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Pac-12 mailbag: Survival scenarios, Big 12 valuation, expansion options and more

By Jon Wilner Bay Area News Group

The Hotline mailbag is published each Friday. Due to extraordinary volume of questions this week, I selected one for each issue in order to cover as much ground as possible.Please note: Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

In your opinion, what’s more desirable for the Pac-12 athletic directors: Merging with the Big 12 or a partnership with the ACC? – @JonBernal19

What we believe at this moment could be rendered moot by developments an hour from now, but here’s our guess on the outcomes:

•The remaining 10 schools are given a compelling reason to stick together but with either expansion or a partnership with the ACC or Big 12. Likelihood: 40%

•At least eight schools merge with the Big 12 to form a western division of a super-conference. (In this scenario the Beavers and Cougars could be left behind.) Likelihood: 30%

•The remaining 10 schools are given a compelling reason to stick together without mergers, acquisitions or partnerships. Likelihood: 20%

•Six schools (Arizona, ASU, Colorado, Utah, Oregon and Washington) are poached by the Big 12, sparking the complete dissolution of the conference. Likelihood: 10%

The situation could get resolved in the next few days, but multiple sources have indicated the more likely outcome is a prolonged process – at least weeks and perhaps months.

Be mindful of the timeline:

On July 5, Pac-12 presidents and chancellors authorized commissioner George Kliavkoff to begin negotiating a media rights contract that would begin in the summer of 2024.

As current rights-holders, ESPN and Fox have an exclusive 30-day window to hammer out a deal with the conference.

If ESPN doesn’t make a sterling offer – we’re skeptical of Fox’s motivation – the bidding process would head to the open market in early August. In that case, the timeframe assuredly extends beyond 30 days.

We don’t know how it will end, but it’s clear the Pac-12 presidents want to know their options, even if it takes months.

Per a source: “I wouldn’t be surprised if they go the whole season” before the future of the conference is resolved. “There is no rush.”

What role might you see the streaming services (Amazon Prime, Apple, etc) playing in Pac-12 media negotiations? – @KaseyWebster

That is a gigantic unknown with potentially sweeping consequences for the conference. Apple feels like the best bet to seek Pac-12 content given its recent distribution deal with MLS.

But that said, MLS and the Pac-12 are entirely different properties, with disparate needs, structures and audiences.

The Big Ten is currently renegotiating its media rights. If Apple grabs a piece, that could indicate a desire to bid on the Pac-12 specifically and become more involved in college football generally.

Or it might mean absolutely nothing.

The Pac-12 isn’t exactly negotiating from a position of strength.Is standing down the best play for the Pac-12? Or should it be raiding the Big 12?– @Brant_Anderson

This question is sure to generate smirks and sarcasm from readers who believe the scenario preposterous – that all the leverage lies with the Big 12, not the Pac-12.

We’re not entirely convinced.

After all, the Big 12’s advantage stems from having nothing left of value to the SEC and Big Ten – its red meat was devoured last summer, when Texas and Oklahoma agreed to join the SEC. Now, it’s the Pac-12’s turn to get picked apart.

Being the first ship looted on the high seas doesn’t mean your remaining cargo is necessarily the most valuable.

As a media industry source said: “One just lost two teams, the other already lost two teams. It just depends on who’s wounded at any given time.”

Or as another source said when asked about media rights valuations: Both conferences “will have challenges.”

The Pac-12 owns not only the most desirable football programs of the 22 left across the two leagues, Washington and Oregon, but also the better array of media markets, at least by one measure:

– Number of Pac-12 markets with at least one million homes if San Diego State is added, per Nielsen DMAs from 2021 (with national ranking):

No. 6 Bay Area

No. 11 Phoenix

No. 12 Seattle

No. 16 Denver

No. 21 Portland

No. 27 San Diego

No. 30 Salt Lake City

– Number of Big 12 markets with at least one million homes in 2025+ configuration of the league (with national ranking):

No. 5 Dallas

No. 8 Houston

No. 17 Orlando

No. 30 Salt Lake City

It remains to be seen how the leagues are viewed by potential media partners.

The Big 12 has a clear edge in stability, but its advantage in valuation isn’t nearly as great.Shouldn’t we call them the Pac-10? – @Aztec4Life13

A reasonable question cast against both the conference’s looming reality and the current national backdrop of a Big Ten with 14 members and a Big 12 with 10 schools.

The Hotline will continue to refer to the conference as the Pac-12 because it will, in fact, have 12 members until Aug. 2, 2024, when USC and UCLA join the Big Ten.

But that’s an important piece, folks: Nothing changes competitively or financially for two years.

That’s a long time, particularly with so much uncertainty nationally. And it’s the chief reason none of the remaining 10 schools must rush through a decision on their future.What happens to the Pac-12 Networks, in your opinion? – @A_C_Taylor

This topic is fairly easy to sketch, with one of two scenarios likely to play out for the media contract cycle starting in 2024:

Either ESPN or another media company will swallow the networks, taking control of content, operations and distribution; or the networks will continue to exist as a streaming service and only show Pac-12 Olympic sports.

The football and men’s basketball content is far too valuable to remain tethered to a media company that reaches just 12 or 14 million homes.

The networks have two sports seasons left in their current form.

Is bringing on Mountain West teams, like San Diego State, Fresno State or Boise State, in the discussion? – @BuskingTeacher

Every option is being considered by the Pac-12, with expansion near the top of the list.

If that’s the chosen path, we do not foresee the conference offering membership to more than two MW schools.

San Diego State assuredly would be the first choice, given its proximity to Southern California and the San Diego media market.

If a second is desired, Fresno State makes more sense than Boise State for similar reasons.

Fresno isn’t technically within the huge Sacramento DMA, but it’s close enough that we will assume some associative benefits for the Pac-12.

Can you explain what the UC Regents could/would do to block UCLA from leaving? – @theplanetbob

I cannot.

A spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President told the Hotline the board of regents has no authority to prevent the move.

Also, we assume UCLA’s attorneys addressed the legal component before the June 30 announcement.

But the comments Thursday by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who blasted the Bruins for their lack of transparency, suggest the regents might attempt to fight the move.

No other entity in any state – hello, Texas – has been able to stop realignment.

BUT: In California politics, presumptions are for suckers.

When the dust settles, where will Cal be? – @CpaAspiring

Best guess: With Stanford, either in the reconfigured Pac-12 or the western branch of a larger conference.

Cal’s greatest asset in the realignment game is the Bay Area media market.

The Big 12 wouldn’t poach Arizona, ASU, Colorado, Utah, Washington and Oregon without tacit support from one of the major networks (Fox or ESPN).

And in our view, neither entity would want to ignore 2.6 million TV homes in the Bay Area.

A few USC pundits have mentioned that when Kliavkoff made his inaugural tour last summer, USC athletic director Mike Bohn indicated the Trojans were thinking of leaving the conference. You hearing anything similar to this? – @jacktheladd2

The Hotline cannot confirm Bohn was that explicit with Kliavkoff.

However, we believe it highly likely that USC president Carol Folt made her desires clear in the boardroom: The Trojans wanted a larger chunk of the conference’s media revenue given their outsized role in generating said revenue.

(Since 2012, the Pac-12 has employed an equal-share revenue formula.)

We also believe that Folt was asked, either by Kliavkoff or other presidents, about USC’s long-haul allegiance to the Pac-12.

Given Kliavkoff’s confidence that the collective was aligned, we can only assume he took Folt’s response to mean the Trojans were committed.

The Hotline isn’t privy to the details of those conversations, where the devil likely lurks.

Doesn’t the ACC’s grant-of-rights (GoR) agreement effectively lock Notre Dame football to being independent until 2036? – @BruinSharman

Yes and no.

The Irish are not a member of the ACC in football, which means they receive a partial share of the conference’s media rights revenue.

Our strong suspicion is the school would simply buy itself out of the GoR commitment given the massive windfall that would come with membership in the Big Ten.

Which school would be first to leave the other and sign with the Big Ten or SEC: Oregon or Washington? – @curtthedirt

Neither is headed for the SEC, sooner or later.

The Big Ten is much more realistic (and yet not all that realistic, in our opinion).

I would bet heavily that the Ducks and Huskies end up in the same place, whether that’s in the Pac-12 or Big 12 or ACC.

Viewed from the realignment lens, they carry more value as a pair than individually.

Far more intriguing is the potential separation of each school from its longtime in-state partner.

Assuming the Pac-12 survives, should the conference play neutral-site games in Los Angeles to maintain its (alumni) presence there and give coaches a chance to recruit there? Or does it need campus-anchored games more than anything else? – @MattZemek

It’s an interesting concept and one the conference will discuss, if it holds together.

The remaining school would be loath to give up precious home games, so the options for playing in Southern California might hinge on San Diego State’s presence in an expanded league.

The Aztecs might satisfy the collective’s need for a steady presence in the key recruiting area.

Another possibility: The conference could ask SDSU to play a certain number of “home” games in Los Angeles each season as a requirement for membership.

Has the Pac-12, the league itself, lost any sponsors since the L.A. schools decided to leave? – @2022SportsGuy

Not that I am aware of.

Again, the Trojans and Bruins are members for two more years.

If the Pac-10 stays intact, will there still be a Rose Bowl alliance with the Big Ten? – @kj_hop

The fate of the Rose Bowl is a fascinating subject, partly because its future form was uncertain before USC and UCLA made their moves.

Expanding the College Football Playoff to 12 teams and four rounds naturally conflicts with the Granddaddy’s desire to match the Pac-12 and Big Ten champions.

Most likely, the bowl would serve as a quarterfinal two of every three years and a semifinal the third year.

The situation is to-be-determined on several fronts.

If the Four Corner schools wanted to move to the Big 12 in 2023, could they? Are they held back by contractual obligations? – @UA_Cattracks

The schools are legally bound through the spring of 2024, when the current media rights agreement expires. To leave early, they likely would face a stiff exit penalty.

What’s more, the Pac-12’s grant-of-rights agreement would prevent the Big 12 from reaping any financial benefit during the 2023-24 fiscal year. All media rights revenue associated with the four schools would remain with the Pac-12.

If this weren’t the case, USC and UCLA would be headed to the Big Ten in 2023.

If an agreement is struck with the ACC, what do you think is needed in the agreement to strengthen the Pac-12? Obviously, the last “association” was not worth anything. – @ParsiJohn

The alliance formed in the summer of 2021 was informal. The commissioners of the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 simply “looked each other in the eye.”

If the Pac-12 and ACC create a partnership, ESPN would be the prime move and you can bet it would be contractually binding.

Whether the conference would add schools is another matter, but we assume ESPN would at least consider San Diego State and its media market.