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Eastward, Ho! Pac-10 expansion will happen, but only if Colorado wants to play

In what seems to be an annual discussion here on the left coast, the spectre of Pac-10 expansion has again reared its head, and this time, speculation appears to be more serious than ever before.  Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott:

It really is over the next six to 12 months that we'll start having serious analysis and serious conversations...It makes sense [to consider expansion], if you are going to do it, to do it when you can monetize it and get value for it commercially

In layman's terms:  the Pac-10 finally has a commissioner that is not a fossil, and he's looking at how to make the big bucks.  And with it getting really close to being time to renegotiate the TV and media deals (which expire after the 2011-12 academic year), now is the time to make this happen and reap the economic benefits.  However, what would a Pac-10 expansion look like?

There are a few things to keep in mind when thinking about expansion.  This isn't being considered just for a championship game.  History has shown that championship games aren't the giant revenue producers they were once thought to be.  No, this is about adding markets--lucrative markets--and getting extra revenue from the TV and media deals, as well as possibly getting coverage of a new "Pac-10 Network."  So, for example, you wouldn't see the conference expand with both Utah AND BYU, because its the same market, so you drastically limit your revenue possibilities.  Thirty-five years ago, when the conference took on Arizona and Arizona State, preserving the traveling matchups were quite important.  Times have changed, that is no longer so.  Likewise, Fresno/San Diego/San Jose State also aren't viable options.  All three of those cities are squarely within the Pac-10's current TV footprint.  There is very little in terms of extra revenue to be made by adding any of those schools. 

So, seeing as its all about TV markets, and using that to leverage everything we can from a new media deal, lets take a look at the markets that the Pac-10 already delivers (US market rank in parenthesis):

Los Angeles (2), San Francisco Bay Area (6), Phoenix (12), Seattle (14), Sacramento (20), Portland (22), San Diego (28).  We also have Tucson in there at number 68.

This makes seven top 30 markets located within the Pac-10 footprint, a very impressive number.  Obviously, adding two large markets to the footprint would have the potential to be a big money maker, as adding that many eyeballs to a TV deal/potential Pac-10 network makes nine large markets for advertisers.

Another factor is that the University presidents aren't going to comprimise the academic reputation of the conference.  Every Pac-10 school is a research university.  All except for Oregon State are tier 1 schools.  These standards of academic excellence aren't going to be eliminated by the conference.  UCLA and Stanford don't want to be lumped in in any way with wholly inferior schools.

Finally, simple location is a factor.  We can't really go into Texas or any further east than Colorado, otherwise, things just become too far away.  The only school you could do go that distance for is Texas, because of the hoardes of money they produce, and there is no way Texas is moving to the Pac-10.  This means that we can't go after a TCU or Houston, for example.

Using these criteria, there are a few schools that we often hear about that we can eliminate right off the bat:

Boise State--sorry Boise fans, and this has nothing to do with football.  Boise is an extremely small market that does nothing to help the conference.  Other than football, their sports programs are pretty poor.  And, academically, they're a glorified junior college.  It could also be argued that most of Idaho already lies within the Pac-10's TV footprint due to its proximity with Oregon and Idaho.

BYU--A conservative, non-secular, non-research university that hardly has graduate programs and won't play on Sundays?  There is no way BYU would be allowed into the conference.  To get the SLC market, Utah makes more sense on every possible level and, as I explained above, you wouldn't want both.

Fresno/San Diego/San Jose State--none of these are research universities, disqualifying them right there.  However, the bigger issue for me is that they add nothing to the conference from a TV market standpoint, as all are well within the footprint.

Now that we have these pretenders out of the way, lets take a look at what could actually happen.  Here are the top TV markets that are geographically possible:

Denver (18), Salt Lake City (33), Las Vegas (42), Albuquerque (44).  If you're really adventurous, there's also Honolulu (73) and Colorado Springs (91).

Colorado Springs and Honolulu are both relatively very small, and would be the extreme distance outliers of the Pac-10.  We won't see Hawaii or Air Force in the conference anytime soon.

Of the four top-50 markets that would be available to expand into, one thing stands out:  Denver is the gold mine.  The addition of Denver would give the conference eight top-30 markets.  Denver itself adds almost three million viewers, the state of Colorado as a whole almost five million.  Salt Lake City then becomes the next most attractive market at number 33.  This is why you hear about Colorado and Utah as the schools that the Pac-10 is targeting.  This would give the Pac-10 ten of the top 33 TV markets, and all schools except Stanford would be large, academically sound state schools with large enrollments and huge alumni numbers.

Utah would jump into the Pac-10 in a heartbeat.  Colorado is a much more interesting question.  Other than Nebraska in football, they don't have any particularly great rivalries in the Big Twelve.  But they do have a long history with many of those schools as a long time Big 8 member.  That said, they seem to have a profile much more like a Pac-10 school than a Big XII school, being a large liberal arts college in a cosmopilitan area and a campus that seems more liberal that the rest of the Big XII.  I think it would be easier for Colorado to recruit California as a member of the Pac-10 then it is for them to recruit Texas as a member of the Big XII.

If we get Colorado and Utah, a new Pac-12 is a slam dunk.  But what if Colorado decides that its happy where its at?

Remember, the key to expansion is that it has to increase per school revenue.  Without Colorado, where does the Pac-10 turn for a 12th team (this still assumes that Utah is a slam dunk)?

Nevada--Nevada would fit the academic profile as a state research university, but its sports programs aren't terribly great, and its market (Reno), isn't terribly large and is already within the Pac-10 footprint.  I'm not sure there's much to be gaines by Nevada.

UNLV--Kind of a joke academically, but as a large research university, I think the university presdients could be talked into it.  Las Vegas is a good-but-not-great market (42), but one that again probably lies within the current footprint of the conference.  UNLV would be a nice hoops addition, but are horrible at football.  Is putting the hammer down on the Vegas market and hoping they get better at football enough?

New Mexico--Similar to UNLV, though a little better academically.  Similar market to Vegas in Albuquerque (44), maybe better because Albuquerque is not within the existing Pac-10 footprint.  Again, basketball okay, football atrocious.

Colorado State--Very good school that would fit in academically, and athletic programs have some history of success.  The question here is whether Colorado State would land us the Denver market should we whiff on Colorado.  CU clearly seems to be the school in those parts, but would that change should State become part of a BCS conference?  Clearly the most intriguing due to possibility of landing Denver, but there is some risk involved.

Those are pretty much the contenders, as there is nobody left.  If you can get CU and Utah, you do it, and we'll laugh all the way to the bank.  But if Colorado decides it doesn't want to play, the whole thing becomes fraught with risk, and you have to decide if one of four schools in questionable markets will little historical football success is going to become a money maker for you.  If I had to expand in this situation, I'd take Colorado State, but if I didn't have to, I'd probably not.  I just don't know if it would maximize our revenue to do so.

I can say one thing with confidence, though.  The ball's in your court, Colorado.  Make your move.