It was supposed to be the Big 12, you know.
Not too long ago, the Big 12 looked like it could implode. But the conference, with solid leadership from commissioner Brett Yormark, managed to pull in several new schools and got past the crisis.
And the PAC-12, cursed first with Larry Scott and now led by George Kliavkoff, has not been able to keep up with the current circus called realignment.
Scott never managed to even get the PAC-12 on DirectTV, and that was damaging. And worse, the perception was that he was a vain and autocratic commissioner who was more focused on creature comforts and perks than he was on protecting the conference.
Kliavkoff came from the entertainment industry, which seemed like it could work: he knew people, understood how TV worked and that was not a bad idea.
Unfortunately, he failed too. The Apple TV play was not a bad idea but it wasn’t nearly enough to keep the conference together.
And on Friday, things seemed to blow up, then amazingly it looked as if Bill Walton’s Conference of Champions might, at the last minute, make it through the forces that have buffeted it.
Then it fell apart again and then Washington and Oregon were gone to the Big Ten, to be followed by Arizona State and Utah to the Big 12, with Arizona on the way.
That leaves the PAC-12 as less than a six pack. If we’re counting correctly, the league is down to Stanford, Cal, Oregon State and Washington State. Where will they go?
Of course it’s not the first league to be wiped out. The Southwestern Conference is long gone and the Big East fell apart in the early part of this century, as that league tried to balance basketball-focused schools with schools that had solid football programs as well.
It was never going to live as a house divided.
But the PAC-whatever seemed different.
It has long dominated the West Coast athletically. USC and UCLA were the big dogs, but Oregon has had good runs in both football and basketball, as has Washington. Stanford and Cal have a magnificent rivalry. It was glamorous.
Now, it’s all in ashes.
And while football obviously drives everything now, where does it stop? The Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 are all bloated leagues, and they’re all after big money. But ESPN is struggling and we don’t know how much Fox can put into college sports either. It might be a ridiculous amount. We just have no idea.
And the thing that has made college sports great for so long, regional rivalries, has been forgotten. Maryland can fly to Nebraska, but who cares about Terrapin football in the Cornhusker State? What happens when Utah flies to Rutgers?
It’s meaningless. It’s nothing like Duke vs. Maryland or Utah vs. BYU. Kentucky fans, we’re quite sure, would rather play Tennessee than Texas and it’s awful that the Border War between Kansas and Missouri is no more.
These conferences may go to divisions, but they cannot have anything remotely like what used to exist.
That’s true all around though. Duke and NC State now rarely play in football and often just once in basketball. That’s a loss. That’s going to be true in the Big Ten too. Oh, Michigan and Ohio State will have to play, just as Duke and UNC must play. But a lot of the other rivalries are interesting too. Duke and Clemson has occasionally been superb in basketball. Wake Forest and NC State have a wonderful football history. That rivalry is over 100 years old.
And no one cares.
A lot of the charm of college sports has been slipping away and on Friday, that accelerated. And it’s not like the future is perfect either.
As we mentioned previously, the fat contracts that everyone has been chasing may not be there much longer. Disney is even looking at selling ESPN. Fox has long been the second banana in college sports. If ESPN is in trouble, what happens to Fox?
And keep in mind that Disney is one of the big streamers. Netflix is having issues as well (none of this is helped by the strikes by the actor and screen writer unions, incidentally).
Then there is the threat that college athletes may ultimately be recognized as employees. What does that do to big budget programs? It’s hard to know yet, but D-1 football teams can use 85 scholarships. Then there are the constant rising salaries and the facility wars, leave alone travel costs of taking well over a hundred people on every football road trip.
And after you get past cord cutting and basic costs, college sports have another little-understood problem, and that’s E-Sports.
A lot of kids today don’t bother with TV at all, let alone televised sports. They’re busy gaming and, more and more often, watching gaming. On-line gaming events are drawing massive audiences. It’s a radically different form of entertainment that barely registers. But it’s there, it’s growing, and it’s going to be a serious competitor for all college sports. Pro sports too, for that matter.
So what looks smart today might not tomorrow. Take Scott, who bragged about the PAC-12 being able to control its own media destiny. That was a suicidal notion, in retrospect.
But you know who looks pretty smart now?
The Big East.
With 11 teams and minimal interest in football, the Big East is stable. The Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 aren’t likely to raid those schools. It’s a bit too spread out, but Creighton is the worst offender there, being in Omaha which makes the conference name pointless.
In general though, it’s a collection of schools that generally get along, have good rivalries and a high competitive drive.
It’s not going anywhere, and in this environment, that’s an accomplishment.