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Analysis: If Pac-12/ACC partnership doesn’t materialize, what are UW’s best realignment options?

By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The realignment scenario wheel just keeps on spinning.

After USC and UCLA agreed last week to trade 100 years of history for a financial windfall, many assumed Washington and Oregon would swiftly follow suit. The Big Ten, after all, provides (alongside the SEC) a direct path to the College Football Playoff and enough media rights money to pulverize pandemic debts.

But eight days later, an invitation has not been extended – and there’s no guarantee it ever will.

While Washington’s history, tradition and academics align with the Big Ten’s wish list, the Huskies don’t provide enough value to increase the conference’s per-school media payouts – the foremost consideration in continued expansion. Of course, if the Big Ten first reeled in Notre Dame – the biggest possible free-agent fish – the conference might then add one (or three) members to maintain even numbers.

Still, ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported Friday that Notre Dame’s preferred Pac-12 partner would not be Washington or Oregon, but Stanford – which it has played every season since 1997. Such a pairing would provide the Irish with another traditional rival while appeasing USC and UCLA, who likely prefer not to throw their West Coast recruiting rivals a lucrative lifeline.

Plus, perhaps more important: Notre Dame could wait years to make such a move, if it does so at all.

Which all makes an imminent Big Ten invite increasingly unlikely.

And yet, the Huskies still need a place to play.

Multiple entities reported this week that the Pac-12 is exploring a “loose partnership” with the ACC, hoping a shared network and creative bicoastal scheduling might raise both boats. The partnership would involve ESPN having exclusive rights to broadcast Pac-12 games via the ACC Network (or whatever its new name might be).

Per Thamel, the Pac-12 and ACC have also discussed a four-day in-season basketball tournament. A Pac-12 vs. ACC football championship game has been rumored as well.

But such an alliance is only viable if it stimulates significant additional value, which is where this prospective partnership might financially fizzle. Thamel reported that any increased media value for both conferences would likely be “marginal.” Projections will supposedly be presented to the schools next week.

So, if the Pac-12/ACC partnership dream suffers an untimely death, what are Washington’s other options?

It’s possible, though logistically haywire, that the ACC could invite the Pac-12’s most valuable programs – some combination of UW, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Cal – to join the conference and establish itself on both coasts. ACC commissioner Jim Phillips could also theoretically take it one step further, targeting Big 12 members Cincinnati, TCU, Houston, Oklahoma State or BYU as well.

Bringing UW and others onboard would provide a significant boost in inventory and expected revenue, should the ACC and ESPN renegotiate its current contract. It would also position Washington alongside some of the country’s premier media markets and provide compelling matchups with the likes of Clemson, Miami, Florida State and North Carolina.

But if that deal is reshaped – including the grant of rights agreement that ties ACC powers to the conference through 2036 – would the Big Ten or SEC promptly cherry pick those programs? Or, if the grant of rights remains in place, would Washington be willing to tether itself to the ACC and extinguish the possibility of a Big Ten payday?

These are difficult questions with uncertain answers … and that’s before we consider the potentially seismic travel concerns.

The other option, of course, is to join the Big 12 – which would welcome Washington and Oregon with open arms. The addition of UW, Oregon, Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah would bring additional value and stability to a conference that nearly crumbled this time last year – especially as its media rights agreement expires following the 2024 football season. The Big 12 could also sweeten the contractual pot by allowing for an easy exit, should the Big Ten eventually come calling.

Of course, this makeshift marriage would also come with a cost. The Big 12 can’t offer the academic standards or cultural fit of the Pac-12, nor the television markets of the ACC. Its competitive and fiscal potential, while improved with Pac-12 departees, wouldn’t rival the Big Ten or SEC.

In short, these aren’t perfect partnerships.

But they may be preferable to premier seating on a sinking ship.

Which brings us to option No. 3. It’s possible the Pac-12 – or 10 – could simply continue to exist, albeit without the all-important Los Angeles market. To agree to terms, UW and Oregon would likely demand a larger share of the revenue pot, while accepting a short-term contract which would provide the flexibility to eventually leave. The Pac-12 could also expand with programs like San Diego State, SMU, Boise State, Fresno State or UNLV, though none would bolster the conference’s bottom line.

Standing pat in the Pac-12 would allow Washington to maintain regional rivalries with Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford, while waiting for an eventual Big Ten lifeboat.

As the Pac-12 negotiates its next media rights deal with ESPN and Fox this month, the realignment wheel keeps right on spinning.

For Washington, there’s no telling where (or when) it will stop.