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Pac-12 Faces Tough Choices as Bruins, Trojans Exit

Some Potential Adds Fit Better Than Others

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It’s probably an understatement to say the Pac-12 is a mess. With USC and UCLA just about out the door there are rumors of other Pac-12 schools possibly joining them in the Big 10, including Oregon and Washington. Still others seem to be considering offers from the Big 12, meaning a complete break-up of the Conference seems possible, if not likely. Negotiations over the Conference’s media-rights contract – the lifeblood of Conference revenue - have been moribund for months, no surprise after the Pac-12 lost its biggest media market. Barely a day goes by without a national pundit bad-mouthing the Pac-12 with many predicting its imminent demise. If Oregon and Washington were to accept an offer from the Big 10 – or, really any other Conference – it’s hard to imagine the remaining Pac-8 having national sports relevance while led by Oregon State and Cal.

NCAA Basketball: Indianapolis Views Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Age of the Super-Conference seems to be upon us. The Pac-12 missed its chance to play in that arena when Oklahoma and Texas declined a membership invitation in 2011. It’s not clear whether or how the Pac-12 can avoid being just another small player somewhere below the SEC and Big 10. There are no schools left in the Western US who rise to the level of an Oregon or USC with regard to a national following or history of sporting success and who are not already at least penciled into the SEC or the Big 10. Even though the Big 10 is doing it, it may not make sense for the Pac-12 to reach all the way across the country for schools that do have a national imprint – such as Florida State or Clemson. Travel costs for USC and UCLA are going to be epic once their switch is made. UCLA estimates it will spend an additional $4 to $6 million a year once it joins the Big 10 and that number will only grow. Whether the Gators or Tigers athletic departments want to take on that kind of expense to compete against Washington State isn’t known but seems unlikely. A “Pacific” Conference with four or six members in the Eastern US would make more sense.

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So far, and probably rightly so, most of the attention paid to possible Pac-12 “replacements” has focused on football. It’s the top revenue-producing sport, after all, and its popularity is the base upon which any media rights agreement must be built. Within the current Conference footprint there are no options that could be considered the equal of the quality or popularity of what’s being lost. Only two of the eight schools whose names have been most frequently mentioned in connection with a Pac-12 invitation to join have football attendance figures that would rank in the top 10 in the newly-formed Conference. While it’s fair to say Pac-12 membership might increase home attendance at these schools, some possible choices might even decrease it at some current Pac-12 schools.

2022 Football Home Attendance

Football 2022 Attendance Rank
Football 2022 Attendance Rank
Washington 62,933 1
Oregon 54,950 2
Utah 52,057 3
Arizona 44,209 4
Arizona State 43,081 5
Colorado 42,847 6
Fresno State 39,067 7
Cal 38,596 8
Boise State 35,121 9
Oregon State 31,498 10
Stanford 29,965 11
San Diego State 29,892 12
Colorado State 26,891 13
Washington State 26,185 14
SMU 24,971 15
UNLV 22,112 16
Tulane 20,361 17
Hawaii 9,210 18

But of course, Conference sports reach well beyond football. In the current Conference, Pac-12 schools compete in dozens of other sports besides football, although not all schools compete in all those sports (Oregon competes in 18). For example, there are only 6 schools in the current Conference that have Women’s Lacrosse or Men’s Soccer. Most compete in more Women’s sports than Men’s as a result of Title IX. Most of these numbers will decrease after USC and UCLA - both of which have robust athletics departments - leave the Conference.

All Pac-12 schools currently compete in 8 sports – Men’s and Women’s Basketball, Women’s Cross Country, Football, Men’s Golf, Women’s Soccer, Women’s Track and Field and Volleyball [see Table II, below]. Obviously, these sports will all lose 2 participants when UCLA and USC depart - the schools compete in 23 and 21 sports, respectively.

Table II - Pac-12 Sports Played by School

PAC-12 - SPORTS PLAYED Oregon Arizona Arizona State Cal Colorado Oregon State Stanford Utah Washington Washington State UCLA USC
PAC-12 - SPORTS PLAYED Oregon Arizona Arizona State Cal Colorado Oregon State Stanford Utah Washington Washington State UCLA USC
Acrobatics & Tumbling - W X
Artistic Swimming - W X
Baseball X X X X X X X X X X X
Basketball - M X X X X X X X X X X X X
Basketball - W X X X X X X X X X X X X
Beach Volleyball - W X X X X X X X X X
Cross Country - M X X X X X X X X X
Cross Country - W X X X X X X X X X X X X
Equestrian - W
Fencing - M X
Fencing - W X
Field Hockey - W X X
Football X X X X X X X X X X X X
Golf - M X X X X X X X X X X X X
Golf - W X X X X X X X X X X X
Gymnastics - M X X
Gymnastics - W X X X X X X X X
Lacrosse - M X
Lacrosse - W X X X X X X
Rowing - M X X X X
Rowing - W X X X X X X X
Rugby - M X
Sailing - M X
Sailing - W X
Skiing - M X X
Skiing - W X X
Soccer - M X X X X X
Soccer - W X X X X X X X X X X X X
Softball X X X X X X X X X
Squash X
Swimming & Diving - M X X X X X X
Swimming & Diving - W X X X X X X X X
Tennis - M X X X X X X X X X
Tennis - W X X X X X X X X X X X
Track & Field - M X X X X X X X X X X
Track & Field - W X X X X X X X X X X X X
Volleyball - M X X X
Volleyball - W X X X X X X X X X X X X
Water Polo - M X X X X
Water Polo - W X X X X X
Wrestling - M X X X

Since all the proposed new partners play football, it makes sense to consider schools that also compete in other sports the Conference currently has. The more the new schools would have to search for opponents, the more expense they might have to incur and the less attractive a Pac-12 offer might seem. Table III below shows the eight schools that have been under discussion for additions to the Conference once USC and UCLA depart and the sports in which they compete. It also lists how many current Pac-12 schools (including UCLA and USC) compete in each sport.

Table III - Pac-12 Targets Sports Offered

Sports Offered by School Oregon Pac-12 Boise State Colorado State Fresno State Hawaii San Diego State Southern Methodist Tulane UNLV
Sports Offered by School Oregon Pac-12 Boise State Colorado State Fresno State Hawaii San Diego State Southern Methodist Tulane UNLV
Acrobatics & Tumbling - W X 1
Baseball X 11 X X X X X
Basketball - M X 12 X X X X X X X X
Basketball - W X 12 X X X X X X X X
Beach Volleyball - W X 9 X X X
Bowling 0 X
Cross Country - M X 9 X X X X X
Cross Country - W X 12 X X X X X X X
Equestrian - W 0 X X
Football X 12 X X X X X X X X
Golf - M X 12 X X X X X X X
Golf - W X 11 X X X X X X X X
Gymnastics - W 8 X
Lacrosse - W X 6 X
Rowing - M 7 X
Rowing - W 6
Sailing - Coed 0 X X
Sailing - W 0 X
Soccer - M 6 X X
Soccer - W X 12 X X X X X X
Softball X 9 X X X X X X
Swimming & Diving - M 8 X X
Swimming & Diving - W 9 X X X X X X
Tennis - M X 8 X X X X X X
Tennis - W X 11 X X X X X X X X
Track & Field - M X 10 X X X X
Track & Field - W X 12 X X X X X X X X
Volleyball - M 0 X
Volleyball - W X 12 X X X X X X X X
Water Polo - W 0 X X X
Wrestling - M 6
Total Sports Offered 18 16 14 17 18 16 15 17 15
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Hawaii covers the most sports – 18 – several of which no Pac-12 schools compete in. That, along with the travel costs and the Rainbow Warriors tiny draw in football probably eliminates them as a choice. While high school players from Hawaii have been increasing recruited to mainland schools, the numbers don’t justify taking the school on based on that alone.

San Diego State would be a reasonable fit overall, competing in 16 sports and replacing one of the lost Men’s Soccer and Women’s Lacrosse programs. Football attendance would probably put them last in the “new” Pac-12. The school’s inclusion would also give Pac-12 schools continued visibility in the athlete-rich Southern California market. The Aztecs have recently pulled back from the Pac-12s embrace after noting the school would owe a large “separation fee” to the Mountain West Conference. The Conference is playing hardball, claiming SDS has already left and owes at least $16 million. If the Pac-12 really wanted the Aztecs, it could conceivably step in to pay all or part of the exit fee, although the stalled media rights negotiations might give the Conference pause.

Southern Methodist would also be an interesting choice as it would give the Pac-12 increased visibility in the Texas athlete “market,” an area of the country where Oregon has seen its share of success. SMU doesn’t have impressive fan support, averaging under 25,000 fans per game, and comes with its share of baggage from the Pony Express era, but the Mustangs compete in 15 sports, including all the key ones and who doesn’t want an elite Equestrian team in the Pac-12?

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Las Vegas Raiders Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

UNLV is a school that offers a different, and intriguing argument for inclusion. Las Vegas, despite decades of snubs from professional sports leagues due to concerns over sports gamblers trying to influence game outcomes, has seen its sports profile grow substantially recently. UNLV is nothing to write home about regarding football – their attendance is the third-lowest among the 8 candidates – but the 15 sports the school currently competes in would be a good fit.

Colorado State seems an unlikely choice. The Pac-12 is already in Colorado and while the Rams would provide a rivalry game for the Colorado Buffaloes, their football program would probably take a while to build up to a Pac-12 competitive level. Colorado State competes in the fewest sports of the candidates – just 14 – but the ones they do compete in would also fit well with the Pac-12.

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Tulane would give the Pac-12 a foothold in SEC territory, but the Louisiana-based Green Wave is probably out of the running based on geography. Unless SMU is also selected, Tulane would be 1500 miles from the nearest Pac-12 school and 2500 miles from Eugene. Otherwise, the Green Wave looks pretty good, competing in 17 sports overall, 14 of which are a good fit.

That leaves the two schools that would probably be the best choices overall, if the Pac-12 wants them, they’re interested and available, and can meet whatever conditions the Conference might want to place on their entry.

NCAA Football: Hawaii at Boise State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It seems like blasphemy, almost, but Boise State is one of those schools. Inclusion of the Broncos could be said to help return the Conference to its “Pacific” roots, giving it 5 schools in the Pacific Northwest. The Broncos have certainly been competitive in football, if inconsistently, and Boise State competes in 16 sports – the only hole in their sports program is the lack of a baseball team, which could be remedied. Idaho’s not much help talent-wise for recruiting – at least in sheer numbers – but that hasn’t kept the Broncos from being competitive in a variety of sports. Boise State would have the 10th highest average football attendance should it be part of the new Pac-12.

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The final choice ought to be Fresno State. Oregon’s had some epic battles with the Bulldogs on the football field over the years and the school has an excellent fanbase, averaging almost 40,000 fans per game last year. Were they to join, they’d have the 7th highest average football attendance in the Pac-12. The Bulldogs compete in 17 sports and would give the Pac-12 ten baseball teams (assuming Boise State is the other choice). Equestrian is the outlier in Fresno State’s athletic program.

Difficult decisions for the Pac-12 still lie ahead. Even the best possible choices mentioned thus far won’t save the “Conference of Champions” if schools beyond USC and UCLA decide the grass is greener in the Big 10 or the Big 12. Barring a truly bold move that makes the Pacific Conference a national conference by trying to bring in schools such as Florida State or Clemson and perhaps expansion beyond that, the Pac-12 seems destined to operate on a lower plane than the SEC and Big 10 have already reached.