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Analysis: As long as Oregon and Washington stay put, the Pac-12 Conference can survive

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Commentary on the historic decision by USC and UCLA to leave the conference that has been their home since time immemorial …

Rising: Washington and Oregon’s leverage

The Hotline calls ’em like we see ’em, and we see the complete disintegration of the Pac-12 as a scenario that cannot be discounted.

To be sure, it’s not the most realistic outcome for the conference. But ignore it at your peril.

In our view, survival starts with Washington and Oregon.

Both schools have undoubtedly been attempting to gain entry into the Big Ten since Thursday morning. But according to a Hotline source, that “door is closed for the foreseeable future.”

From here, it’s clear the Big Ten’s next move is to grab Notre Dame. If the Irish are willing to end their existence as an Independent, they would need either one or three partners to accompany them into the Big Ten (for even numbers). The Huskies and Ducks might become candidates at that point, along with North Carolina.

But we don’t envision a near-term scenario in which either Northwest school is offered admission to the Big Ten without Notre Dame involved. And that could take time, perhaps years.

Also, this: Any speculation of Oregon and/or Washington joining the Big Ten presumes that USC and UCLA would support the admittance of other West Coast football programs.

For competitive purposes (i.e., recruiting), the Trojans and Bruins are better off as the only members this side of the Rockies.

So for the moment, let’s assume Washington and Oregon are without an immediate, viable path into the Big Ten.

In that state, they become “the best options” and the “tentpole programs” from the schools remaining in both the Pac-12 or the Big 12, according to a Hotline source.

Yes, that gives the Pac-12 a chance to survive, but it also confers significant leverage to the Northwest powers.

Granted, their constituents despise each other, and Phil Knight is probably still fuming that UW opted for Adidas a few years ago.

But at the administrative level (athletic directors Jen Cohen and Rob Mullens and presidents Ana Mari Cauce and Michael Schill), there are solid working relationships.

As a tandem, the schools could wield significant leverage in a restructured Pac-12 and make themselves available to the Big 12 in the event it turns aggressive.

(One year after being rebuffed by the Pac-12, the Big 12 could become the hunter.)

We’re not sure of the fit – the prospect of the Huskies and Ducks spending their Saturdays in Waco and Ames doesn’t feel right. But at this point, everything is on the table until it’s not.

It’s worth noting that Cauce, the UW president, takes over as chair of the Pac-12 board today. Would she attempt to lead the reeling conference at the same time she oversees a clandestine campaign to leave it?

Falling: Oregon’s recruiting prospects

It’s difficult to overstate the adverse impact USC and UCLA leaving the Pac-12 will have on the Ducks’ ability to continue pulling elite players out of Southern California – the same players who have fueled their rise to national prominence.

The blue-chip recruits are now much more likely to play for the L.A. schools or one of the top Big Ten programs.

That’s yet another reason why Phil Knight is undoubtedly doing whatever he can to get the Ducks into the Big Ten. His dream of a national championship just got axed at the knees.

Rising: Big 12 merger possibilities

Admittedly, everything is guesswork at this point. And an ESPN-orchestrated partnership between the Pac-12 and Big 12 seems like a distinct possibility.

Whether that takes the form of an outright merger or an alliance – a real alliance – we cannot predict.

But the 22 remaining schools will need stability and financial support that might work best within an ESPN umbrella.

Rising: ESPN’s options

The Hotline views USC and UCLA jumping to the Big Ten as Fox’s answer to Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, which has an all-in media deal with ESPN.

The networks are the grandmasters here, folks. And now both control 16-team leagues packed with blue blood football programs.

But we’re hardly convinced the SEC provides enough inventory to fill ESPN’s immense programming needs – from ABC and ESPN to ESPN2 and ESPN+.

And the available inventory in the Central, Mountain and Pacific time zones has gotten a lot cheaper of late.

This strikes us as the perfect chance for ESPN to gobble up major college football at below-market prices to secure content for every broadcast window, from 12 p.m. ET through 10:30 p.m. ET, and across all networks.

Don’t forget: ESPN needs the content, which means it needs the conferences to survive.

Falling: The notion that USC had outgrown the Pac-12

That’s like casting the arsonist as a victim of the fire.

The Trojans’ substandard play and administrative mismanagement (prior to athletic director Mike Bohn’s arrival) are one of the chief reasons the Pac-12’s brand deteriorated.

We’re not faulting USC for taking the money; nor are we ignoring the consolidation of power in major college football.

But the Trojans are in no way – none, zero, zip – a sympathetic figure in this.

Rising: Options for the Four Corners schools

USC and UCLA were the connective tissue that helped justify Pac-12 membership for Arizona and Arizona State, which joined the conference in 1978, and for Utah and Colorado, which came aboard in 2011.

Without the financial and recruiting benefits brought by affiliation with the Los Angeles schools, the motivation to remain in the conference could wane.

Don’t be surprised if, together or individually, they seek membership in the Big 12, which suddenly looks far more inviting than it did two days ago.

And within the foursome, keep a particular eye on Arizona and ASU.

Falling: Schedule sanity

The travel demands placed on USC and UCLA athletes in the Olympic sports should not be overlooked.

We cannot wait to see how the Big Ten crafts their schedules.

Will UCLA’s teams spend weeks at a time hopping from one Midwest campus to another, like the Dodgers on a long road swing?

Will USC’s teams visit Maryland one weekend, then Rutgers two weeks later?

The massive influx of cash awaiting the Trojans and Bruins – at least $100 million annually in media rights – will allow them to provide first-class resources for the athletes in all sports.

But at the same time, membership in the Big Ten could exact a significant mental and physical toll.

Falling: George Kliavkoff’s tenure

The first 364 days included a slew of major challenges but turned out to be a mere scrimmage compared to the 365th.

From our vantage point, it appeared Kliavkoff was caught off-guard by the thunderous development – as was everyone else in the conference.

Should Kliavkoff, whose tenure began July 1, 2021, have sniffed this out?

Perhaps, although that’s easier said than done – the Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby was blindsided when Texas and Oklahoma bolted for the SEC last summer.

Could Kliavkoff have done more to ensure the L.A. schools were happy?

Only he (and they) know the extent of his outreach efforts on the revenue front.

Was he dealt a difficult hand?

Absolutely. (More on that in a moment.)

Rising: San Diego State’s appeal

Without USC and UCLA in the conference, the Aztecs seemingly have more value to the reconfigured Pac-12 as a connection point to Southern California.

To be clear: We don’t expect the conference to offer membership to SDSU, but the chances, once nonexistent, are now non-zero (especially if ESPN indicates a foothold in the greater L.A. market is necessary).

Pac-12 presidents have always looked down upon the California State University schools. It might be time to rethink that approach.

Dead: The alliance (with the Big Ten)

No comment necessary.

Rising: Rose Bowl uncertainty

Just as the Pac-12’s survival is now in doubt, so, too, is the future of the storied Jan. 1 matchup with the Big Ten.

The game itself isn’t going anywhere, however.

Our best guess is that it becomes a permanent quarterfinal and semifinal host in the expanded College Football Playoff, but with no guarantee the participants will come from its traditional partners.

Like so much else, a valued piece of college football tradition will cease to exist as we know it.

Falling: Larry Scott’s legacy

While not the only reason for the departure of the L.A. schools, the former commissioner’s misguided media strategies and administration of the conference created the circumstances for the current state of affairs.

The failure of the Pac-12 Networks as a business served to depress conference revenue, undercut exposure, devalue the Pac-12 brand and prompt USC and UCLA to seek greener pastures.

What’s more, Scott’s decision to sign a 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox locked the conference into an agreement that has proved its undoing. With a shorter duration – say, eight or 10 years – the Pac-12 would have renegotiated its media rights before the Big Ten stepped to the table this spring, thereby locking USC and UCLA into an agreement.

And just three years ago, Scott turned down an offer from ESPN to take over Pac-12 Networks distribution and forge a long-term partnership on Tier 1 rights. In that scenario, the L.A. schools also stay put.

The campuses spent years suffering financially (relative to their peers) in hopes that Scott’s master plan would lead to a jackpot in 2024.

Now, the jackpot has vanished, and the suffering will only increase.

It has all been a colossal waste.

The university presidents who approved Scott’s strategy deserve blame, as well.

But the cleaving of the conference, and perhaps its eventual destruction, becomes Scott’s legacy.

Meanwhile, he pocketed close to $50 million in salary courtesy of the Pac-12 and is sipping wine overlooking a sunset somewhere.