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The Pac-12 and ACC should revisit merger or alliance to keep up with SEC, Big Ten
The Coastal Conference could end up being the third most signficant conference in the college athletics landscape.
The college athletics landscape has become brutally clear entering 2024.
With Oklahoma and Texas off to the SEC, USC and UCLA headed to the Big Ten and long-term contracts secured with ESPN/ABC and CBS/FOX/NBC respectively, both conferences remain locked in as the powerhouses in college sports for the near future.
The Big 12 has solidified its long-term future at a tier just below the SEC and Big Ten with its ESPN/FOX deal. Although it doesn’t hold any traditional bluebloods as it did before, with TCU fresh off a college football national title appearance and Baylor/Kansas being recent college basketball national champions,
The ACC holds a solid footprint themselves with their relative strength in basketball and decent success in college football with Clemson and Florida State. They are in no danger, but do lack the football depth that’s needed to give the conference major contract power.
And then there’s the Pac-12, the Squidward of Power 5.
It’s a conference in danger of complete dissolution without USC and UCLA to capture the Los Angeles market. Oregon and Washington are football powerhouses, Utah is on the rise, Arizona remains top dog at basketball, Cal still gets solid TV numbers because of the Bay Area, but they are simply not capturing the ratings on their own to justify a large media package at this time.
The rumors continue to flutter out. Turner and CBS are out. Amazon, who the Pac-12 would want to hold half their inventory, might only be interested in providing one game a week. Facing orders from the Mouse to cut costs after some bad financial contracts, ESPN is lowballing the Pac-12 for After Dark games.
In worst case scenarios, the next Pac-12 TV contract could fall as far as mid-major levels, leaving prominent conference members looking for safer harbors. Oregon and Washington will be looking for the first life raft as soon as they can. (Ohio State just cancelled a home-and-home with Washington; you’d have to guess the precarious state of the conference has something to do with it.) The Four Corners of Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah will continue to be courted by Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark.
At the moment, all the chatter is very pessimistic. What the conference needs is much wider thinking than invites to San Diego State and SMU.
So the next best step is to join the competition at their game. Expand and make deals.
For cultural and academic reasons, the Big 12 isn’t a good fit for many Pac-12 members—don’t expect half the conference to be okay with adding BYU or Baylor to their ranks. The Big Ten is the best fit for a program like Cal and definitely shows appeal to an Oregon or Washington, but it seems for the moment the conference is satisfied with their current membership.
So that leaves the ACC, which on paper has more teeth than you’d imagine.
Either a merger into a larger Coastal Conference or a join ACC and Pac-12 alliance could make sense for both sides for the following reasons:
Larger media rights deal
No Los Angeles market is tough, but capturing the coastal cities on both Atlantic and Pacific seaboards would give a Coastal Conference (or Alliance) nearly half of the largest 30 media markets for the conference. That could increase the viability of a combined TV deal for ESPN and streamers like Amazon or Apple in a way a standalone Pac-12 is struggling to generate revenue.
Prevents long-term friction for ESPN with ACC for Grant of Rights
Currently, ACC members are locked into a Grant of Rights deal with ESPN through 2036 that pays out around $20 million annually. It is a terrible deal for conference members, but they are locked in it for another decade-plus because of the onerous $120 million exit fee.
If ESPN could improve their position with Florida State, Miami, Clemson, and North Carolina/Duke in basketball to prevent future Big Ten poaching, it might make sense to add conference members, or even an entire conference like the Pac-12 and append their Grant of Rights that keeps the exit fee in place but ups the annual payouts to keep them on a trending pace with the SEC and Big Ten. It won’t be as high, but it’ll be on the right track, and could alleviate the conference from abandoning course a decade from now.
Fully booked TV schedule
If the ACC and Pac-12 were partnered up, you would have a conference with inventory that could start at noon ET and wrap up at 2 am Sunday, with the top four games running on various ESPN and streaming platforms. That will not beat out premium SEC and Big Ten games, but it’ll certainly give the Coastal a window (late night) that no other major conference can own and a more attractive media package if the two conferences can agree on revenue sharing..
A Coastal Network with wider distribution
The ACC Network hasn’t had the easiest time getting wider visibility compared to its SEC/Big 10 counterparts and the Pac-12 Network’s distribution issues are well-documented. Combining the inventory of the two into a Coastal Network could solve the limited eyeball issue, as there should be enough fans in most markets to attract a larger grouping.
Despite overtures by the Big Ten to consolidate in Notre Dame, the Irish have chosen to resist joining a conference and are sticking to their independence guns in football, aside from a five-game requirement with the ACC. However, if things go the way they do.
Adding in the Pac-12 programs gives Notre Dame a host of opponents to choose from on both coasts to satisfy their five game requirements, allowing them to visit more fertile recruiting hotbeds on the west coast more frequently.
They can keep their Michigan/USC rivalry games, and maintain their independence with a fairly manageable ACC/Pac-12 slate that should earn them regular 12-team playoff trips.
Conferences stay separate in most ways but TV deal shared
Logistically, organizing a 24 team conference could be a bit of nightmare, particularly when the ACC has 14 teams and the Pac-12 ten and the miles accumulated would dwarf some of USC’s and UCLA”s trips. But if the two conferences could agree on some interesting in-season lineups like:
One to two out-of-conference football matchups between the 10 Pac-12 members and 14 ACC members scattered through the season, with several ACC teams rotating out.
Notre Dame adding 1-2 marquee matchups with Pac-12 schools.
Early Pac-12 and ACC basketball road trips to the opposite coasts (or neutral site tournaments within the footprint, like Vegas or the Bahamas).
Two separate conference championship games and tournaments to culminate each regular season in football and men’s basketball.
Then you have a product worth selling to the whole country rather than local parts of the Atlantic and Pacific regions in the nation’s largest population centers. So the TV payouts get bigger for all members.
Although not quite at the level of the Big Ten, the ACC is largely constituted of R1 research institutions, all of whom bring their own merits and would be happy to share space with the powerhouses of the west.
Cal, Stanford, and Washington would be more than happy to join a conference with the likes of Duke, North Carolina Virginia and Georgia Tech. The Coastal Conference/Alliance would become America’s premier academic confederation outside of the Ivy League.
Things get a little more complicated with a full merger, because it’s hard to consolidate imbalanced conferences properly. The Pac-12 would almost certainly have to take San Diego State, maybe SMU, then find a few other programs (Fresno State? The Nevadas) that don’t necessarily provide the same level of import.
Or, you could think even bigger. Would Big 12 members like Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma State or Houston be willing to pay huge exit fees to join the Pac-12, provide balance, and fully make changes that balance the two conferences against each other in either a merger or partnership?
It’s likely the Pac-12 can no longer go it alone with USC and UCLA soon to be gone. It will not attract major TV revenue aside from a few major contests, and that payout will not be able to satisfy major members of the conference. If no satisfactory TV deal emerges, an alliance or merge with the ACC makes the most sense for both sides.
If you’re a Cal fan, and the Big Ten door is shut for now, and the Pac-12 TV deal falls short of expectations, an ACC partnership would help the Bears the most.
What are your thoughts on ACC and Pac-12 combining in some format?