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Senior College Football Columnist

After decades as islands, Pac-12 ready to take on all en masse

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Under Commissioner Larry Scott, the Pac-12 has pressed the reset button. (US Presswire)  
Under Commissioner Larry Scott, the Pac-12 has pressed the reset button. (US Presswire)  

A 36-year-old Florida grad with cutting-edge wit has crystallized why the Pac-12 is so ... cutting edge.

Spencer Hall, one of the subversive brains behind YouTube channel Shutdown Fullback recently produced a couple of episodes parodying conference realignment. In it, BCS leagues are represented in a game show by stereotypes: a loud-mouthed Texan with six-shooters for the Big 12, a flirty coed for the SEC and the Pac-12 ...

The Pac-12 is portrayed as an astronaut from the future. An astronaut who appears out of nowhere. You laugh and then realize that in terms of representing the Pac-12 to the masses, Spencer Hall has fired an on-target laser shot from deep space.

“They’re literally the conference that’s putting up road signs where there aren’t roads,” Hall said. “They’ve completely revamped what the brand was and it’s eight miles out toward the future.”

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You may recall reading a thing or two about the Pac-12 over the past 41 months. Self-promotion has not been an issue. That’s the blink of an eye it has taken commissioner Larry Scott to transform the previously sleepy, West Coast league into an emerging worldwide conglomerate.

It seems that nothing, since then, has been the same. Under Scott, the Pac-10 hit the reset button. Success has come so sudden, the satisfactorily expanded league was able to walk away from Texas and Oklahoma last September, filled coffers already guaranteed.

The conference’s new media rights deal made it No. 1 in that category -- for the moment. In May 2011, the Pac-12 announced a 12-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN that was a college conference record. Scott later said Pac-12 Media Enterprises, a holding company that bundles sponsorship, licensing and digital rights, could be worth another $1 billion over a 7-to-10 year period.

There won’t be a device on which you can’t can’t watch Pac-12 content. Some of it is going to take a while. Older, stuffier leagues will huff and puff rebuttals but the West Coast Dozen is coming. The time is also coming when the Pac-12 must either shut up or put up ... more of a fight.

A league that is becoming rich beyond its dreams because of football, has to decide how good it wants to be in football.

More to the point: Does the Pac-12 want to be the SEC, or beat the SEC? That’s the standard these days, isn’t it? It’s also kind of a philosophical question. We already know the Strength Everywhere Conference has a stranglehold on college football. But with the Pac-12’s influx of technology, attention and money it is question that must be asked.

“We obviously think beyond football,” Scott said.

But it all starts there. USC played in seven BCS bowls, winning two national championships, all before the SEC’s six-title run. Oregon played for the 2010 national championship. That’s in the BCS era. A network is only as good as the number of football (and to a lesser extent) basketball games it airs. The Pac-12 is offering few details about its number of cable subscribers -- another part of a start-up’s survival.

One tell: At least one Pac-12 coach won’t be able to get his conference’s network out of the box. The Leaches of Pullman, Wash., decided on a dish for their television signal. The Pac-12 doesn’t yet have a satellite partner.

“You can’t be the present because, look, the SEC kind of has a good hold on that,” said Mark Silverman, president of the Big Ten Network. “What the Pac-12 is trying to be is innovative, cutting edge. You look at the uniforms Oregon has, the kind of coaches they’re bringing in there. Mike Leach, Rich Rodriguez, are cutting-edge kind of guys. That fits with the whole Silicon Valley idea of technology and innovation. My sense is that’s their positioning, the future of college football.”

Cue the astronaut.

We know this much: Scott, his network and his league are targeting the likes of Hall to make this digital- to-flesh-and-blood football conversion. The cheeky Gator is young, hip and upwardly mobile, a part of the key 25-54-year old demographic -- a product of the SEC. As a consumer, if Hall pays 50 cents more per month on his cable bill to watch the Pac-12 Network, well, that’s the goal. To make the world slow down enough to watch Washington State-Arizona on the conference’s owned-and-operated airwaves.

The conference could have ignored Shutdown Fullback as mocking white noise in the blogosphere. Instead, it has welcomed one of its authors/actors/writers/comedians. Hall will be in San Francisco next week welcomed as a member of the media when the conference flips the switch on the network.

"You need to make the gate taller or you take it down and let people in,” Hall said. "If you let them in you can sell everything else."

Part of Scott’s appeal is his ability to market the Pac-12 to the masses while retaining the league’s dignity. The conference had always been academically slanted, bragging of its Olympic sports excellence. Any comparison to the SEC automatically carries an inference of a rules-skirting, out-of-whack worship of false (football) idols.

But these days you’re nothing without football as conferences monetize inventory that previously went to rights holders. Now those conferences are the rights holders. See the Big Ten before and after BTN. Before, commissioner Jim Delany thought his product was undervalued. After, he estimates that the end of the current BTN deal with Fox, the conference will have taken in $4 billion-$5 billion in rights fees and profits.

In the end, BTN may be the one and only network that makes it. The Longhorn Network is struggling mightily. The SEC and its Project X are watching closely, determined not to be lapped in the marketplace.

Everyone is watching as the Pac-12 readies to launch.

Before 2009, the Pac-10 “operated like 10 islands” according to former Arizona State AD Lisa Love. Asleep, more than sleepy. As the game’s popularity exploded around it, the league was collectively guilty of undervaluing its product.

“We did not revenue share the same way,” Love added. “We were like these 10 entrepreneur universities that won a lot of national championships in a variety of sports but never were completely united for the greater good for strength that you witness in the Big Ten model or SEC model.”

It seemed simple but it took Scott to finally realize the potential of tying together the various media rights of 12 schools and four of the top 14 TV markets (L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Seattle) to launch that network.

“I think they see themselves as being an SEC [competitor],” said Steve Clarkson, a Southern California resident whose Air 7 Quarterback University has trained more than one future Pac-10/12 quarterback. Clarkson has deep roots with both USC’s Lane Kiffin and Washington’s Steve Sarkisian.

You’re already seeing it. Since Scott was hired in March 2009, seven of the league’s 12 schools have changed coaches. Six of those coaches have arrived on the job since the beginning of the 2011 season. Oregon and Stanford have become national players. Utah was within an upset loss to Colorado to playing for the Pac-12 title in its first season.

During Scott’s tenure, USC has endured a crippling probation and -- amazingly -- built itself back up to top-five status. The return of Matt Barkley has positioned USC to have its fourth Heisman Trophy winner in 11 years.

Possibly nothing says more about the league’s new football outlook than Washington State’s hiring of Leach. Fired at Texas Tech 31 months ago, Leach and his offensive innovation finally found a home in remote Pullman. That could be the best result for both parties. Washington State was in the Rose Bowl as recently as 2002. Leach needed the Lubbock-like privacy to begin cooking up ball plays again.

“My perception on the outside is that one strength the Pac-12 has is, it never cared what the others thought,” Leach said. “It did its own thing. They’ve been really innovative as a result of that. There’s an independence to the Pac-12. There always has been.”

USC sports business professor David Carter loves Scott’s approach. Last summer they were at lunch. Carter asked Scott: “Give me an example of something that is achievable in the conference that one has thought of yet.”

“That’s easy,” Scott said.

Then the former head of the Women’s Tennis Association asked why Washington State is buying their toilet paper from a supplier. Why not, Scott suggested, bundle supplies under a Pac-12 umbrella? Everything from janitorial supplies to fleet vehicles would be available to bidders in one single Pac-12 account.

Purchasing power. Consolidation. That’s basically what Scott has done to get the conference to this point.

“Maybe their biggest concern should be replacing Larry Scott,” Carter said. “Conceivably, that’s what they have to figure out. What if there is a change of leadership?

“I think he’s a rock star.”

The future remains a matter of philosophy. The SEC makes no secret of funneling large amounts of its profits into an incredibly successful football machine. There is a reason Nick Saban makes $5 million per year and the national championship has resided in the state of Alabama for three years.

Part of the reason that sleepy, West Coast conference was so sleepy was its football outside of USC. UCLA has fallen off the map. Despite its recent excellence, Stanford has never been known for paying top dollar for coaches. The league itself didn’t have a coach among the top-10 highest paid. Cal hasn’t had a quarterback of note under noted quarterback Jeff Tedford since Aaron Rodgers.

“Really, there is one school built like the SEC. One,” Clarkson said. “Look at USC’s personnel. Their alignment is just like Alabama, just like LSU. Their speed matches it. They are the equal. People say they couldn’t compete in the SEC. Yeah they could.

"They recruit nationally. They’re a dominant brand. Hell, their band could have a network."

Those Trojans, on probation and limited to 15 scholarships, currently have 2013’s No. 1 recruiting class. As USC has sagged, slightly, Oregon has played in consecutive BCS bowls.

"I think the Pac-12 knows it has those two teams that can compete with anyone nationally," Hall said. “Year in and year out, the Pac-12 will have those. Right now it’s USC and Oregon. That’s really all you need. That’s really all the SEC has."

Did a Gator really say that?

With a $3 billion windfall on the way Scott says, if nothing else, the goal is to keep schools from cutting sports. Most of the league’s institutions, he added, were taking university subsidies.

But shoring up balance sheets sounds so conservative. There are networks -- and astronauts -- out there ready to launch. Football is the rocket ship. Countdown has begun.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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