Originally Published: August 8, 2023
There are a lot of feelings going around right now. A lot of takes. This is such a crazy time to be a fan of college football, especially of the erstwhile Pac-12, it’s gonna take a lot of space to wade through it.
I feel a little bit like I’m on an island among the thoughtful folks out there, when it comes to being excited about the Huskies joining the Big Ten. A lot of people I know and follow on Twitter are bummed, and rightfully so, I might add. I wouldn’t say it’s fun to see what’s happening here. But, it is what it is, and starting in 2024, we’re going to have a whole new league to play around in.
Death Of A Conference
It would help to start with a little bit of a breakdown. Last year, we found out that USC and UCLA were jumping ship to the Big Ten starting in 2024. This came from out of nowhere, but as we move along in this blog post, maybe we should’ve seen it coming. This came on the heels (well, a year later) of Larry Scott being ousted as Pac-12 commissioner, with George Kliavkoff replacing him. There was a modest amount of hope behind Kliavkoff when he was first hired (if for no other reason than he wasn’t Larry Fucking Scott), but apparently this thing was a snowball turning into an avalanche down the side of a mountain, and there was nothing the new commish could do to hold this bundle of loose yarn together.
There was chatter of replacing the L.A. schools with the likes of San Diego State, SMU, Fresno State, and/or Boise State, but I don’t know that any of those programs would’ve moved the needle. Substituting two of your top six programs for a couple of potential bottom-dwellers is never ideal, when you’re talking about generating fan and media excitement. On top of which, Kliavkoff was responsible for getting a new media rights deal together, with the full transparency of not having the L.A. market involved in any way, shape, or form.
As the weeks turned into months turned into years (seemingly, maybe even actually), it was becoming clear – the longer we had no deal – that this thing was going to be a nightmare for us all. I don’t know how much information the schools had during this negotiating process with various outlets, but at some point the writing was on the wall that we’d be losing Colorado to the Big-12. That indeed came to fruition recently, and so a Pac-10 became a Pac-9.
Then, not long after, word started trickling out about a deal with Apple+. More on that in a bit.
For most of the past year, we were told that the Big Ten wasn’t interested in Oregon or Washington, at least not yet. They were done expanding for now with the L.A. schools. Also, the L.A. schools didn’t want any competition on the west coast, and the rest of the Big Ten didn’t want to divide any more of their money to new interlopers. We were also told – even after Colorado jumped ship – that no one wanted to be responsible for the demise of the Pac-12. And, as recently as last Friday morning, reports were trickling out that the remaining Pac-12 teams were committed to whatever it took to keeping the conference in place.
In the end, that was a lot of posturing on both sides. Washington and Oregon joined the Big Ten. Later on, Utah and the Arizona schools joined the Big-12. That left the Pac-12 with only Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, and Washington State; a Pac-4 of leftovers nobody wants to eat.
As always, you have to return to Larry Scott as the impetus for all of this. He practically single-handedly brought down an entire conference with over a century of history!
His blunders were many, but I think you have to start with expansion. If things had gone differently with our original expansion plan, the Pac-12 (or Pac-16, rather) would still be around to this day.
It all hinged on the Texas Longhorns. There was a potential deal in place to add six teams from the Big-12 (there’s a universe out there where the Big-12 – and not the Pac-12 – would be the conference to have folded by now): Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Colorado. Can you imagine? The Pac-12 with a significant footprint in the hotbed of American football? And Colorado? If we had just knocked down the domino that was Texas, the rest of those programs would’ve followed, and things would be looking a lot different today.
The apparent sticking point was about money, of course. I believe Texas wanted a bigger slice of the media rights money pie, as well as to be allowed their own network. Since Larry Scott wasn’t a football guy, and really had no business running a college conference, he couldn’t see where this thing was headed. He balked at Texas’ demands, and in turn, Texas decided to stay put. Only Colorado made the jump, and we had to scramble to add Utah to give us an even number of teams.
Now, we know that A&M is in the SEC, and Texas & Oklahoma are headed there. Maybe that would’ve happened anyway. But, I can’t help but wonder what might’ve been if the Pac-12 asserted their leverage at that pivotal moment. Even if Texas had a bigger piece of the pie, the rising tide of all those programs would’ve lifted all boats. Instead of settling for some bullshit streaming deal contingent on adding new subscribers, we would’ve had all the big dogs barking down our door to sign the conference to huge gobs of money.
One of the other major SNAFUs was Scott’s handling of the Pac-12 Network. He fucked around with DirecTV and found out (mostly that Pac-12 fans weren’t going to switch providers, or otherwise complain enough to get them to add the network). That left a significant portion of the football-viewing public without an option to see a good number of our games.
Then, there’s just the casual mismanagement of the conference. Overpaying to have their offices in San Francisco. Scott’s extravagant spending sprees in Las Vegas. His refusal to become a significant partner with FOX early on, who opted to partner with the Big Ten instead; a partnership that lasts to this day.
Of course, you can’t absolve the school’s presidents and athletic directors, who let Larry Scott do all the things he did to run this conference into the ground. It’s insane, honestly. Scott was doing NOTHING that was in the best interests of the schools, and yet they blindly followed him into the night like he was fucking Moses or some shit. Were they hypnotized by his charisma? Were they asleep at the switch? Were they totally lied to and hoodwinked? Regardless, it was their jobs to be informed and put the conference ahead of one egomaniac’s dreams of being, I dunno, emperor of the NCAA or whatever. They dropped the ball, plain and simple.
And I don’t know if they did a whole lot better by hiring George Kliavkoff. Again, literally anyone would be better than Larry Scott, but that clearly wasn’t enough to save us.
Maybe putting blame on Kliavkoff is too harsh. It kinda feels like, by the time he was hired, this thing was beyond salvaging. But, I’m hearing there was a deal on the table with ESPN and maybe one or two others on linear television – even after USC and UCLA jumped ship – that wasn’t an ideal amount of money, but would’ve kept everyone relevant and off of streaming. And I’m hearing once he rejected it, the cable companies turned their backs on us. At that point, it was pitting streamers against each other, and with the way streaming has been going lately, that wasn’t going to end well. Maybe five years earlier, when streamers were being inundated with investment dollars to try to build up their brands. But, we’re at where we’re at with streaming, and now it’s a matter of seeing which ones manage to hang on.
That brings us to ultimately one of the biggest sources of blame: the media conglomerates themselves.
No one’s really talking about them; they kind of get a pass because “this is the world we live in.” But, they created this world, and our politicians let it happen. We also – the public at large – let it happen by voting for those rich old fucks in office, so you can’t forget about us.
I mean, at this point, you could also say we let the Pac-12 down by not giving it enough attention. By not giving those media conglomerates enough of a reason to lavish our teams with money. They go where the eyeballs go, and the Pac-12 schools didn’t have enough of them, compared to the SEC and Big Ten and even the Big-12. In spite of the fact that – at our peak – we had some of the biggest and highest rising markets in America. We’re just not rabid enough, I guess.
Ultimately, it’s a collective failure, from everyone even tangentially involved.
The Apple+ deal was what we were confronted with. It ended up being around $23-$25 million per school, with incentives based on new subscribers.
That’s less than what the Big-12 ended up signing, and considerably below what the Big Ten and SEC had already wrapped up. If we had managed to add nearly 2 million subscribers specifically geared towards a Pac-12 add-on to Apple+, that might’ve put us in range of what the Big-12 has, but who in their right mind would’ve expected that to come to fruition? We couldn’t even get that many people to abandon DirecTV for a cable entity with the Pac-12 Network, what would lead anyone to believe that would change now? Kliavkoff referenced getting to 5 million subscribers, which is what it would’ve taken to get us to that Big Ten/SEC range, and that’s just Looney Tunes.
On top of which, there was no option for us to have our games shown on linear television. That lack of visibility among the rest of the country would’ve only served to worsen our standing in the college football landscape over time. People keep talking about how all of this is headed toward streaming eventually, but I don’t believe that getting in on this ground floor was ever going to put us in a better position. If anything, we wouldl’ve just been eclipsed, whenever the streamers turned their gaze towards the bigger conferences.
The best part of the deal – as Washington’s president pointed out – was that there was a potential opt-out after three years, if and when we failed to reach those new subscription goals.
So, this was never a deal that was tenable, financially. Speaking of just Washington, we’re under a tremendous amount of debt following all the stadium and facility improvements we instituted during the Larry Scott regime. While those improvements were absolutely necessary if we wanted to compete on a national landscape, they hinged on better future television deals to help pay those off. In the absence of those deals, Washington really had no choice but to jump to another conference. And I think a lot of other schools felt the same way, no matter how much they may have wanted to keep the conference together.
I was just starting to talk myself into what Washington might have to look forward to when it came to staying in the Pac-whatever. We were going to be the Big Fish in a Small Pond, along with Oregon and Utah, when it came to football.
Of course, that hinged on the Pac being considered among the other four major conferences. As long as we had a guaranteed spot in the new College Football Playoffs, all we needed to do was take care of business and we’d at least get a seat at the table every year. With the added advantage of just waiting everything out until a more formal league was built from the embers of this one, where you had to figure we’d be one of the 30-40 programs invited to join.
But, I don’t know how realistic it would’ve been to see the Pac-9 (plus whatever newcomers we might’ve added) as a legitimate Power Five conference. Not with the inferior Apple deal. Not with our programs being overlooked every year, through the simple notion that no one east of the Rockies would ever see our games outside of bowl season. We would’ve been decisively the fifth-best conference going forward, and why would the rest of the NCAA want to cede a guaranteed spot in the College Football Playoffs every year to a team they deem to be inherently inferior?
What’s gained is exposure. What’s gained is guaranteed money (some $30+ million per year, with a massive increase the next time the Big Ten signs a media deal). What’s gained is a level of opponents that will keep us in the national conversation, even if we’re not totally perfect. We aren’t limited to one or zero losses. We just have to hang with the big boys and win when it matters most at the end. The way it should be.
What excites me about all of this is what would excite anyone: it’s something new. Starting next year, we’ll have a whole new slate of rivals. Teams among the most talked about in all of college sports. Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan State. With enough middling programs – Purdue, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, Northwestern, Illinois, Maryland, Indiana, and Rutgers – to pad out some needed victories. On top of which, three of the top Pac-12 programs that all slot within the upper half of the new mega-conference.
Before, when Washington was good, we were still an afterthought. Usually, it meant the rest of the Pac-12 was down. But, now there’s no excuse. If we beat what’s perceived as a legitimate powerhouse in the regular season – like Ohio State or Michigan – that’s going to be big news! That’s a game that should get national recognition, in a prime Saturday timeslot! Even in the biggest Pac-12 matchups before this, if we played Oregon or USC, even if we had a good timeslot, it was still a regional match, largely ignored by the rest of the country. But, they’ll have to sit and watch if we’re playing Ohio State or Michigan! That’s HUGE for us!
Those times when we’re a big fish in the Big Ten will mean so much more than when we’re a big fish in the Pac-12. That’s just the way it is.
The Bummer Of It All
I don’t think you can talk enough about how much this sucks for the leftovers. Specifically Washington State and Oregon State.
I firmly believe that the Apple Cup will live on in some capacity. It won’t be the last game of the year like it’s been for most of its run, but we’ll still have 3-4 non-conference games to play around with, so we’ll just have to accept it happening when the weather is nicer.
Simply put, nobody wants to add the Cougs or Beaves. There’s no demand for those teams outside of their respective (very small) markets. You can’t deny the fact that they’ve been along for the ride. You also can’t deny the fact that they’re far from the only ones. Who’s clamoring for Indiana games? Or Rutgers? Or the football teams of Kansas, Vanderbilt, or Syracuse? Yet, those are also all Power Five schools, simply because they got in early in their respective conferences, and now get to enjoy the spoils of this new college football landscape.
The game of college football is a lot more fun when teams like Oregon State and Washington State are good. Usually, it means high scoring, tight games to the bitter end, with heroic victories and students storming the field. But, those instances happen few and far between; not enough to build up a significant national audience, no matter how many times the Cougar flag shows up on ESPN Gameday.
Those programs are too good for the Mountain West. Yeah, I said it! But, now that it looks like they’ll have to settle for such a demotion, it’s going to come with a drastic reduction in annual compensation. Which means two teams with real potential are going to languish. And, more importantly, the rest of their sports programs are going to suffer as a result. Many of which are probably going to disappear, which is an absolute travesty of justice.
I’m less concerned about Stanford and Cal, mostly because I don’t like those schools. Also, it sounds like they wouldn’t have very much trouble going independent, especially Stanford, which has always been its own thing. Stanford has the potential to be very good or very bad, but they’re always going to be sought after based on academics alone. Cal is a lesser version of Stanford, but they still have academics going for them as well.
The ultimate tragedy of this whole thing is the history.
We’re losing over a hundred years of history. The Pac-12 (or whatever it was before) has always been one of the most important and prominent conferences in all of college football. But, in this new age – over the last two decades – its luster has softened considerably.
Since Washington’s championship in 1991, there’s been two USC championships under Pete Carroll (2003 was only an AP championship; 2004 was both AP and BCS, though the latter was later vacated), and that’s it. The closest the Pac-12 came since then was a championship game loss by the Ducks to Ohio State in 2014 by 22 points.
What’s even sadder is that a generation from now, the Pac-12 will be but a footnote in the history of college athletics. Players in the game today aren’t even old enough to remember the last time the Pac-12 was relevant. In 20 years? They’re not even going to know this was a thing that existed. That’s how quick it goes. Until whatever the next Tik Tok is comes along and some talking head tells them about the time when there were five major conferences in a thing called “college football”.
Getting older sucks, for all the reasons literally any old person will unsolicitedly tell you. It also sucks because change is hard. That’s why everyone always talks about the Good Ol’ Days. Things were always better before. How is that possible? Don’t ask, you just had to be there.
But, change is also necessary, especially when you have no control over it. The last thing anyone in sports is ever going to think about when they make their decisions is how it’ll affect the fans. Even though, ostensibly, it’s the fans that pay for the whole fucking thing. We pay by showing up to games. We pay by going to the schools we love. We pay by signing on for cable entities and streaming entitites. We pay with our eyeballs, watching those games on whatever platform they show up on. We pay with our need for memorabilia and team-affiliated merchandise. We pay with our gambling dollars. This ALL gets funnelled to the powers-that-be whose jobs aren’t to cater to us, but to shareholders and school presidents and other powerful entities who get to dictate terms. We have the money, but we have no power. And, what’s more, it’s not like we’re all going to band together and demand better. If you’re lucky enough to root for a program that’s in one of the now Power Four conferences, then tough-titty to whoever’s on the outside looking in.
I have no choice in the matter. At this point (or, at whatever point last week), it boils down to: do I want Washington to stay in a dying conference, struggling to keep its athletic programs afloat, all the while missing out on games because I don’t want to fucking sign up for God damn Apple+? Or, do I want to join a thriving conference, where we’ll get more money now, and maybe even a windfall of cash the next time the Big Ten’s media deal comes up for renewal? Do I want my team on regular television, in better timeslots, with a legitimate chance at competing for national championships?
As disappointing as it is to lose what we had, I’m sorry, but I’m firmly in the camp of Option B.
I’ll always be a Pac-12 lifer, even when it blinks out of existence. But, at some point, it’s not about the conference. I’m not going to turn into Joe Big Ten just because they’ve deigned to accept us. Fuck the Big Ten. Fuck them for poaching the L.A. Schools. Fuck them for aggravating an already decimated situation. They had a hand in this as well, and they can never be forgiven. Just like Larry Scott and George Kliavkoff and the Pac-12 presidents and the media conglomerates and everyone else sharing a slice of this blame pie.
I’ve gotta side with the best interests of Washington.
What we get, if it’s any solace at all, is one last year with the Pac-12 conference intact. Ironically, it’s probably the most relevant the Pac-12 has been in the last 20 years, not even factoring in how it’s going to dissolve at the end of the season. We have three of the top Heisman Trophy candidates in Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr., and Bo Nix. USC, Washington, Oregon, and Utah are all Top 10 calibre programs. Oregon State is also up there after a phenomenal 2022, with most of their studs returning. Deion Sanders is coaching a revamped Colorado team. Wazzu, I’m sure, will make some noise. You can’t discount UCLA, even though they appear to be in a bit of a rebuild. And, I’m sure there will be a surprise school out of what remains.
I’m going to cherish this year like you would not believe. Because starting this time next year, it all changes. Never to be the same again.