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August 10, 2011
With its new teams, new (huge!) TV contract and cutting-edge coaches jockeying to reach the inaugural championship game, the Pac-12 is poised for power
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August 10, 2011

Pac-12 Preview 2011 Upward Bound

With its new teams, new (huge!) TV contract and cutting-edge coaches jockeying to reach the inaugural championship game, the Pac-12 is poised for power

O.K., WE CHECKED, AND THERE'S NO TRUTH TO THE RUMOR THAT THE YOUNG LADIES COMPOSING the Royal Court at the Rose Parade will henceforth compete for their spots in an American, Idol-style talent show to be televised exclusively on the Pac-12 Network and judged by a panel including Reggie Bush and one or more of the Kardashian sisters. Of course with all the other upgrades and upheaval overtaking the conference, you can see how such a rumor might get started. Football in the Pac-12 (né Pac-10) has been consistently cutting edge and creative. There was the precursor of the West Coast offense executed by Washington QB Sonny Sixkiller in the early 1970s followed by the Bill Walsh version at Stanford late in that decade. You had California's five-lateral kickoff return against the Cardinal in '82, followed two years later by Don (the Dawgfather) James's five-linebacker Purple Reign defense at Washington. Today there is the mind-bending, hurry-up spread offense favored by Chip Kelly at Oregon. On the field in this conference audacity and imagination have carried the day.

But for the longest time the prevailing attitude in the conference headquarters had been the opposite: staid, risk-averse, backward-looking. Before they were dead set against a playoff longtime commissioner Tom Hansen and the schools' presidents were against the BCS, because that system interfered with their ability to match the regular-season champs of the Big Ten and the Pac-10 in the Rose Bowl. As one proplayoff athletic director acidly observed to me a few years back, "We've got an entire sport being held hostage by the Tournament of Roses Parade."

While other conferences added members and split themselves into divisions in order to host highly lucrative championship games, the tradition-worshiping grandees of this conference smugly shook their heads. They would never go down such a mercenary path. They didn't need the money that badly. Until they did. By the end of the last decade it had become painfully obvious that the Pac-10 was undervalued, with a second-rate TV deal that paid schools about $9 million a year. As budget cuts sliced into their bottom lines, Hansen's bosses reconsidered their attachment to tradition, and when Hansen announced in 2008 that he would step down the next year, the conference searched for a commish who could bring it into the 21st century.

Looks like they found the right guy. Under Larry Scott, a 46-year-old Harvard graduate who'd been chairman and CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, the Pac-12 is now driving change rather than shrinking from it. You knew things would be different when, at the new guy's direction, the conference hired Creative Artists Agency (CAA) to help it "reposition its brand," as one trade publication put it, "to highlight the nexus" to L.A.'s entertainment industry and the technology markets of the Silicon Valley. It sounded like a stretch, but the truth is, Scott has sparked a renaissance.

In April 2010, at the BCS meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., the new commissioner spoke of a desire to "look at everything with a fresh set of eyes." He rifted on the Pac-10's "untapped potential" and his determination to make it "as big and as successful as it can be going forward."

Who knew he was trafficking in understatement?

About six weeks later, after poaching Colorado from the Big 12, Scott came thi-i-i-i-s close to peeling off five more teams from that conference. That would have tolled the death knell for the Big 12 even as it ushered in college football's Age of the Superconference. But Texas—the linchpin of the deal—bailed late. The deal fell through, the Big 12 survived and Scott moved to plan B, plucking Utah from the Mountain West Conference. The Pac-12 was born.

Last October the conference unveiled new, six-team divisions: the North (the Northwest schools plus Cal and Stanford) and the South (USC, UCLA, Arizona, Arizona State plus newcomers Utah and Colorado). The winners will play on Dec. 2, in the stadium of the team with the better conference record, in the first Pac-12 championship game.

Traditionalists raised objections—first the rabbit-ear antenna on my TV stops working, and now THIS!—but the move gave Scott the leverage that helped him negotiate the richest TV contract in the history of college athletics.

In a perfect storm for the Pac-12, Comcast came in high, offering $225 million a year. Then the lion laid down with the lamb: Bitter rivals ESPN and Fox came together on a bid, according to Sports Business Journal. This resulted in a windfall for the Pac-12. Starting in 2012, ESPN and Fox will pay the conference $3 billion over 12 years for the rights to football, men's basketball and other sports. It breaks down to $21 million a year per Pac-12 school.

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