Larry Scott was explaining his vision for the future of college athletics, and anyone who had been paying attention these last couple of years -- meaning, since Scott became involved with college athletics -- knew it was important to, well, pay attention. The Pac-12 commissioner has been on the cutting edge, and we're not talking about the two cellphones or the iPad he brought to the table. He's been cutting the edge. If someone wanted to call him visionary, it would be hard to argue at this point.
Consider the Pac-12's ginormous TV rights deal ($3 billion over 12 years from an unprecedented combination with competitors ESPN and Fox) and the announcement last week of a Pac-12 Network that will somehow be built with four cable providers as partners, resulting in six regional channels and an overarching national outlet. It's unclear how much the conference will make from the arrangement, but it owns the network and clearly expects to reel in revenue.
Which is why ears perked up at the Pac-12's media day last week when Scott said even more money is out there, waiting to be had, as soon as college sports becomes less fragmented. That's his word, "fragmented," and it was followed by "consolidation." Yes, Scott was talking expansion again. Conference realignment. Those oft-predicted super-conferences. And the Pac-12's place in that eventuality -- inevitability, Scott would probably say instead.
"I think market forces over time will drive more consolidation," Scott said. "It just makes sense."
But here's the thing: When it happens, the Pac-12 doesn't appear as well-positioned as it was a year ago.
Don't misunderstand. It's safe to say Scott is thinking a step or two ahead of most of us. The Pac-12 Network deal, for example, includes a clause withholding for the conference rights to devices that have not yet been invented (though some suspect Scott is about to invent them). But when it comes to conference realignment and further expansion, Scott's big push came last summer. His aggressive attempt to lure Texas and five other Big 12 schools almost ushered in the radical change he still foresees: four 16-team conferences filled with haves, and the have-nots left behind on some different, lower tier. But when the Pac-16 didn't become reality then, the chances were greatly reduced of it happening later.
Maybe we've known it ever since Scott flew back to California after a whirlwind tour of the heartland. He brought with him Colorado, and soon after added Utah. Not Texas. Not Oklahoma. He'd just missed cutting the Big 12 in half and creating the first super-conference, which would probably have been the catalyst for a tectonic shift in the college landscape. But last month, when the aftershocks from last summer rumbled again, the Pac-12 didn't seem to be in the picture.
Texas A&M regents got riled up about Texas' ambitious plans for The Longhorn Network, including broadcasts of high school games and at least one game against a Big 12 opponent. Suddenly, the Aggies were talking about the SEC again. Would they leave and perhaps take Oklahoma with them? Ultimately, nothing happened. Big 12 athletic directors emerged from a meeting this week with a one-year moratorium on the high school games and with proclamations of fidelity and unity, but let's be real: The whole arrangement remains shaky at best. All it takes is for those well-placed Aggies to get good and mad again, and the Big 12 might be no more.
Asked about the brouhaha, Scott took a barely veiled shot at the conference's forced marriage and the concessions it made last summer to keep Texas in the fold.
"I'm not surprised that there will be growing pains and issues," Scott said. "As you know, we have a very different philosophy about how our conference operates. It's why it was important for me to move to equal revenue-sharing. It's why I've been insistent all along it was gonna be a conference network. I think that's the appropriate way to do things as a conference and a formula for success and harmony."
As opposed to, say, allowing a member to start its own network and throw its considerable weight around. The Big 12's imbalance hasn't changed. At some point -- and that point will come -- when expansion occurs again, the Big 12 looks like the league that gets plucked by other, more stable conferences. The Pac-12 probably won't be plucking, though. Scott says the conference is satisfied with 12 members, and he's moved on to other initiatives, but that's not why further expansion probably won't happen in the league.
"I want to make (the Pac-12) the most coveted place in the country to be," Scott says. "A successful conference so that whenever things shake free ... whenever there is realignment, I know we're gonna be in great shape because I know we're gonna be a desirous place for schools to be."
The remade Pac-12 already fits that description. But the question is how many desirous schools would become available. It might be as simple as geography.
The Pac-16 that almost was would have functioned as essentially two separate conferences, with the eastern division consisting of the former Big 12 schools along with Arizona and Arizona State and the western division featuring the old Pac-8 members. The arrangement would have been especially good for sports other than football, when travel in the huge geographic footprint would have otherwise been an issue. But now Texas is out. The Longhorn Network might or might not be a long-term game-changer for the Longhorns, but as long as it exists, Texas and the Pac-12 won't get together. Not that he needed to say it, but Scott told Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman as much last week.
Unquestionably, Texas was the plum in Scott's big plan for the Pac-16. (Texas' only realistic move might be to become an independent, though it's hard to see that as a desirable option.) Without the Longhorns, expansion looks a lot less delicious. And the lessened interest might be mutual. Texas A&M's infatuation with the SEC might not be the smartest idea, but it's real enough, at least with a serious segment of Aggies. Meanwhile, Oklahoma isn't enthused about the idea of leaving the Big 12 behind, period.
If there's an attractive scenario for Scott and the Pac-12, though, it's this: There's some sentiment in Norman that Oklahoma would remain more interested in moving to the Pac-12 (or Pac-whatever) than the SEC. Even without Texas, a package of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech might work.
But without some combination of Texas, Oklahoma and A&M, as Jon Wilner of the San Jose Mercury News laid it out in a comprehensive breakdown of the possibilities, the Pac-12 would be "woefully short of quality options." Although the TV rights deals could and would be renegotiated if the Pac-12 expanded, it's hard to see how those other options would add enough value to offset the extra slices of the revenue pie.
The upshot is this: When the next round of expansion occurs, we should be mildly surprised if Scott makes big moves. Given the new TV deals, expansion probably isn't necessary for the league's future success. But if consolidation is inevitable, the Pac-12 doesn't appear to have nearly as many attractive options as the Big Ten or SEC would. Scott seems boxed in by geography and recent events -- not that he'd admit it.
"However and whenever this consolidation (occurs) that we want to act on," Scott said, "we'll be in a good spot."
Could be, of course, he's got the Sooners on speed dial. Or maybe the guy really is a visionary and we're just not thinking big enough. Scott continues to talk about expanding the Pac-12's footprint into the Pacific Rim. Could he know something we don't about the future football plans of, say, Beijing Normal or Shanghai Sports University?