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Divide and conference: The future of the Pac-12

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After the confusion of June’s conference expansion bonanza, the Pac-10 will now officially become the Pac-12 when Colorado and Utah join the league, which is expected to be in 2011. This much is known. What remains to be seen is how this new conference will function, particularly with respect to the most popular and lucrative college sport–football.

Among the 11 current FBS conferences, five of them–the ACC, Big 12, Conference USA, MAC and SEC–have at least 12 teams. Per NCAA guidelines, all five of these conferences have been split up into two divisions, allowing these conferences to hold a conference championship game. When the Pac-12 and Big Ten join this list (while the Big 12 leaves it), both will also split into two divisions. Like nearly everything surrounding conference realignment, this move is rooted in monetary interests, because a conference championship game is estimated to bring the conference around $10 million in revenue.

The issue is now how to split the conference into its two divisions. Pac-10 athletic directors have met in the past few days to discuss possible solutions, but a final decision is not expected until October. For now, any proposed divisions are merely speculation, although several ideas have been championed by different coaches and media members.

Four of the five aforementioned conferences are split geographically into either North and South Divisions or East and West Divisions, with only the ACC’s Atlantic and Coastal Divisions representing a non-geographical split. An east-west split would not work in the coastally dominated Pac-12, but a north-south split seems at first glance seems feasible–although it is not without its issues.

One problem with a north-south split is where to draw the dividing line. The Washington schools and the Oregon schools would clearly be in the North Division, while the Arizona schools and the Los Angeles schools would be in the South Division. The Bay Area schools could conceivably play in either division, leaving the two new members to fill in the remaining slots.

However, either choice of split would leave six teams in a North Division, and by all indications no team wants to be part of a North Division. The northern schools would not get to play UCLA or USC every year, so they would only travel to Los Angeles every few years, while South Division teams would go there every season. The Los Angeles area is the most important recruiting region for all the teams in the Pac-12, so exposure there is crucial for building a successful program.

Numerous coaches have spoken out against a divisional split that would isolate northern schools from the benefits of playing in southern California, so Pac-12 officials are looking at other options.

The most popular alternative being considered is the “zipper” format, named because the split would bisect the pairs of schools like a zipper. This would give both divisions equal exposure because each division would have one of the new schools and a team each from Washington, Oregon, the Bay Area, Los Angeles and Arizona.

Among the potential complications of the proposed "zipper plan" for dividing the Pac-12 is the separation of traditional rivals, whose matches are currently built into the annual conference schedule. (Stanford Daily File Photo)

While this strategy solves one problem, it creates more. The most pressing is that longtime rivals would be split into different divisions. The schools would never agree to forgo the rivalry games, so they would be forced to add the game as an annual non-divisional game. While being fairly simple for scheduling purposes, this could lead to a rivalry game being repeated a week later in the conference championship game–which could lessen the championship game, though Stanford Athletic Director Bob Bowlsby has downplayed the issue. Schools might instead move the rivalry game to earlier in the year, which in turn might downplay its significance.

Another potential issue with the zipper is figuring out how to split the teams. There are many more possible combinations for making the two divisions in a zipper format, and any choice is completely arbitrary. Therefore, the Pac-12 would have to be very careful to make the divisions relatively equal talent-wise in order to avoid stacking one division at the expense of the other.

Both scenarios have flaws, and not everyone will be content with the outcome. For instance, Stanford has played Cal, USC and UCLA every year since 1936 (other than during World War II), but few scenarios would allow that tradition to continue. Problems like this have made hybrid divisions (splitting up some rivals while keeping the rest geographical) a third idea, but those create as many dilemmas as they solve.

Stanford will likely end up playing some, but not all, of its current rivals in the new Pac-12, and while Big Game with Cal will undoubtedly continue, it could lose some of its flair when divisional supremacy comes to the fore.

The Pac-12’s final decision, however, like the conference realignment that has made deliberations necessary, will in all probability come down to money.

A major component of the revenue for college football comes from television contracts, and the Pac-12 will have to negotiate a new contract before the 2012 season. This contract will be vital for the conference because a lucrative contract means more exposure as well as more revenue for its member programs.

MARISA LANDICHO/The Stanford Daily

The Pac-10 currently has contracts with ESPN and Fox Sports Net totaling $44.4 million per year. This puts the conference at a significant disadvantage compared to the other major conferences. The Big Ten is due over $200 million per year through 2016, the SEC will receive over $200 million per year through 2023, the ACC is signed for over $150 million per year through 2022 and even the almost-collapsed Big 12 is set to make at least $60 million per year through 2015.

This deficit has spurred new Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott into furious action. Along with the additions of Colorado and Utah, Scott has worked to increase nationwide exposure of the Pac-10. He sent Pac-10 coaches and players to New York for a highly publicized press conference in Times Square and a tour of ESPN before heading back to the Rose Bowl. Scott even unveiled a new Pac-10 logo and website.

All the press is aimed at making the Pac-10 a presence around the country, which Scott hopes will lead to a better television contract. The Pac-10 hopes to at least match the ACC, which more than doubled its previous contract with ESPN just last month.

A more profitable television contract would mean more money for all the schools in the conference, and athletic departments rely on football to pay for many of their other sports. Unlike most conferences, however, the Pac-10 does not split its television money equally. Instead, the teams that play on television receive 55 percent of the money, making televised games even more important for each school.

For Stanford, an improved television contract, more conference exposure and a football program on the rise could coincide to bring Cardinal football to the next level. Until then, the television contract and the future of the Pac-12 remain unclear.

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