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Originally published May 31, 2010 at 8:01 PM | Page modified June 1, 2010 at 11:38 AM

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Bud Withers

Conference expansion will be hot topic at summer meetings

Possible expansion by the Big Ten could set in motion a series of events that could mean new schools joining the Pac-10.

Seattle Times colleges reporter

On the gulf shores of Florida, and in San Francisco, and in Kansas City, the nation's biggest college athletic conferences are staging their summer meetings this week. They'll talk about scheduling and media guides and a lot of other mundane things.

But over dinner and in the bars late at night, one topic will be a lot splashier, and nobody will be nodding off: conference realignment.

If that's a vague concept, some of the related possibilities aren't: You might see Colorado teams playing regularly on University of Washington campus venues. The last weekend of the regular season in football might be reserved for a Pac-10 championship game. Or your cable package might feature a channel on which you could see the Huskies playing softball every weekend, or the Cougars playing baseball.

In a recent interview, The Times asked Larry Scott, the Pac-10 commissioner just concluding his first year in office, how he envisions the general makeup of the nation's conferences in a year.

"There will be changes," he said. "It won't be exactly as it is today nationally. I can't tell you at this stage whether it will be incremental or a sea change."

The prospect of a realignment has been such a sizzling topic in recent weeks that it carried a strong undercurrent at an April meeting of BCS officials, member leagues and TV executives.

"The Big 12 and Big East were acting like they were under siege," said one college administrator. "You could sense it."

All this about something over which little has happened — officially, at least.

Driving this bus to its uncertain destination is 61-year-old Jim Delany. He was a reserve guard under Dean Smith at North Carolina, got his law degree there, and for the past 21 years has been Big Ten commissioner.

Last December, Delany announced the Big Ten planned to explore options for expansion over the next 12 to 18 months. Both the possible targets, and the dominoes that could fall elsewhere, have inspired a spate of erroneous or premature media reports.

But right now, nobody's wrong yet, even if nobody's right. In that spirit, we offer this piquant possibility for the Pac-10: Texas. More on the Longhorns later.

Big Ten dealing from position of strength

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Delany sits in the catbird seat, and from interviews with multiple administrators in college athletics, it's apparent he has annoyed some with his prolonged moment in the spotlight. But he's holding pocket aces on a variety of fronts:

The Big Ten represents a larger TV market (22 percent) than any conference in the country. And it's perfectly positioned geographically to expand to the east, west or even the south.

Then there's Delany's brainchild, the Big Ten Network. After a rocky start in 2007, it is now spraying all manner of Big Ten sports to cable subscribers, and helping to deliver to its member schools an annual TV booty of about $20 million to $22 million, far in excess of every other league but the Southeastern.

This is all very much about television revenue. And to a degree, it's a horse race between the Big Ten and SEC, which last year signed deals with CBS and ESPN for a combined $3 billion over 15 years. Surveying his handiwork last summer, and mindful of the SEC's recent power in football and basketball, commissioner Mike Slive thrust out his chest and said, "We are witness to a period that someday may be called the SEC's Golden Age."

Two things sources are accepting as a given: Notre Dame, to which the Big Ten has long cast a covetous eye, is again Delany's quarry. The Irish aren't what they used to be in football, not having won a national title since 1988, but they carry an indelible brand nationally. No doubt they would bump the value of that Big Ten Network.

But the Irish have historically held fiercely to their football independence, a stranglehold the Big Ten has previously sought to unlock.

Jim Muldoon, Pac-10 associate commissioner and himself a Notre Dame grad, says he was told that the last time the Big Ten approached the Irish, there was significant internal support for the move, "but there was such a negative reaction from alumni that the financial gain would be nullified" in a loss of contributions.

Second, it's widely assumed that Slive won't take any quantum Big Ten expansion lying down.

"If the Big Ten were to go to 16," says one man with longtime roots as a conference official, "I think it's a foregone conclusion the SEC's going to react. If (the Big Ten) went to 14, I don't think the SEC would have to."

The bigger the Big Ten goes, the more scorched will be the landscape. The popular scenario is that if the Big Ten makes any sort of raid on the Big East — of which Notre Dame is a member except for football — the Irish would be forced to throw in with the Big Ten. And the SEC, so the thinking goes, would hunt its own prospects.

Potential Big Ten targets have been discussed almost as flavors of the week. Missouri and Nebraska are two, because those members of the Big 12 North are uneasy about the Texas-fueled domination in the Big 12 South. One source says the departure of Kevin Weiberg as commissioner in 2007 — he's now with the Pac-10 — came partly over such acrimony.

"I don't think there's a very happy marriage between the Texas schools and the old Big Eight schools," said the source. "(Weiberg) was sick and tired of the never-ending battle between the North and South because of money."

Missouri and Nebraska are believed two schools ready to jump. So is Rutgers of the Big East, a New Jersey school with an inroad into New York television. But other targets have also been advanced, seemingly improbable but perhaps not in a new-world collegiate geography — Maryland, Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt.

"Things you thought were important two or three decades ago in terms of geography are not important," says one administrator at a Pac-10 school. "The Big Ten is in the network business. It's eyeballs on televisions."

The Pac-10 fallout

Scott, the Pac-10 commissioner, got his marching orders very early from the league's presidents and chancellors: Make more money. All you need to know is this number: According to the Sports Business Journal, the bulging SEC TV contracts with ESPN and CBS are worth $205 million annually to the league.

The Pac-10's contracts with ABC/ESPN and Fox are worth a combined $45 million a year.

So amid all this realignment talk, Scott is on a more macro mission: He needs to turn over every stone for possible revenue, and if expanding the conference for the first time in 32 years means more cash, that can be folded into the larger quest.

Indeed, there is now considerable sentiment that the Pac-10 might not expand, partly because it seems to have fewer options. Scott says the league will decide by the end of the year.

"I think they're probably better positioned to take an independent look at it," says one conference commissioner. "The dominoes probably fall closer in those other leagues.

"It's a very simple calculation. Does (expansion) grow the revenue pie to justify the shares you allocate?"

The Pac-10 generates a reported $100 million annually. If, for instance, it takes in Colorado and Utah — two of the most-discussed possible additions — those two need to add $20 million in value just to offset the member share each would get from the league's combined revenue. Denver and Salt Lake City are the nation's Nos. 16 and 31 TV markets, respectively.

If expansion doesn't pencil out, Scott will be left to massage revenue from sources he says haven't been maximized.

"In our conference, there's a quiet confidence about changes we're working on," he says. "My belief is that the Pac-10 has been more significantly undervalued than any other conference. We will unlock significant new value for the conference."

He's going to great lengths to do that, hiring Los Angeles-based Creative Artists Agency, usually associated with entertainers and individual athletes, in what he calls "kind of a breakout relationship for them."

Here's what you could see: a Pac-10 championship football game; a conference TV network, possibly combined with another league; and a greater willingness to make games available to TV at nontraditional times, perhaps like Monday nights in basketball.

Referring to its TV availability, Scott said, "It's no secret the Pac-10 has been the most rigid conference in the country."

If the league doesn't expand, it might explore NCAA legislation that would waive the requirement for a 12-team league before it can stage a playoff game. Scott would address the absence of an obvious neutral site with this brainstorm: Play the game on the home field of the higher-ranked team.

"It works in the NFL with great success," he points out.

But here's the Pac-10's quickest route to the bank vault: Texas.

There's a scenario by which Texas, which has the fifth- and 10th-largest TV markets in Dallas and Houston, respectively, could become available. If the Big 12 begins to crumble with exits by Missouri and Nebraska, the Longhorns may be looking for a soft landing.

No doubt Slive already has done heavy homework on the 'Horns, because the subject has been discussed in the Pac-10. Mike Garrett, the USC athletic director, wondered aloud at some recent meetings about adding Texas as a football-only component, an idea that didn't get much traction.

Texas would seem more a fit for the SEC — imagine its tennis team setting out for Pullman or Corvallis — but it's not as simple as geography. Texas, like seven members of the Pac-10, is part of the research-oriented Association of American Universities, while only two members (Florida and Vanderbilt) of the SEC are.

"It's huge, what that means to these CEOs," says Washington athletic director Scott Woodward.

Texas president William Powers Jr. got his undergrad degree at California in 1967. Word is, people like football coaches Mack Brown and his heir, Will Muschamp, want no part of the SEC. It's deathly competitive with a reputation for running afoul of the NCAA rule book.

The Pac-10 romanced Texas in the early '90s and made some inroads before the issue turned political and schools like Baylor and Texas Tech killed the move. So it's not an uncharted topic.

With or without Texas, if the Big 12 disintegrates, might the Pac-10 find Oklahoma (and Oklahoma State) attractive? Or Texas A&M, where the athletic director, Bill Byrne, held that job at Oregon from 1984 to 1992?

"The most important thing is for expansion to make sense for the Pac-10," says Woodward. "I know Larry Scott is doing his due diligence to ensure that."

On several fronts, Texas doesn't make a lot of sense for the Pac-10. But in a world of convoluted collegiate geography that seems near, it's a lot less about sense than it is dollars.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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About Bud Withers

Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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