Commentary: Why Ohio State’s cancellation of UW series is a bad sign for Pac-12
Feb. 16, 2023 Updated Sat., Feb. 18, 2023 at 7:58 p.m.
First things first: Ohio State’s decision to cancel its home-and-home football series with Washington in 2024 and 2025 stinks on an ethical level.
The Buckeyes breached a contract that had been in existence for six years because it no longer worked for them, tried to make it right by throwing $500,000 at UW, and then left the Huskies to sort out the multitude of problems that were suddenly thrust upon them by this decision.
Word is that UW athletic department officials were furious, and they have a right to be. It will be exceedingly difficult, if not downright impossible, to find a commensurate Power Five opponent to fill in those games. But let’s move beyond the wounded feelings, logistical nightmare and financial implication of losing these games, and address the elephant in the room.
This is an ominous development for those who fear the Huskies will eventually bolt the Pac-12 and join the exodus of Power Five teams jockeying for survival in the new world order of college football. Let’s face it, that has been an underlying issue ever since that momentous day – June 30 – when USC and UCLA decided to bolt for the Big Ten.
The remaining 10 schools in the Pac-12 have remained uneasily aligned in the ensuing eight-plus months as commissioner George Kliavkoff endeavors to negotiate a media-rights deal that will allow the conference to compete financially. But there’s always been an underlying realization that it could all unravel quickly; this is a “survival of the fittest” situation in which schools can preach conference unity but still have to have their school’s best interests at the forefront.
On the surface, the mere cancellation of two games a year down the road would hardly seem to be a tipping point for Washington. But it’s what that cancellation represents that should be worrisome for Kliavkoff and the conference.
The Huskies have to be wondering how they can be expected to compete on a national level in football – which is their stated goal – if they can’t attract marquee nonconference opponents. And Ohio State’s decision is reflective of the increasing difficulty of that task, which trickles down to recruiting and the ability to create the requisite revenue to run with the big boys.
I’ve seen numerous comments on social media that the Buckeyes “chickened out” of playing Washington. That’s far too simplistic. A school that has been in three of the past four national playoffs and annually recruits at an elite level is not going to be ducking anyone because it doesn’t think it can win.
This is more a case of it simply not being in Ohio State’s best interest any longer to fulfill this obligation – and that realization ultimately trumped the bond of a contract. With USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten in 2024, the Buckeyes face the possibility of already making a West Coast trip in ’24 and ’25 to play them (though the scheduling format of the expanded Big Ten hasn’t been revealed). To potentially make two in one season with Penn State and Michigan already locked into their schedule each year, and Texas on the docket for a nonconference game in 2025, was simply too daunting. Especially with the opportunity to now fill in the lost dates with cupcake opponents at home, where 100,000 fans will fill the Horseshoe and provide revenue far eclipsing the $500,000 “no hard feelings” fee they’re paying Washington.
That’s the Ohio State perspective. Here’s what Washington’s could well be: How in the world are we ever going to get a Big Ten or SEC school to come our way in the new landscape of college football? And how can we keep up with them if they don’t?
The Huskies’ next big-time home opponent in the nonconference is Michigan in 2028. Considering that these two teams have already played the Ann Arbor portion of this home-and-home (a decisive Wolverine victory in 2021) after having the Seattle portion canceled by COVID-19 in 2020 and rescheduled for 2028, it would take a weaselly move of epic proportions for Michigan to follow Ohio State’s lead and pull out. But you have to wonder about Washington’s home-and-home with Tennessee in 2029 and 2030, which is next in line.
This all comes against a backdrop of increasingly worrisome rumblings concerning the media-rights negotiations that are vitally critical to the Pac-12’s future.
Ten Pac-12 presidents (all except USC and UCLA) recently released a “statement of unity” regarding the ongoing talks; that was in response to speculation to what Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News termed “mounting criticism in the college sports media space over the lack of a media rights agreement, with some reports speculating that the Pac-12 could fracture.” It kind of reminded me of a “vote of confidence” a general manager gives a beleaguered coach – we’ve all seen how those work out.
The Huskies have to be wondering about the potential fallout of a subpar media deal. They have to be wondering if Kliavkoff has been outmaneuvered by the Big 12, which jumped ahead of the Pac-12 by negotiating a new deal with ESPN and FOX in November that will generate about $31.7 million annually for its members. They have to wonder about Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark’s statement to Sports Illustrated after losing Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC that he would “aggressively pursue” Big 12 expansion, and whether they will target Utah, Colorado, Arizona State and Arizona.
Mostly, they have to wonder how they will be able to carve their space on the national stage in this new world.
Yes, the expansion of the College Football Playoff to 12 teams for the 2024-25 season, with a path for inclusion for the Pac-12 champion, is enticing. But the Huskies and other remaining teams already face increasing recruiting challenges because of the perceived decline of the Pac-12, which will only intensify when USC and UCLA depart.
The Huskies just watched Ohio State poach their blue-chip quarterback recruit, Lincoln Kienholz. That’s on top of local five-star talents such as defensive lineman J.T. Tuimoloau of Eastside Catholic and wide receiver Emeka Egbuka of Steilacoom signing to play for the Buckeyes.
The opportunities for the Huskies to make their mark on the national stage, and win over the next generation of elite recruits, are shrinking, as exemplified by this Ohio State decision.
Washington athletic director Jennifer Cohen will scramble to find a replacement for the Buckeyes, but it won’t be easy. Maybe the best she can hope for is an ostensibly “neutral site” game like the one she negotiated with Auburn in 2018 after Wisconsin had pulled out of its home-and-home series four years earlier. That game, a 21-16 Husky loss to the No. 9 Tigers, was played in Atlanta – 100 miles from Auburn’s campus – without a return game in Seattle.
All of this has to be percolating in the minds of Washington’s decision-makers in the wake of the Ohio State body blow. It may not be a tipping point – but it’s certainly a sad state of affairs. And perhaps a cautionary tale.
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