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Pac-12 Hotline mailbag: Washington State, Oregon State could lose Power Five status if conference fractures

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

Who are your “have nots’ in the Pac-12? In other words, when all the dust settles with this next round of conference realignment, who is going to be hurt the most from their current stature? — @Shannon_Stone

Everyone should be nervous — the only school with absolutely nothing to fear, USC, is accounted for.

But the Four Corners (Arizona, ASU, Colorado and Utah) are reasonable fits in the Big 12, if needed, while Washington and Oregon are far too valuable to be cast aside.

Stanford and Cal have some appeal because of the Bay Area market, the access to Silicon Valley and their academic reputations. I’m not convinced they will land somewhere, especially Cal, but their prospects are north of grim.

Washington State and Oregon State are in serious trouble, with only two options: Remain in the reconfigured Pac-12, or lose their Power Five status.

That could mean falling into the Mountain West or tumbling into the Big Sky or a destination neither conceived nor created at this point. The situation is fluid.

But for the Cougars and Beavers, challenged like no others by finances and geography, the future is extremely fragile.

In all candor, I don’t see a home for them in the Power Five if the Pac-12 fractures.

What is the percentage chance that Washington and Oregon don’t end up in the same football conference? — @cool_brezze

Extremely unlikely.

Based on the current outlook, the only scenario in which the Huskies and Ducks separate would involve one of them jumping into the Big Ten as Notre Dame’s partner in yet another expansion move.

(We suspect the Big Ten would prefer Stanford over UW or Oregon because of its academic reputation, access to Silicon Valley money and the Bay Area market, plus the number of Big Ten alumni in Northern California.)

However, it’s far more reasonable to expect the Pacific Northwest powers to:

— Remain in the Pac-12

— Move together to the Big 12

— Move together to the ACC

— Move together to the Big Ten

How might that last scenario play out?

If the Big Ten doesn’t stop at 18 teams and instead moves to 20 or 24, it would surely consider creating a western branch and pairing the Northwest and Los Angeles schools.

USC to the Big Ten was a no-brainer. But UCLA? The administration doesn’t care about football. Los Angeles doesn’t care about UCLA football. They haven’t been a top-20 program for years. FOX got the L.A. market with USC. Why not bring Oregon into the Big Ten with USC? — @4FootballData

Several reasons, each of which is rooted in our belief that USC was the primary target, that no westward expansion would have taken place without the Trojans involved, and that the Big Ten wanted a second team to maintain even numbers.

USC surely preferred the Bruins, partly because of the schools’ shared history and alignment at the highest levels of power.

There was undoubtedly a competitive element, as well: Why push for a landscape change that would help Oregon, your chief recruiting rival? Leaving the Ducks behind undermines their efforts in Southern California.

Also, the Big Ten probably preferred UCLA because of its academic reputation and stellar basketball brand.

And don’t forget about Fox, which is the puppet master behind any major Big Ten decisions.

Network executives surely wanted to corner the nation’s No. 2 media market. Had the Bruins been left behind, ESPN could have maintained a foothold in L.A. by securing broadcast rights to the Pac-12.

How does UCLA expect to travel to Indiana, Iowa and Ohio to participate in sports since they are listed in AB-1887? — Brandon Stevens

An excellent question on the political level.

For those unaware, California Assembly Bill 1887 prohibits the use of public funds to travel to any state deemed discriminatory against the LGBT community. The University of California campuses are included in the list of agencies subject to the law.

There are 22 states on the list, including three in the Big Ten footprint: Indiana, Iowa and Ohio.

So how is UCLA, which receives state funds, permitted to travel to those states?

We asked the school that very question. Here’s the response (via email) from Scott Markley, the Bruins’ senior associate athletic director for communications:

“We have not scheduled a new competition in a banned state since the law was enacted in January 2017. Should UCLA compete or recruit in a banned state, in compliance with the law, none of the costs for travel to that state will come from state funds. In addition, if a team competes in a banned state, student-athletes and staff will receive education about the relevant California law, the law at issue in the destination state and given the choice to opt out of the travel with no risk of consequence.”

In other words, the funds supporting Big Ten travel will be organically generated by the athletic department, not funneled from central campus.

So there you have it.

Could USC and UCLA have buyer’s remorse in five to 10 years because of travel demands on student-athletes in non-revenue sports? — @JustinJYuhas

Actually, we expect some degree of buyer’s remorse for the Olympic sports in the next two years, before the Trojans and Bruins begin play in the Big Ten.

We expect all teams at both schools to charter flights, and the Big Ten will undoubtedly craft a schedule that’s as manageable as possible.

But the sheer number of competitions required for some sports will necessitate a plethora of cross-country trips and many, many nights in hotel rooms.

The schools believe the financial windfall from the move will allow them to provide resources for athletes that wouldn’t have been possible in the Pac-12.

But no amount of money can compensate for lost sleep.

I don’t foresee a substantive level of regret for football or men’s basketball. But some buyer’s remorse feels inevitable, sooner than later, for the Olympic sports.

Does Cal have a football team in five years? If it does, is it just being used to get out of debt? — @MaxRexroad

This issue is made more complicated by broader forces at work in college sports.

Before wondering if the Bears will field a team, we should address whether they will want to field a team given the likelihood of athletes eventually being declared employees or pseudo-employees.

Will Cal’s administration agree to participate in a competitive landscape where pay-for-play is legal, and unavoidable? We aren’t convinced. (Same for Stanford, by the way.)

As for the Bears’ ultimate landing spot, the chances of finding a home at the Power Five level are better than 50 percent. But it’s hardly assured — more like 60/40 than 90/10.

And yes, the financial factor is massive, not only with football revenue servicing the debt on the stadium renovation but also funding all those Olympic sports.

How different of a position would the Pac-12 be in today had a DirectTV been struck? — @nickbeatty72

We love what-if questions, and this is one of the biggest.

There isn’t an easy answer, however. A distribution deal cut years ago with DirecTV would have added an estimated $4 million in revenue annually to each school. But that’s chump change compared to the cash awaiting USC and UCLA in the Big Ten.

Also, consider the contractual element: Only by lowering its per-subscriber price could the Pac-12 have met DirecTV’s demands.

But that would have forced the conference to lower the price for other distributors due to the Most Favored Nation clause in the contract, thereby offsetting revenue gains from bringing on DirecTV.

So the real question is:

How different of a position would the Pac-12 be in today if former commissioner Larry Scott had followed a wholly different distribution strategy when launching the Pac-12 Networks?

Possibly quite different.

How desirable are the Arizona schools to the Big 12 or other conferences? Obviously, there are big numbers with the Phoenix market, but does it really mean a whole lot? And could the NCAA investigation into Arizona State play any part of decision making for conferences? — @WillsRice17

Any conference with serious interest in gobbling the Arizona schools might give a moment’s thought to ASU’s issues, but that probably wouldn’t stop the process. Realignment is a long-haul decision, while the expected NCAA sanctions are a short-term matter.

The most important factor is value.

We don’t believe the Arizona schools are significant revenue plays for the Big 12 — they don’t provide enough media rights income to increase the annual distributions for each Big 12 member.

While the Phoenix media market is huge, this isn’t 2011. The number of cable homes isn’t the prime driver of media value for a particular school; you have to move the ratings needle, too.

However, in this environment, value takes many forms. The Big 12 could very well adopt a strength-in-numbers approach: As long as new members don’t prompt a reduction in revenue, the additions are worthwhile for the bulk they provide.

In that regard, the Arizona schools, along with Utah and Colorado, could be appealing.

If an ACC/Pac-12 media partnership emerges, how do the conferences guarantee ESPN that there will still be marquee schools in their respective leagues? — @BigKahunaSkiTm

To a certain degree, you have placed the cart before the horse.

ESPN is Secretariat here. If the network sweetens the pot just enough, the marquee schools will remain in place, at least for the short term. (And in the case of the ACC, a Grant-of-Rights agreement exists until 2036.)

But there is a second step to the calculation, and it depends on Notre Dame.

If the Irish agree to join the Big Ten in the 2026 season, at the start of their next contract cycle, then we could see another round of realignment — perhaps the final round, with the FBS splitting into the long-anticipated upper and lower divisions.

Because of the potential for tumult in 2025-26, a key element in the Pac-12’s survival plan is the schools’ willingness to pledge their media rights to the collective for more than 24-36 months.

Washington and Oregon surely want the shortest contracts possible.

If the Pac-12 has to expand, what targets are actually feasible? — @KylerKregel

We addressed this topic Wednesday on the Hotline, but to summarize here:

— The conference has been without A-list options since the door closed on Texas and Oklahoma more than a decade ago.

— It passed on the B-listers (Houston, TCU and perhaps BYU) last summer.

— That leaves C-level options.

Of those, we would place San Diego State and SMU at the top — the Aztecs because of their proximity to Southern California, the Mustangs because of the foothold created in Dallas.

All other football options seemingly reside in the Mountain West, from Fresno State and UNLV to Colorado State and Boise State.

If the conference wants to add a basketball-only school, it need look no farther than Gonzaga.

Has there been any discussion about just separating football and basketball with “super leagues” and then regionalizing conferences (like it was in the past) for the rest? — @marcisenberg

The concept has been discussed, but I’m aware of no specific plans.

That said, the NCAA’s transformation process, which should be completed later this year, likely will result in far more freedom for the top football schools.

I don’t expect them to completely break away from the NCAA, but they will become mostly-autonomous entities within the umbrella of intercollegiate sports.

Had that model been in place years ago, many of the current existential challenges might have been avoided.

To have Alabama and Alabama A&M governed by the same entity is nonsensical in every respect.

Tell us your real feelings about the end of 100 years of solid relationships between the original West Coast football schools. — @dubhlinder

I knew it was coming, just not this soon.

A week later, part of me still doesn’t believe it’s real.