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For exactly a century if you were a fan of USC’s football team your dream scenario would be to be successful enough to win a conference championship from among schools exclusively located in the Pacific time zone and potentially play on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl, a game that eventually grew in national prominence as to be the showcase for college football, bridging the first sunset of a year to a massive audience playing for bragging rights against the visiting champion from a Midwest-centric conference, the Big Ten. The game became renowned as “the granddaddy of them all”.
Well, sadly, even the most beloved granddaddies eventually die. And yesterday, the Rose Bowl, and indeed the Pac-12 conference, effectively met their demises, at least as nationally prominent entities in college athletics, when it was learned USC and UCLA will join the Big Ten conference effective summer, 2024. Yes, there will be a better chance SC will face Michigan or THE Ohio State University in the conference championship game than the Rose Bowl. Yes, UCLA will look to rise to college basketball prominence in a conference that sent nine of its current 14 teams to the NCAA tournament this past spring. And yes, that’s a conference whose name has been a misnomer since 1990, when it expanded to 11 teams by adding what at the time was a prominent independent with strong football ties, Penn State.
For the Los Angeles-based schools though, it was a simple matter. Evolve or die. And in college sports there are two driving factors that are superceding all else these days–media rights for the games and the impact of last year’s legislaton allowing athletes the potential for personal earnings to name/image/likeness. At stake are hundreds of millions of dollars from the likes of ESPN and Fox and tens of millions for the talent that will drive some of the value and that, as a matter of course, will constantly need to be replenished–unlike pro sports, no one of consequence plays for more than four years and the best frequently for less than that.
The Pac-12 was limited at best to fight these battles, and on the media front had displayed a consistent pattern of bad decision-making. In 2006 the Big Ten announced an alliance with FOX Sports to create a conference-centric network that was an outgrowth of the successful regional sports network business they were operating across the country. Though its schools were limited to a footprint that went no further east than University Park, Pennsylvania and no further west than Minneapolis, it provided a path for the maximization of exposure for sports beyond men’s basketball and football, and as assurance that even the least appealing early season football games involving cupcake competition would be able to be easily seen by a national audience. As FOX Sports founder David Hill repeatedly invoked, “sports is tribal”. An alumnus of Columbus living in Pahrump is more likely to want to see Ohio State play Ohio than most people living in Ohio.
Eventually ESPN forged similar alliances and created networks with the SEC, the ACC and the University of Texas (as well as other schools in the state). They have served each other well, creating strong revenue streams and national showcases for these schools. The Pac-12 had the opportunity to partner with FOX Sports as did the Big 10, but opted to go out on its own. The resulting Pac-12 network strategy was a consistent series of diminishing returns. They never were able to work a deal with DIRECTV during an era where its placement, particularly on the West Coast, mattered greatly. They chose to make games available on a quasi-regional sports network basis, creating multiple feeds to supplement their “national” games. They were hampered by their time zone, particularly in basketball; games they did cover frequenty running in later hours. The Pac-12 networks have continually been afterthoughts, and as the media landscape moves inexorably away from linear their longterm value proposition has diminished.
Even Texas, along with Oklahoma, is heading for the security and size of the SEC, which in turn will be moving its top-rated Saturday top game rights from CBS to ESPN. The SEC will become a 16-team mega-conference in 2025, one year after the Big 10 will itself grow to that size, now with a footprint that will literally span coast to coast, and when its own new media rights package will kick in, It is expected that FOX and ESPN will be the most aggressive bidders, with Paramount/CBS looking for a piece of the action to replace the SEC. And with a truly national footprint, it’s even possible that Apple, Amazon and Warner Discovery will have interest.
Now add the NIL layer to all of this. Schools need to demonstrate the ability for desired players to have national, or even international, appeal. Intriguingly major conferences’ emerging competition is coming not from each other but from the likes of HBCU schools that have already attracted media magnets like Deion Sanders, who was able to secure top recruit Travis Hunter to play for Jackson State beginning this fall. Black colleges and universities have exceptionally passionate alumni bases, and the popularity of these schools in social media to an audience disproportionately younger and African-American cannot be underestimated. They have a fan base not limited to geography.
And as perhaps a final reminder to the Pac-12’s missteps, one need look no further than how they handled the pandemic. The West Coast has been, and continues to be, far more cautious in regard to COVID 19. In the fall of 2020 the SEC , along with the ACC, refused to commit to giving up the season–indeed, in some smaller markets they even allowed fans into the stadiums. For a locked-down audience of passionate fans needing something live to watch and, yes, bet on, their decision to forge ahead was seen as a godsend, even among people who were disgusted by what was perceived as greed over safety. The Big 10 and Pac-12 initially planned to sit out the season. But as September forged on and it was evident that fans in their areas simply replaced the games of their favorite schools with games of those “daring” to play, they reconsidered and eventually played a limited schedule of games–and ultimately a Rose Bowl, albeit one that had to be staged (like the World Series) in Arlington, Texas. Despite significant backlash, they arguably saved their own relevance and viability. The Pac 12 was the last holdout, and the local protocols resulted in many games not being played at all. The damage was palatable. And clearly yet another underlying factor in this week’s decision.
Many of the same types of people who screamed on social media about the recklessness of UCLA playing football in a fanless Rose Bowl stadium are among the same that are crying about the fact that the Rose Bowl itself will no longer have the meaning that it has had.–or that their basketball team will be playing conference games in the dead of winter in Michigan and Illinois. Well to those people face the facts–if you want a future where you’re not Long Beach State, you needed to find a way where you can be top of mind for reasons beyond the past. John Wooden was another beloved granddaddy, but he’s gone, too.
College sports is a BUSINESS. The money at stake will help these schools grow their academic strength as well. The foundation of college fandom is based on tradition and loyalty, but the bedrock that that lies on must be paved with forward thinking. The Pac-12 simply did not do that. They’ve lost Los Angeles, and the value of the Pacific Northwest schools, with the likes of Microsoft and Nike backing them, are already sending signs that Washington and Oregon are looking elsewhere, too. They chose to refuse FOX’s–or anyone else’s–media expertise. They chose to wait until November to start playing football in 2020. Responsible? Debatable. Prudent? Hardly.
In a world where the number of teams in a conference name is merely a legacy brand, to not evolve would have been far more irresponsible than to cling to tradiiton. It won’t be easy to accept the fact that the Rose Bowl will now be effectively no more relevant than the Holiday Bowl. But here’s the good news, particularly for Trojans fans. SoFi Stadium will host this year’s NCAA championship game, and is auditioning for future years. And that’s just a train ride away from Exposition Park.