By and large, Addicted to Quack has refrained from too much commentary or speculation on this summer’s wave of Conference re-alignment. The situation can certainly be described as “fluid,” driven mainly by rumors or vague statements from Conference leaders, and all the main possibilities – a Pac-10; a Pac-12 with either a forced return of UCLA and USC through State government action or through recruitment of two new members; or a move by Oregon and/or other current Pac-12 members to other conferences - are still in play and may not even need to be proposed this year.
The main potential suitors seem to be the Big 12 and the Big 10 but even that is no certainty. The SEC appears to be satisfied with adding Texas and Oklahoma in 2025 (programs that the Pac-12 should have pursued during the last round of expansion when Utah and Colorado joined the Conference), but some observers believe the SEC may expand further to as many as 20 schools. There are also rumors that the Big 10 has that intention or is at least seriously considering going beyond adding USC and UCLA.
The Big 12 has already been rumored to be eyeing up to six Pac-12 teams, including Oregon, with much of the speculation centering on the Arizona schools due primarily to geography and proximity. It probably goes without saying that the absorption of six current Pac-12 schools into the Big 12, the Big 10 or a combination would mean the historic end of a “Pacific” Conference whose imprimatur dates to 1915, with some rivalries dating back to the 19th Century. Oregon’s first football game against Oregon Agricultural College (now known as Oregon State University) took place in 1894. The first Oregon football game against the University of Washington was in 1900.
Assuming that either the Big 10 or the Big 12 is interested in continuing to look West for expansion, what might they find attractive in considering Oregon as a new member?
National Reputation – In a variety of sports – including but not limited to football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s track and field and cross county, and softball – Oregon is nationally known for excellence. Oregon’s sports programs have sent numerous athletes to professional leagues such as the NFL (this Fall will see two former Oregon quarterbacks as starters) the WNBA and Major League Baseball and produced many Olympic Medalists and World Champions in track and field. The Ducks have won 34 NCAA Championships.
In the last decade in particular, Oregon’s football program has become one of the better known in the country and is frequently mentioned by quality high school players as their “dream school.” The Ducks have played for the National Championship twice in recent years. While they’ve also drawn ridicule, Oregon’s penchant for numerous, interesting and colorful uniform combinations is also cited by high school players across the country as a draw to the program.
Commitment to Athletics…and Academics – Almost 30 years ago, Oregon embarked on a system-wide upgrade of its athletics facilities. With the massive financial commitment of Oregon Alum Phil Knight and many others, the Ducks have built new football, basketball, baseball, softball, and track and field facilities and have improved others. Most Oregon athletic facilities can be considered world class. Oregon has also shown an admirable commitment to its academic facilities including renovation and expansion of the Library, construction of a School of Business, a new Science complex and an academic center for athletes, among others over the same period. At full capacity Autzen Stadium would rank as the 8th largest in the Big 10 and about the 3rd largest in the Big 12. Playing at Autzen has proven a challenge for visitors and is widely known as one of the loudest football venues in the country despite being quite a bit smaller than stadiums at schools like Michigan or Texas. These last may actually be reasons why a suitor might not want Oregon in their Conference.
National Footprint – From a sports perspective, Oregon makes an attractive target due to its broad fan base across the United States. Duck fans are known to “travel well” to watch their teams, particularly in football. Oregon has over 250,000 alumni around the world with 45 local Duck clubs or affinity groups. In addition, the Ducks are a popular team on college football broadcasts. One study of football audiences from 2015-2019 found Oregon ranked 26th most viewed in the nation – ahead of half the teams in the Big 10 and half of the Big 12, despite its seemingly small TV market.
Nike – While the athletic footwear and apparel Company has affiliations with many colleges and universities already, its relationship with Oregon and the Pac-12 is unique. Not only could a suitor Conference gain additional access to benefits from the Company such as new equipment and uniforms, but the Company is also in a position to be generous in other ways, especially under the new “Name, Image and Likeness” rules. Tours of the Nike campus by visiting players would no doubt be a sought-after highlight of trips to play the Ducks.
Phil Knight – As mentioned above, Oregon’s rise to a nationally prominent college sports program, especially in football, can be traced to a close relationship with the co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of Nike and his willingness to invest in athletics. Knight is both an Oregon undergraduate and a Stanford Business School graduate. While the Cardinal have received scant mention as a candidate for Conferences seeking expansion, someone ought to understand that an Oregon/Stanford package could give their Conference a tie to Knight that would be unshakeable.
Geography - Traditionally, of course, college sports conferences have been organized in large part around geographic location. With the tremendous growth in finances and greater ease of travel, conferences have spread out with much less regard for proximity. At the moment, considering geographic proximity may make more sense to the Big 10 assuming it can complete the integration of UCLA and USC. A Conference should still want to have more than 2 teams in a larger geographic area in part due to travel and TV visibility needs but perhaps more importantly for recruiting purposes. No Oregon fan wants to see talented Oregon high school athletes go out-of-State and no one would argue Southern California isn’t a richer recruiting area for most sports. However, schools would have an incentive to make more efficient recruiting trips to the entire West Coast rather than just flying in and out of Los Angeles. It seems as though they are more likely to have success with Oregon high school players if they have more visibility gained by traveling to Eugene to play the Ducks in a variety of sports and appearing regularly on TV in the Northwest.
It’s pretty easy to argue that, in either the Big 10 or the Big 12, Oregon would be a more attractive Conference member in a variety of ways than even some of the current members of those Conferences. At the moment, the discussion in these Conferences is about adding members and growing larger, rather than jettisoning members as the Pac-12 is apparently going to be forced to do. Ultimately an invitation for Oregon or other current Pac-12 members to consider joining a different Conference may never come, but it’s not hard to see why such an invitation would be proffered to the Ducks.