AP top-25 and finished with two teams in the top five.
It was … relevant.
And guess what: It cashed in, to the tune of the groundbreaking $3 billion deal with ESPN and Fox.
But this time around, the Pac-12 isn’t setting the market.
It’s not the first conference to take its football inventory to the negotiating table in a new contract cycle.
The SEC just went all-in with ESPN for another $300 million annually.
The Big Ten will have a new deal in place — perhaps an all-in with Fox — by early 2022.
And sometime in the next few months, the NFL will name its price for decade-long partnerships with the major networks.
Not only is the Pac-12 following more desirable entities to the table, it’s further behind its peers competitively than ever before.
It cannot wait until the negotiations officially begin to emerge from its slumber on the field, to solve its execution problems off the field and to establish its value in the crowded marketplace.
At the convergence of irrelevance and opportunity, is 2021.
Jon Wilner can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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