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Underrated Pac-10 must increase TV exposure to increase respect

Texas finished whipping Kansas at 11:32 p.m. ET on Saturday night. As I sat in Tallahassee, Fla., watching late games, I looked forward to the local ABC affiliate's inevitable switch to the Oregon-Arizona thriller, which was still in regulation but looked destined for overtime.

Because the Internet service provider in my location didn't offer the ESPN360 streaming service, I had been watching the Ducks and Wildcats on a grainy, choppy and -- most importantly -- illegal feed. I very much looked forward to rejoining the ranks of the law-abiding and seeing the finish with a reliable broadcast.

By the time John Saunders and Jesse Palmer signed off and the local news began, I realized I wouldn't get the best game played so far by teams from 2009's best conference (the Pac-10). Frustrated, I asked the followers of my Twitter feed how many of them couldn't get the game. Angry reports rolled in from Atlanta, Dallas, Birmingham, Miami, St. Louis, Pueblo, Colo., and Cambridge, Mass. One frustrated viewer wrote that he just gave up on football altogether and watched New Moon red-carpet recaps on Extra.

A check of ESPN/ABC's coverage map and the U.S. Census Bureau's 2008 population estimates revealed that about 30.9 percent of the country had no cable television access to a game that demonstrated just how good the quality of play in the Pac-10 is. That, precisely, is the Pac-10's problem. No matter how good the teams are, no matter how many bowl games the league wins, millions of fans have little or no access to the games unless they subscribe to ESPN's Game Plan package. That affects my AP ballot and Power Rankings, because try as I may using Internet feeds, I still don't get as accurate a picture of the Pac-10 as I do the SEC or the Big Ten. The Big 12, which has an almost identical broadcast arrangement as the Pac-10, faces similar issues.

Commissioner Larry Scott, who came to the Pac-10 in July from the Women's Tennis Association, was hired in part to fix his conference's exposure issues. "I come to the end of my first season feeling like the Pac-10 is probably the most underrated conference in the country among the big conferences and certainly the most underleveraged from a revenue and exposure standpoint," Scott told SI.com. "That's part of the fun and the challenge of my role going forward."

ESPN spokesman Mike Humes explained that the situation Saturday wasn't a slight to the Pac-10. Had the Kansas-Texas game been a thriller and the Oregon-Arizona been a dud, the affiliates broadcasting the Pac-10 game also would have switched to local news, which brings in most of an affiliate's advertising revenue. "It's common practice that we tell the affiliates that at the end of the game they're getting, they can go to local programming," Humes said. "It was predetermined."

Humes said ESPN couldn't "reverse mirror" -- broadcast one regional game on ABC while showing the other on ESPN2 -- because the slate was full. Nebraska and Kansas State were playing for the Big 12 North title on ESPN, and Kentucky was shocking Georgia on ESPN2. Humes noted that when Stanford hosts Notre Dame on Saturday, that game will be reverse-mirrored with Georgia-Georgia Tech.

While ESPN/ABC certainly didn't intend to slight the Pac-10, it always seems the league gets treated like a second-class citizen. We know the SEC is king in terms of viewership -- your responses to our college football fan survey confirmed that -- but college football in general is the second most popular sport in America behind the NFL. When Scott sits down to negotiate the Pac-10's broadcast deals for 2012 and beyond, he will have that in mind.

The Pac-10 boasts name brands in USC, UCLA and Oregon (the University of Nike). Oregon State and Cal are consistently good, and Washington and Arizona are getting better. But just try to find a Pac-10 game on television. Some games (Stanford-Cal, for example) are broadcast on Fox SportsNet or Versus, which at the moment is not available to any DirecTV subscribers. This breaks my heart not only because I'll make my reality TV debut early next year on the network's Sports Jobs with Junior Seau, but because a lot of people who love college football are missing some great games.

Consider the regions that didn't receive Oregon-Arizona. Imagine the Louisiana Purchase and throw in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Texas as well as the Boston, Cincinnati, Knoxville and Memphis metro areas. That may only be 30 percent of the country, but far greater concentrations of college football fans live in Big 12 and SEC country, so the Pac-10 took an even greater hit.

Scott understands this. The WTA is based in St. Petersburg, Fla., so the former Harvard tennis player has been exposed to plenty of SEC football. "The Pac-10 was not seen as on a par with the SEC," he said. "But when I came out and saw the whole and looked at all the facts, I realized that historically -- and certainly in the past seven years -- the Pac-10 has been as strong."

But no one east of the Rockies knows it. It's not a time zone issue, either. Most Pac-10 games end at the same time as late ACC, Big 12, Big East or SEC prime-time games. What Scott must find is a broadcast network willing to offer an exclusive or near-exclusive time slot for the league's best games. ABC is full. CBS is happy with the SEC. That leaves Fox, which has no college football at the moment, or NBC, which has nothing after Notre Dame's afternoon home games sign off. If I were Scott, I would spend the next year trying to convince NBC executives that a Pac-10 game of the week at 8 p.m. Saturday would be the second coming of the Golden Girls/Empty Nest juggernaut NBC cashed in on 20 years ago.

Whatever it takes to get the nation's most underexposed conference the credit it deserves.

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