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The Victims of History
Conference instability and a lack of control will continue to define Cal sports for the foreseeable future
Over the last year, when I’m around other Cal people and they find out that I’m the type of weirdo obsessive to write about Cal sports, I’ve been consistently asked the same basic question: What’s going to happen to the Pac-12?
It’s also one of the more common questions asked by readers of this website, and presumably something on the front of your mind, person reading this right now.
And I find myself getting frustrated because I am unable to provide a good answer. I’ve been delaying writing this article in the hopes that actual news would break to provide some kind of clarity.*
It’s been nearly a year since UCLA and USC announced their departure from the Pac-12 in favor of the Big-12, and there has been almost no concrete news at all to make clear the murky future facing Cal and the Pac-12:
No news about what the Pac’s future media contract is going to look like.
No concrete news about which teams have a realistic chance of receiving a golden parachute from the Big-10.
Mealy mouthed, contradictory statements saying very little from a variety of suits at different Pac-12 schools, highlighted by Colorado’s wishy-washy recent comments.
Reporting that the Big Ten is pausing further expansion, along with the fear that geography means nothing and the Big Ten will be able to pick their preference out of the entire non-SEC college football universe.
Which is a long way of saying we know very little more than we did back in July of last year.
Do you want to know what I think is the most likely scenario? Cal is not anywhere near attractive enough to the Big-10. As a result, Cal will be forced to ride it out with whatever is left of the Pac, both from a membership perspective and from a financial perspective. To attempt to make the best of it in a mortally wounded conference that was struggling for major college football relevance before losing two defining, founding members.
I’ve been increasingly critical of Cal’s athletics administration generally and Jim Knowlton specifically for a wide variety of missteps over the last decade. If Cal is left out in the cold during this round of conference realignment, I will always wonder where Cal would have ended up if these same events were happening in, say, the summer of 2010, when Cal athletics was healthier in any number of ways.
But I ultimately don’t think that Cal’s current administration could have done much of anything. This was a path put in motion decades ago, when university administrators of the past decided that major collegiate athletics was a thing to tolerate rather than excel in, an attitude that has led Cal to spend the millions of dollars that is required merely to have a large athletics program, but not the additional millions of dollars it would take to succeed on the field and in the market for fans and viewer eyeballs.
History is happening to Cal, and not the kind that they can control.
The University of California may reside in one of the biggest media markets in the nation, but our Bears just don’t draw the same number of eyeballs as any number of other athletics programs. That’s why the B1G was willing to jump on USC and UCLA and nobody apparently thought about looking into bringing Cal along. And it’s why I’d bet that if the B1G wants to add schools, Cal will be lower down on the list than any number of options, including various disgruntled ACC teams.
Maybe I’m wrong! Despite the current reality, it seems insane to me to imagine a world where you don’t see Cal, Stanford, USC, and UCLA all in the same conference standings.
But Chicago used to be in the B1G, Tulane used to be in the SEC, UConn used to have a conference . . . just because something used to be, doesn’t mean that it will continue to be.
And if my read of the landscape is right, I sure do hope that Jim Knowlton has budgeted better than Washington State, because I don’t think the next media deal is going to keep up with inflation, and I don’t think anybody is going to come to Cal’s rescue.
*Honestly kinda hoping that publishing this on Monday will lead to the new Pac-12 media contract to be announced this week just to spite me.