|Commissioner Larry Scott has the Pac-12 looking at China as the next frontier. (US Presswire)|
Either Mark Hollis was kidding or auditing a history class.
"Spartans vs. Trojans -- in Athens," Michigan State's AD said.
Hollis wasn't kidding about his sense for the historic. Yes, the reference is to Athens, Greece, not Georgia. Michigan State playing USC in the cradle of the ancient gods is a goal. Call it football spit-balling.
Hollis is a noted big-picture guy. It was his idea to stage basketball's Carrier Classic this season. But never has he spoken of this kind of revival of Greece -- the country, not the Broadway play -- in terms of college sports.
"You never know," Hollis said. "We may play USC in the old Olympic Stadium -- the original Olympic Stadium."
While the games stay mostly the same, 2011 taught us the way in which you consume them is going down like a shot of fine vodka: quickly, and with dizzying consequences. We enter 2012 with this round of conference realignment all but over. Increasingly, the idea -- as the likes of Hollis is showing us -- is to take that game content and repackage it.
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Those who don't, as we found out last week, are left behind. The Big Ten and Pac-12 announced a groundbreaking partnership that is based on a football challenge series to be fully implemented by 2017. Yes, it's six years away, but if you're not in those leagues you're not part of a very lucrative future.
By that time, there will be 12 Pac-12 vs. Big Ten arranged non-conference football games, part of an all-sports package basically owned by the two leagues. The conferences are adding content without all the pain created by realignment. More inventory means income and income means power conferences can be more islands unto themselves.
"It is a stroke of genius," said one rival commissioner. "I guarantee [Mike] Slive is walking around the house saying, 'That son of a bitch.' "
There is no secret about the intense rivalry between the SEC's Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. This latest move is likely to add to it. The SEC is two years into a 15-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN and CBS that was the industry standard in 2009. There are about to be a couple of new standards when the Pac-12 launches its network this year and the Big Ten signs a new rights deal after the 2015-16 academic year.
"It's a few years off, but we think about it every day," Delany said.
What does it mean for the consumer? Happy New Year, indeed.
Everything you watch and hear is about to be new in the second decade of the 21st century. Games are increasingly available on tablets, phones and personal digital devices. They're small reasons why the fractured Big East is trying to re-form by going coast to coast. The Big 12 is looking for a new commissioner to unite the bickering membership. The names you hear might shock, like uber-marketer Greg Shaheen of the NCAA. Current Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick was a finalist for the job the last time it was open.
With the Pac-12-Big Ten football challenge in place, look for copycats. Can a Big 12-SEC or ACC-SEC football challenges be far behind? Those who break such ground tend to do it best and with the most profit. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott just returned from China. There are games to be played in the mysterious country, and his league's presidents are looking for potential students paying that out-of-state tuition.
Scott found out there is a tremendous admiration for the Southern California lifestyle in the Pacific Rim. No one is saying it aloud but a shot at the national championship is perhaps becoming less critical than a shot at the European, Chinese or Greek markets. It's about spreading the brand, not necessarily raising another flag.
"It's about taking ordinary events and making them extraordinary," said Delany, whose Big Ten Network already reached Europe and the Middle East.
The Pac-12 and Big Ten have been partners for decades in the Rose Bowl. In the summer of 2010, Scott took Delany and a group of Rose executives to London to experience Wimbledon.
"A light went off for me from my prior life," he said.
That previous life was as CEO of the Women's Tennis Association. Scott, a former tennis pro, noticed the similarities in culture and tradition between Wimbledon and the Rose Bowl. That's why he was hired, to think about such possibilities as trying to get his conference in front of 300 million Chinese basketball fans. Pac-12 basketball and minor sports could be playing games in the world's most populous country in three to five years. Stanford and Notre Dame already are talking about playing a game in China on their own.
Not only is Hollis serious about the Athens game, he's speaking loudly about possibly filling Detroit's Ford Field with three basketball courts. All three games could be shown simultaneously by three different networks.
"Create a summer-camp type feel," Hollis said.
It doesn't stop there. Hollis also told CBSSports.com that he is scouting 12 NBA venues in the Big Ten footprint that could host Pac-12-Big Ten hoops games. Basketball games at the Rose Bowl aren't out of the question.
"The canvas is a blank canvas," Delany said. "It's clear there is a lot of change in the air."
Brett McMurphy told us last month the BCS automatic qualifier status is all but going away. No matter what the football postseason landscape looks like the future, the Pac-12 and Big Ten are telling us, they're going their own way.
Whether that means either would endorse a Plus-One (four-team playoff) is moot. The Pac-12 and Big Ten are married to that Rose Bowl. The SEC is seemingly wedded to any format that keeps the national championships coming. The current one has delivered six in a row.
When asked what postseason model he would prefer, Slive told CBSSports.com last month: "I'm going to defer and wait. See how the process works out."
As for the Pac-12, "this [challenge series] will make it tougher to qualify for a bowl game," Scott explained, "tougher to go undefeated. Under the current rubric of the BCS, it makes it harder to get to a national championship game."
The culture that worships the Rose Bowl largely doesn't care. Lloyd Carr once said he considered the Rose more valuable than the BCS title game. If a Pac-12 champion can make it through that scheduling jungle, it will be more than worthy to play for the national championship, Plus-One or not.
"As long as I can go to the Rose Bowl," Delany said last month, "I don't really care."
The Pac-12 already is hoping for a payout of $33 million per year once its network gets up and running. One TV industry source dared suggest the Big Ten could one day take in $500 million a year. That would be more than $40 million per school.
"They'll average that [in the future]," the media industry analyst said. "This is a really smart move by the Big Ten ... It just made their deal a lot better."
The Big Ten Network is already approaching a point where it is considered a national network to advertisers (50 million-60 million subscribers). That means better ad rates. Who would want to share that?
If you believe that automatic qualifiers are going away, then a picture is beginning to form. There is a new level of elite conference evolving -- the SEC, Pac-12, Big Ten followed in some order by the Big 12, ACC and whatever becomes of the Big East.
The really big money is a few years off, but guys like Delany continue to think about it every single day.