If the Pac-12 crumbles amid an expiring media rights deal, don’t expect the SEC to feast on the scraps.
Sorry, Washington Huskies, you don’t fit into the SEC’s Southern tapestry. Luke Combs would struggle to fit “Seattle” into his SEC Network anthem, “South on Ya,” in which the country music star sings about gators in the water, swampy Louisiana and Arkansas hollers.
Oregon boasts a sturdy football program, but if that’s all the SEC sought, it could have roped in Oklahoma State alongside Oklahoma.
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey occasionally offers a valuable peek at his hand, and Sankey’s comments earlier this month point to the SEC’s lack of desire for table scraps, whether that be the Huskies, Ducks or any other far-flung program housed in a conference standing on tenuous footing.
Sankey jabbed at the Big Ten after it added UCLA and Southern Cal to stretch its B1G footprint from Los Angeles to Piscataway, New Jersey.
Contrast that with the SEC’s heist of Oklahoma and Texas, schools that fit the conference’s identity and enhance its already robust football brand, while increasing the SEC’s media rights appeal and boosting its strength across all sports.
“We really haven’t expanded our geographic reach,” Sankey told the SEC Network earlier this month. “Our longest trip will be from Columbia, South Carolina, to Austin, Texas. … You realize that’s actually shorter than what will be the shortest trip for the L.A. schools, when they move to the Big Ten?”
As the crow flies, just more than a thousand miles separate Columbia, South Carolina, from Austin.
That’s about 250 miles shorter than the crow’s flight from Los Angeles to Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the Huskers, the western-most Big Ten member prior to its seizure of UCLA and USC.
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Throughout the SEC’s rounds of expansion – first Arkansas and South Carolina, then Missouri and Texas A&M and finally Texas and Oklahoma – the conference invaded neighboring states or, in the case of the Longhorns, remained within its existing footprint. The additions meshed with the SEC’s well-manicured Southern identity and either maintained or enhanced the conference’s value and football profile.
In other words, the SEC isn’t interested in adding for the sake of adding. The SEC spearheads realignment with raids, rather than picking over the leftovers from crumbling leagues.
Whether the Pac-12 is a crumbling league depends on whether you believe its conference members’ unity pact, announced last week. How strong are words of alliance? Not very, if your frame of reference is the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 alliance formed in 2021. The Big Ten operated behind this smokescreen of brotherhood to plunder the Pac-12’s most prized members.
The Pac-12’s recent unity statement, in which it touted “positive conversations” with potential media rights partners, reminded me of an athletics director offering a “vote of confidence,” the kiss of death for a struggling coach who is three weeks away from a pink slip.
The Pac-12’s media rights deal ends in 2024, and schools in conferences with sunsetting deals are ripe for seizure: See the SEC’s plunder of OU and Texas. The Big 12 has since reached a new media rights deal, further limiting the Pac-12’s opportunities for media partners.
Here’s the future media rights landscape: The Big Ten will be partnered with FOX, CBS and NBC. Its deal begins July 1. NBC also remains in business with Notre Dame. The SEC is in its final year with CBS and will be hitched exclusively to the ABC/ESPN wagon starting in 2024. The Big 12, last fall, struck a new long-term deal with ESPN and FOX.
Who does that leave for the Pac-12 to negotiate with?
“Pac-12 After Dark,” may continue to fill a need for ESPN, if the price is right, but unless the conference wants to kick off all football games no sooner than 10 p.m. ET, it would need at least another partner.
Running toward a streaming-only platform like Amazon Prime or Apple TV would risk further limiting the exposure of a conference that suffers for attention.
If any remaining Pac-12 member were offered a lucrative lifeline into a sturdier conference with enviable exposure, it would be foolish to ignore the off-ramp.
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Here’s an idea for logical maneuverings, if the Pac-12 unity pact wavers:
∎ The Big Ten adds Oregon and Washington, solidifying its Pacific Coast presence. The Big Ten’s media rights pie is so lucrative it could afford to add a couple of seats at its table. The Big Ten has been willing to navigate away from its hub and break into new regions. To wit, it once hosted its conference basketball tournament in New York City. With OU and UW on board, the Big Ten would boast the nation’s largest conference at 18 teams. Growing from two to four West Coast schools would offer late-night broadcast opportunities for media rights partners.
∎ Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah state bolt for the Big 12, ensuring the Big 12’s place among the nation’s top four conferences. Colorado is a former Big 12 member, and all four schools fit the identity of a conference that tilts to the Southwest and Great Plains. The Big 12 will include BYU among its four additions in July. Restoring Utah-BYU as a conference clash would be a boon. They were previously conference brethren in the Rocky Mountain Athletic, Skyline, Western Athletic and Mountain West conferences.
∎ The Pac-12’s final leftovers, California, Stanford, Washington State and Oregon State, could link with the Mountain West to salvage a conference with clout ranking between a power conference and a Group of Five.
Sankey has spoken of college football’s need for a presence west of the Central Time Zone. Just don’t expect the SEC to become a faraway savior for schools in the floundering Pac-12.
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer.
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