Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Convoluted Answer to a Simple Question (About Football)

Cab said...

could you explain the whole 'who's in the pack 10' and what's this other league thing with colorado and some other guys hunting for a home?

Short answer: Colorado goes from the Big-12 to the Pac-10 in 2012. Utah goes from the Mountain West to the Pac-10 in 2011.

Long answer: Gladly, although it's complicated....

Of all the major conferences the Pac-10 is by far the least profitable. The SEC, the Big-12, and the Big Ten all have far more lucrative television deals (or, in the case of the Big Ten, simply own their own TV network) and all of them collect more revenue and have higher attendance than the Pac-10. There are a myriad of reasons for this: Football culture is more intense and insane in the South and Midwest than on the West Coast, the Pacific Time Zone is too late for primetime TV, the Pac-10 has only one "flagship" school in USC, so doesn't benefit from an annual game like Ohio St.-Michigan, Texas-Oklahoma, or Florida-Georgia. But perhaps the biggest - and most controversial reason - is that the Pac-10 suffers because it only has ten teams.

This is important for two reasons. One is the obvious fact that if you have more teams, you get to play more games, and have more chances to sell tickets/TV ads. (This is true even if you play the same amount of games as before - 10 X 9/2 = 45 in conference games, but 12 X 9/2 = 54!) The second, weirder reason, is that a conference with 12 or more teams is allowed to have a Conference Championship game. Now, most people think that having a Championship Game is a Good Thing: it's a chance at the end of the season, before the bowls, to squeeze in one more game between your two best/ most popular teams and to take in more revenue. Also, and this is very important, it's one more chance to showcase your best team(s) on national TV and make an argument for the BCS championship. The last two seasons, the BCS game has been between the winner of the SEC Championship game and the winner of the Big-12 Championship game. Those teams always get an extra, 13th game against a very good, usually nationally ranked, opponent. Obviously, this seems unfair to someone who doesn't get that chance. (USC thought that that was so unfair that they've gone ahead and scheduled 13 games this year. Too bad their banned from playing in Bowl Games....)

What people forget, however, is that the other conference to have an annual championship game is the ACC, and every year it loses money on it. This year, that game was between Clemson and Georgia Tech, and even though the winner gets an automatic invitation to the Orange Bowl, the ACC still can't fill up those seats. So just having that extra game doesn't guarantee more money. Another issue that the Pac-10 has to face is scheduling. No other conference has the same perfect rivalry pairings that the Pac-10 has. (Oregon/Oregon St., USC/UCLA, Cal/Stanford, etc.) Adding a championship game would threaten those rivalry games. For example, last season, the Civil War game was between the #1 and #2 teams in the Pac-10. But if we had a Championship Game that year, and if the Beavers had won that game, then they would have had to play the Ducks again in a week or two in Glendale, or Pasadena, or Seattle. Most commentators agree that that would be a Bad Thing, financially speaking.

Nevertheless, both the Pac-10 and the Big Ten* decided that they needed to expand to at least 12 teams in order to stay competitive in terms of revenue and BCS Championships. The irony here is that they both planned to do this by stealing teams away from the Big-12. Are you still with me? Because this is where things get really crazy.

The Big-12 has always been something of a Frankenstein's Monster of a conference. It was formed in 1994 by combining the Big Eight - which had always been dominated by Nebraska - with four schools from Texas fleeing the bankrupt and corrupt Southwest Conference.** Over the past decade, the Big-12 increasingly became dominated by the University of Texas, which is the largest, richest school with the biggest fanbase and recruiting base. The Texas-Oklahoma rivalry came to replace the Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry, and Nebraska was increasingly getting shut-out of big money bowl games. So Nebraska jumped at the opportunity to join the Big Ten when it came calling, thus giving the Big Ten their 12th team, and the ability to have a Conference Championship Game.

Of course, this meant that the Big-12 was down to 11 teams, and could not hold a championship game! At this point, UTexas held all of the cards. They knew that the Pac-10's new commissioner, Larry Scott, was bent on expansion. So, in order to hold the Big-12 hostage, they made it very public that they were interested in joining the Pac-10, forming a Pac-16 Super Conference that would be made up of the existing Pac-10 plus: Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma St., and then either Colorado or Baylor.*** This, suffice to say would be the end of the Big-12. This is also where you get the "homeless" schools, i.e., the leftovers of the Big-12: Kansas, Kansas St., Missouri, and Iowa St. Now, these schools don't carry a whole lot of football clout, but Kansas is one of the premier men's basketball programs in the country. If they were to be "homeless", we would see a new political fight between say, the Big Ten and the Big East over who would get Kansas. But a school that nobody wanted - Iowa St. - could be doomed. They could be bumped out of a top conference, join something like the Mid-American Conference, and stand to lose millions of dollars in revenue. (In the end, it's all about the Benjamins.)

In order to prevent this from happening, the Big-12 gave in to Texas' demands: A bigger cut of conference revenue the next time they renegotiate, a promise to expand back to 12 teams ASAP****, and permission to form their own, Texas only TV network. In return, Texas agreed to stay in the Big-12 and continue to financially support the other schools in the conference. Balance was restored to the Universe. But where did this leave the Pac-10?

Well, still looking to expand to 12 teams. Before Texas decided to stay put, Colorado made a move to leave the Big-12 and join the Pac-10. Probably, Colorado was worried that they would be left "homeless" along with Kansas and Iowa St., and they wanted to get that last musical chair before Baylor could. Also, they have a geographic and historical relationship with the Pac-10. (The last time they went to a BCS game was 2002, where they got crushed by the Ducks in the Fiesta Bowl.) Finally, I think that they were tired of being at the bottom of the Big-12, and figured that they would be more competitive if they switched conferences. Colorado will play their first game as a Pac Ten team in 2012.

OK, so now the Pac-10 had 11 teams, but that was still one too few teams for a conference championship. Fortunately, there's one school that has been itching to join the Pac-10 for years: Utah. The Utes are the original BCS busters, winning the Fiesta Bowl in 2005, and then whooping Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 2009. (In fact, Utah has won 9 consecutive bowl games.) If Utah joined the Pac-10, they could qualify for the Pac-10's automatic BCS-bid, the Rose Bowl, and, more importantly, a National Championship. Also, they're rather confident that they can compete for that automatic bid: They have won seven of their last 10 games against Pac-10 teams. Utah will join the Pac-10 in 2011.

So there's the answer: Colorado and Utah join the Pac-10, and Nebraska joins the Big Ten, meaning that the Rose Bowl could be Utah vs. Nebraska in a few years. Also, it means that the Big-12 has ten teams, while the Pac-10 and the Big Ten both will have twelve teams, which I think is hilarious. Will the Big-12 become the Big-10 and the Big Ten the Big-12? Or will we have a Big Twelve with 10 teams and a Big Ten with 12?

But, wait, there's more! First of all, that last question is a moot point. Like I said in the notes - you do read the notes, don't you? - the Big Ten is a brand name, not a description. They could have fifty teams, they would still be the Big Ten. It's imperative, meanwhile, that the Big-12 expand back up to 12 teams in the next year or two. Like I said in the notes, they should have plenty of eager teams to pick from. But this raises the interesting question of conference "culture."

There were lots of schools to pick from for the Pac-10 in order to find a 12th school. I would have preferred Boise State to Utah, but the Broncos had just agreed to leave the WAC for the MWC. Another obvious choice for Pac-10 expansion was Brigham Young. Now, there are lots of good reasons to pick Utah over BYU: they're a large, public university, they have a successful football program, they meet the Pac-10's academic standards. However, there is also the lingering question of BYU's Mormon affiliation. In the Salt Lake Tribune, Gordon Monson wrote:

The Utes are a better fit. They’re the kind of research institution that the Pac-10 prefers. Some say they are more “liberal” in their approach to academics, and that’s true, too. Their way of doing business is more in line with what Pac-10 schools do. As for athletics, football in particular, Utah’s accomplishment in winning two BCS bowls since 2005 is remarkable.

BYU, conversely, is conservative and is owned not only by a church, but a church that supported Proposition 8, that won’t allow its teams to play on Sunday, and that keeps a watchful eye on the academic pursuits of its professors. While it’s a stellar institution that’s extremely difficult for students to get into, it’s more limited in graduate-level research. It’s a terrific university, but a different one — unlike any in the Pac-10.

Maybe we could have eased some cultural tensions in the West if we had an annual Berkeley-Provo showdown, but in the end, Utah was the better choice for the Pac-10. But I believe that the Big 12 would not have the same reservations about BYU as the Pac-10 did. My bet is that, in two years, we'll hear an announcement that BYU and TCU have joined the newly (re)formed Big 12.

The other interesting question is that of scheduling and divisions in the new Pac-12. Part of the rationale behind allowing conferences with 12 teams to have a championship game is because it is too inconvenient for everyone in the conference to play everyone else every year. So, instead, they're divided into two divisions. Each team plays the five others in their division plus either three or four from the other division, and the winners of each division play one another in the annual championship game. In determining divisions, conferences need to consider geography, rivalries, and competitiveness. In the Pac-12, I think the most obvious, and likely divisions would be a North (Wash., WSU, Ore., OSU, Utah, Colorado) and a South (Cal, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Ariz., ASU). For the most part, the North would be controlled by Oregon, OSU, and Utah, while the South would be controlled by USC, with Cal and Arizona challenging every once in a while. The problem with this alignment is that most of the major population (i.e., TV viewing) centers are in the South. This problem could be eased by going North (Wash., WSU, Ore., OSU, Cal, Stanford - Seattle/San Francisco/Oakland) versus South (Utah, Colorado, USC, UCLA, Ariz., ASU - L.A./Phoenix). It's kind of a moot point because Colorado is going to have to travel a long ways no matter which division they're in.

The monkey wrench in this whole situation, though, is recruiting. Every coach and AD in the Pac-12 will demand at least one trip to southern California a year for recruiting purposes. So anyone in the South division would have an inherent recruiting advantage over the North division. One proposed solution to this would be to create "Zipper" divisions: Division A: Washington, Oregon, Arizona, Utah, Stanford, UCLA. Division B: WSU, OSU, ASU, Colorado, Cal, USC - with each team guaranteed to play its natural rival at the end of the season. This makes it more likely for schools from Washington and Oregon to get an annual trip to Los Angeles, but there's no guarantee. Because USC will have to play a road game at some point.*****

* The reason that the Big Ten is not the Big-10 is because they have 11 teams. Philosophically speaking, "Big Ten" is a name, not a descriptor like "Pac-10" is.

** This is why the Cotton Bowl is not one of the BCS bowls. It was the home bowl of SWC, and when that conference dissolved, the Cotton Bowl largely lost its clout.

*** This is where the politicians get involved. The financial solvency of Texas Tech and Texas A&M are dependent upon their relationship with Austin. So the Texas state legislature was prepared to take legal steps to prevent those schools from competing in different conferences than U-Texas. This, in turn, put the Pac-10 in a tough situation, because the Pac-10 has higher academic standards (OMG! It's like we're actually talking about colleges here!) for its member schools than the Big-12. (I'm lookin' at you, Stanford.) Neither Tech nor A&M would meet these standards. But it looked like the Pac-10 would be prepared to lower those standards if it meant that Texas could join the conference. Phew.

**** I think that there are a lot of schools who would want to join the Big-12: Brigham Young, Texas Christian, Southern Methodist, Houston. (One of these things is not like the other....) But Stewart Mandel disagrees.

**** I get most of my opinions from Stewart Mandel of

1 comment:

Cab said...

clear as mud- but great for discussion. seems to me that the 12 team rule is too random and that those student athletes don't have enough time to play that much.We miss you come home for Christmas ( per kirby)