Why did the Pac-12 die?

It's possible you don't understand exactly what happened to the conference. Here, let me help.

It appears that the Pac-12 died on Friday morning after representatives from the nine remaining members of the conference failed to reach an agreement on a new grant of media rights. It remains unclear whether this meeting took place on Zoom, Microsoft Teams or perhaps one of the six Pac-12 Network stations constructed by former administrator Larry Scott.

Born in 1915 at the Imperial Hotel in Downtown Portland, the Pacific Coast Conference had a number names and members over her 107 years. It also endured a mid-life crisis over payment to players that required a total makeover in the 1950s.

While there have been competing reports about the specifics of her final days and weeks, the cause of death is no mystery. Here, we present an explanation in gradually increasing levels of complexity.

Explain it to me like I’m … 5 years old.

The Tall Man from the Land of Tennis came to West Coast, and he used his big Ivy League words to cast a spell on the presidents of all the best schools on the West Coast. He convinced these presidents that he could build a television network from scratch, and his spell was so strong, that they continued to believe him even as half the people on the West Coast couldn’t get the Tall Man’s television network at their house. And by the time the presidents had woken up from their spell, the Tall Man from the Land of Tennis had taken $50 million from them and left the cupboard so bare that the two most important schools decided to flee the kingdom and take their television market with them.

Explain it to me like I’m … 10 years old.

You need to understand something about people from Southern California. They can be a soulless and self-interested lot. Not all of them, certainly. But enough. It’s why plastic surgery is so popular down there, and they use so much freaking water. That general lack of concern for the common good explains why USC and UCLA decided to get the best deal they could for themselves. They knew this wasn’t very neighborly, though, which is why they were super sneaky in their arrangements. They didn’t even tell the governor of the state of California that they were going to leave for the Big Ten.

Then – poof – they were gone. Vanished. And without USC and UCLA, the remaining 10 teams in the Pac-12 started looking around and thinking about themselves, too, and pretty soon everyone was gone. The moral of the story: Don’t every let yourself be surprised when people from Southern California decide to look out for themselves.

Explain it to me like I’m … a college football casual.

Over the past 20 years, the top college football conferences have aggressively expanded so they can secure more money from television networks for the right to broadcast games. In the past three years, it became an arms race between two nuclear powers.

In 2021, the SEC lured Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12, using their new broadcast deal with ESPN. Then, a year ago, the Big Ten poached USC and UCLA from the Pac-12, using a new broadcast deal with FOX.

The remaining 10 schools tried for a full year to survive the defection of the L.A. schools. However, in spite of numerous public statements to the contrary, the conference was never able to secure a broadcast deal that measured up to what the Big 12 agreed to after losing Texas and Oklahoma. When Colorado – a school that was winless last year in football -- announced it was heading back to the Big 12, the gig was up. The Pac-12 had just been dumped by the ugliest team in the conference.

Now, Washington and Oregon are expected to head to the Big Ten where they will get the Kids Meal version of that broadcast deal signed up for. Arizona is probably off to the Big 12, potentially followed by Utah and Arizona State. Washington State and Oregon State are going to get the business end of the stick.

Explain this to me like … I’m a Pac-12 sophisticate.

Well, the conference was doomed by two sins of arrogance, one of ignorance.

It was arrogant to believe that Larry Scott – the Tall Man from the Land of Tennis – could oversee the construction of a television network. All of the other conferences had a television partner in building their respective networks. Not Larry, though. No, no, no. He sold the Pac-12 on the idea of cutting out the middle man, building the network on their own. He even convinced the conference to pay him like a TV executive instead of a conference commissioner.

The big problem here was that this left the Pac-12 without the muscle to negotiate with distributors (i.e. the big cable companies). The Pac-12 never reached a deal to be carried on DirecTV, which is only the largest provider of satellite television. Now, it’s possible to blame fan enthusiasm here. Not enough consumers ditched DirecTV to make the company improve its offer to the conference. However, I would also point out that DirecTV had exclusive rights to the NFL’s Sunday Ticket package, and any conference commissioner who’s asking fans of his conference to choose the second and third-tier of college-football games over an exclusive NFL offering is guilty of business malpractice. The end result was the same: The Pac-12 wasn’t able to make as much money from its TV deals as the Big Ten and the SEC.

The Pac-12 was again arrogant in 2021, turning up its nose at the idea of merging with the Big 12 after that conference lost Oklahoma and Texas to the SEC. Now my characterization of stands in contrast to some of the reporting at the time, specifically Dennis Dodds saying the Big 12 ended the negotiations with the Pac-12 and that very well might be true. But the Big 12 was the one which started those conversations, and I believe that if the Pac-12 had been more receptive – or even more respectful – of the idea of a merger it could have happened.

Instead, the Pac-12 showed the same snootiness that has led it to consistently turn up its nose at Boise State even as it flirted with schools like SMU. The Pac-12 decided it didn’t need to extend a lifeline to the Big 12 without ever pausing to consider the possibility that if they didn’t, they might be vulnerable to losing their two tent-pole programs just as the Big 12 had.

The final mistake – the one that put the Pac-12 on the path that has led to its extinction – was one of ignorance. It didn’t have any idea that USC and UCLA were preparing to bolt. If it had, it would have done something to let the governor of California know. Instead, Gavin Newsom read about the deal in the paper. He repeated that statement during a television interview, “I read about it,” and for all the effort that commissioner George Kliavkoff and other politicians put into unplugging UCLA’s departure, the cows were already out of the barn at that point.

Now, it’s possible the Pac-12 could have survived in some reduced form even after losing USC and UCLA. If the pay-television industry wasn’t showing signs of a financial apocalypse … if the conference’s fan base wasn’t so spread out geographically … if the fans were as passionate as they are in the SEC. All of those things might have staved off the reality for another cycle, but the truth is that the Pac-12’s run as one of the nation’s premier conferences has been withering for more than a decade now to the point it couldn’t survive the combination of arrogance and ignorance it has continued to exhibit.

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