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University of Washington Huskies Football

Commentary: Key to ensuring Washington State’s viability would be for lawmakers to keep UW, WSU aligned

Washington State and Washington fans mingle during the first half of the Apple Cup on Nov. 26 at Husky Stadium in Seattle. WSU cruised to a 40-13 win.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jacob Thorpe For The Spokesman-Review

Well, the Apple Cup rivalry stakes have never been higher.

On Thursday, the sporting world upended the way it always seems to these days, not with a buzzer beater or grand slam, but with a tweet.

Jon Wilner of the Mercury News published a note on Twitter that UCLA and USC plan to leave the Pac-12 and join the Big Ten, a rival conference that once represented the Midwest and will soon stretch coast to coast. Other reporters rushed to confirm Wilner’s report, and the schools made it official before dinnertime.

The announcement serves as a massive accelerant in the last decade’s creeping consolidation of schools with the richest athletic departments and the ability to command the most lucrative television contracts. Across college football, there will be a mad scramble to end this period of realignment with the “haves” who will get richer and the “have-nots” who will get poorer, and there will be fewer opportunities to change that.

Locally, it is going to create a fight between the University of Washington and Washington State, which have polar opposite interests. UW will hope to make off with the L.A. schools, using its ability to attract TV viewers to make the case that it will add to the Big Ten revenue pie more than it consumes. USC, UW and Oregon are the three Pac-12 schools with at least six games viewed by more than 4 million people in the past five years.

UW needed to apply to the Big Ten a month ago. It probably did.

Remember when the conference realignment talks first started about a decade ago?

Now that we know the formation of the Pac-12 was only staving off the inevitable departure of the West Coast’s richest schools, do we think any of them regret the years of meager Pac-12 payouts and the current position they find themselves in? I do.

There are only so many spots on the Big Ten lifeboat, and UW cannot afford to advocate for its traditional rivals. WSU, on the other hand, needs to hold its in-state partner institution close and not let it get away. Rivalry aside, WSU’s ability to align with UW and partner for conference membership (and television deals) is its most significant chit.

Here is what WSU should do. To be transparent, I don’t think it will work.

The best thing WSU can do right now is what all of us should spend more time doing: Call the legislators. WSU needs its lobbyists to put political pressure on its representatives and the governor to make it clear to the UW’s governor-appointed Board of Regents that the state’s two publicly funded institutions have a responsibility to each other, and that UW’s cozy relationship with Olympia depends on it taking care of its less-resourced partner to the east.

This happened before in the Evergreen State decades ago when the Los Angeles schools wanted to stop sharing revenue with the smaller market schools, and the Texas legislature has had to step in before and prevent UT-Austin (University of Texas, colloquially) from throwing too much of its weight around.

It has worked in the past, but probably won’t today as there is too much money at stake. UW officials will show legislators graphs showing the Big Ten’s annual per-school payout (massive) as well as the projected per-school revenue awarded in a West Coast conference minus the L.A. schools (miniscule).

The backdrop to all this money talk is the near certainty that college football programs will only get more expensive as the sport professionalizes and paying players a salary becomes inevitable.

UW will ask legislators if the state’s general fund will be making up the difference, or would the elected officials perhaps prefer a tuition raise on their constituents? And the legislators will balk. But WSU has to try.

Failing that, WSU needs to form fast friendships with the other universities likely to be left behind in this grand realignment. Not just Oregon State and Arizona, but Virginia Tech, Boston College and Iowa State need to be at the table. They need to find a way to convince the leaders of the Big Ten and SEC that somehow a 60-team superconference made up of all the members of the former Power Five conferences will somehow be more lucrative than one or two conferences consisting of all the rich ones.

That will not be an easy task, as it is pretty clear the major programs think consolidation is the road to riches.

If it sounds like I don’t think my suggestions will work, that is because I don’t. UW has one good option; WSU doesn’t have any. And that is a real shame.

Schools like WSU are woven into college football so much they can’t be excised without fundamentally changing the sport. The Cougars have played in Rose Bowls and beaten top teams. Pullman has a storied program, and at some point these TV networks may find they have destroyed the product they are trying to sell.

But for now, the wealthiest teams are off to the richest conferences. And college football is all the poorer for it.