Led by savvy commissioner Larry Scott, Pac-10 rebrands its image

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It can't tackle a tailback or shoot a three-pointer. It can't serve an ace or score a perfect 10 on the vault. It can't convince television executives to write checks for $200 million a year. If you've made up your mind about the Pac-10 Conference, a shield featuring a wave rolling into a mountain isn't going to alter your beliefs.

Not on its own, at least.

Only 30 years ago, Nike's swoosh was just a funny looking check mark. Now, it embodies a brand. It immediately evokes a lean, muscular, sweat-covered image of not just a company, but a way of life. Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott hopes years from now, you'll look at that shield with the wave rolling into the mountain and think three things.

West Coast. Innovation. Championships.

Scott knows it won't be easy to plant those images in your mind, especially if you live east of the Rockies, but his conference will try. On Tuesday, Scott will unveil the reimagined Pac-10 in New York City. The location isn't an accident. It's all part of a plan Scott set into motion when he took over as commissioner a year ago this month. Scott, a former Harvard tennis player who revamped the Women's Tennis Association in his six years there, dreams of reinventing how a college conference operates. Scott's first gambit -- putting together a 16-team superconference that would have included most of the current Big 12 South division -- fell short when the Big 12 saved itself from annihilation in June. But he hasn't stopped dreaming big. He wants to market the Pac-10 more like a professional league. He wants the Pac-10 to build not only a national brand, but an international one. While the league tries to win the hearts and minds of sports fans to the east, it also will look west to Asia in an effort to capitalize on untapped markets.

"The success of the Pac-10 has been historically on the management side and on the governance side," Scott said. "What I tried to do is say those are all critical roles that a conference office plays, but I tried to bring a new perspective to that. In addition to that, we have to look at ourselves as content owners and brand stewards and promoters. We've got very valuable assets we're responsible for leveraging for the benefit of the schools, and there is a lot at stake."

There is indeed. The rebranding of the Pac-10 comes months before Scott and his team will sit down with television executives to hammer out the conference's new media deals. There, Scott hopes to correct an imbalance that left the Pac-10 last among the six BCS automatic-qualifying conferences in revenue. In fiscal 2009, the Pac-10 made $96.8 million. The same year, the Big Ten made $220 million. This year, the SEC distributed $209 million to its 12 member schools.

"You're trying to position yourself to make sure you're not allowing too big a spread to be created between what's being paid to the Big Ten and the SEC schools," UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel said. "You had to keep looking at ways to make it more attractive to TV people."

The gap owes partly to timing; the value of media contracts has increased exponentially in recent years. But it also has roots in deep-held national perceptions of the conferences. Even before the Big Ten Network took off or the SEC's new blockbuster contracts kicked in, those leagues had better deals than the Pac-10. That mystifies some in the league. "All I know is that if these are television dollars and UCLA sits in one of the television capitals in the world in Los Angeles, it's ridiculous for our school to be taking less than any other school in the country," Neuheisel said.

Money matters. Earlier this month, a presidential committee at Cal released a scathing report that found that between 2004 and 2009, the university had given between $7 million and $14 million each year to subsidize the athletic department's now-$70 million budget. Those are taxpayer dollars funding sports at a time when faculty salaries are frozen and academic budgets are being slashed.

Scott understands why some faculty members want to cut athletics subsidies completely. It's his job to find a way to generate enough revenue at the conference level so member schools won't have to cut sports or extras such as academic support for athletes if their universities decide they can't afford to subsidize athletics. "Cal is a microcosm of what's happening across our conference and, frankly, across the country," Scott said. "So I feel a tremendous responsibility and pressure, in a sense. ... There is more pressure on schools and conferences to be entrepreneurial, to pay for themselves."

To make that possible, Scott and his team had to start by rebranding the Pac-10.

Scott loves to use media examples to make his points. When he took over at the WTA in 2003, BusinessWeek had just published an indictment of the organization under the headline "The Grand Slam Eluding Women's Tennis." Scott blew up the story and posted it in the conference room. He also had some of his staff rewrite the story with the assumption that the changes he planned to implement had succeeded. With both versions in hand, Scott had one question for his staff: Which story would you rather read?

Last October, Scott sent an SI article to major decision-makers at Pac-10 schools. He had copied John Ed Bradley's SI cover story on SEC football. The story drove home the point that Scott had been trying to drill into the skulls of his constituents since he was hired. A conference can be a brand.

The SEC has a strong brand. Barbecue, blitzes and butt-whipping. The Big Ten has a strong brand. Brats, bruising backs and barrel-chested linemen. But what is the Pac-10 brand?

"The Pac-10 has always had a very good reputation," said Washington president Mark Emmert, who will take over as NCAA president on Nov. 1. "The brand has always stood for academic quality and integrity. We certainly wanted to keep all that in place because it's essential and central to who we are. But it also had a bit of a stodgy, a little bit self-satisfied image that we wanted to change. We wanted to demonstrate that out west, people are engaged in innovation and creativity. We are the home of Microsoft and Google, and we do build airplanes. We do all sorts of exciting and dynamic things out west. ... Yet the conference wasn't really a reflection of that energy."

Scott began the process of reinventing the conference by making concrete changes. He reorganized his staff. He met with television executives. In one a-ha moment, Scott was stunned when he learned from ESPN/ABC executives that the conference had turned down the reverse mirror option for split telecast football games on ABC. Reverse mirroring allows the portion of the country that doesn't get a particular game on ABC to watch that game on one of ESPN's family of networks. For example, if 33 percent of the country is getting Oregon-USC and 66 percent of the country is getting Michigan-Iowa on ABC, the east-coasters and Midwesterners who want to watch the Ducks and Trojans could simply tune to ESPN2. So instead of exposing the entire country to its product, the previous Pac-10 regime had forced Pac-10 football to remain largely a regional entity. Scott immediately corrected that mistake, telling ESPN that for the remainder of the existing contract, it could reverse mirror Pac-10 games at no extra charge. He also convinced athletic directors to allow more Thursday and Friday night football games to give the league more national exposure.

Scott also needed to tweak the conference in more abstract ways. To help, he hired Danette Leighton as the league's first marketing executive. Leighton, the daughter of a former UCLA baseball player and an Arizona graduate, began her career as an intern in the Pac-10 office. She was working as the Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development for Maloof Sports, the owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, when the Pac-10 called again. Leighton believes the NBA promotional model can be adapted to suit college sports with great results.

"Professional sports, being a sports business, have had to look at everything through a different lens," she said. "How do we sell tickets? How do we market? How do we sell sponsorships? What is the most appealing thing for our fans? Looking at the holistic experience from a fan perspective in the NBA is really, really critical."

Part of that experience is the brand. Dallas Cowboys fans take great pride in the team's iconic star. The New York Yankees' interlocking NY logo is recognizable in the Bronx or in Bolivia. So another of Scott's first hires was SME, the New York-based firm that works with the Yankees and dozens of other professional teams, leagues and colleges to help them unlock their brand identity. "There is a saying in my business: Your brand is what your consumers think it is," SME chairman Ed O'Hara said. "It's not what you think it is. I think Larry got that."

O'Hara said his team spoke to more than 2,000 people to determine the Pac-10's brand. SME employees quizzed university presidents, athletes, coaches, television executives, sponsors and other stakeholders. "We assembled this incredible perspective of the brand," O'Hara said. "There were a lot of consistencies that started to emerge."

ESPN executives said that when they thought of the Pac-10, they envisioned beaches, mountain ranges and desert landscapes. More than any other conference, O'Hara said, the Pac-10 evoked a sense of place. Nike executives, meanwhile, stressed to SME that in differentiating conferences, it wasn't as important to be better as it was to be different.

After the interviews, SME prepared a brand report that offered a stark portrayal of the Pac-10's present and bright vision of its future. The benchmarking process revealed several flaws that needed immediate correction. Among them:

• All other conferences are more flexible in dealing with media partners, especially in regards to scheduling.

• Significant value is lost in simple brand exposure deficiencies such as conference logos on uniforms, fields and equipment.

• The conference misses out on significant revenues from a football championship game.

Some of the findings probably sent palms crashing into foreheads in the Pac-10's Walnut Creek, Calif., office. Other leagues had required teams to wear conference patches on their uniforms and paint logos on their playing surfaces for more than a decade. How could the Pac-10 miss something so obvious? "Isn't that amazing? It's just so simple," O'Hara said. "But it's a loss of revenue of exposure."

SME also listed 10 currently held attitudes the Pac-10 can change with a more dynamic marketing effort. The most important is east coast bias, which SME suggested turning into a "west-coast advantage." Hollywood is smack in the middle of the Pac-10 footprint. Use that. To that end, the Pac-10 has hired Creative Artists Agency to help take better advantage of its proximity to America's entertainment capital. And though America's media capital sits nearly 3,000 miles from the heart of the Pac-10, the conference can begin to overcome that disadvantage by bringing itself to the media capital. So Tuesday, Scott and all 10 of the league's football coaches will hold a media day in New York City.

SME also pointed out that the Pac-10 states are the gateway to Asia, home to huge untapped markets. Last week, Scott held a conference call with some former WTA partners in Beijing to discuss the possibility of showing Pac-10 sporting events on Chinese television. Scott, who opened an office in Beijing when he worked for the WTA, pointed out that UCLA already has branded merchandise shops in the world's most populous nation. A huge chunk of the student populations at several Pac-10 schools is of Asian descent. So it only makes sense, Scott said, to begin sending teams to Asia for exhibitions or to begin bringing Chinese or Japanese college teams to Pac-10 campuses for exhibitions or clinics.

"I don't think it's far-fetched to think that five years from now, you'll see Pac-10 teams competing in Asia, hosting teams over here, and the brand of the Pac-10 starting to built over there and exposed on TV," Scott said. "That's going to provide some great opportunity for student-athletes." He also hopes it might pave the way for more academic collaboration between Pac-10 schools and Asian universities.

A "logical byproduct," Scott said, is the potential to eventually recruit athletes from Asia. Yao Ming turned an entire nation into NBA fans. Imagine the economic impact if a Chinese basketball player starred at Stanford or Cal or Arizona. Scott has.

SME's report concluded that to its target audiences to the east and west, the Pac-10 needed to exude West Coast-cool. It needs to remind people that the Pac-10 footprint is home to innovators such as Google, Nike, Microsoft and Apple. It needs to remind people that the Pac-10 is home to some of the nation's elite universities. It also needs to remind people that the Pac-10 wins -- a lot. The league has claimed 388 NCAA titles, more than 150 more than the second-place Big Ten.

If it can do all that, media partners and sponsors will notice. "When you elevate the brand, you get to charge more," O'Hara said. "You get to spend less on media. You get to simplify purchase decisions."

Once Pac-10 officials understood their brand, they needed a symbol to capture it. They needed their own swoosh or Dallas Cowboys star.

So they contacted several companies and asked them to submit ideas. Mutt Industries, the Portland firm that has done work in recent years for Nike, Coca-Cola and Heineken, designed more than 100 possibilities within a week. Mutt executives Scott Cromer and Steve Luker and senior designer Damien Webb experimented with 3D shapes, with equations (a Pac-10 design was one possibility) and a variety of standard two-dimensional logo. Scott loved the passion with which Mutt's team attacked the pitch, so he awarded the firm the contract in January.

How important was the logo to Scott? Cromer and Luker said the commissioner called almost daily from the moment he awarded the contract until university presidents approved the final logo. "He was a taskmaster," Luker said, laughing.

Before the team began the design process, each member brought in a group of favorite logos. Designers discussed why the NFL's shield, John Deere's two-color mark and Coke's script logo connected with consumers. "I think we forget sometimes the power of marks and icons in our lives and how we attach ourselves to those," Cromer said. "One of our biggest goals was to make a mark that could stand the test of time ... so it becomes a beloved icon."

The team studied other conference marks and determined that only the SEC's -- a simple, blue-and-gold, circular logo containing the acronym -- could be considered iconic. But the team knew the Pac-10 logo would need more than just the conference's name; Scott wanted the identity of the brand captured in the logo.

One priority was an image that would defy the image of the Pac-10 -- especially Pac-10 football -- held by fans east of the Rockies. Pac-10 sports are very powerful and strong," Cromer said. "Yet nationally they're perceived as being kind of weak and soft. ... We wanted to not necessarily reframe perception so much as live up to the values of the conference."

As a Michigan grad living in the heart of Pac-10 territory, Luker understands that disparity better than most. Luker recalled the run-up to Oregon's 2007 visit to Ann Arbor. Even though Michigan had just lost to Appalachian State, Luker said he and his fellow Michigan alums remained confident that a bunch of softies from the west coast couldn't beat the Wolverines in the Big House. "They absolutely kicked our ass," Luker said.

So designers chose a mountain and wave, which symbolize not only the Pac-10's geographic footprint but also its strength. Mountains can't be moved, except maybe by waves. It didn't hurt that mountains also provide the backdrop at Colorado and Utah, the conference's two newest schools.

Another priority was a mark that could accommodate various hues so schools could customize the logo with their own color schemes. PAC had to pop off the logo, because Scott has ordered his staff to de-emphasize the use of the word "Pacific." Last week, an assistant answered the phone in the conference office by saying "Pacific-10."

"In a few months," Scott said, "they won't say that."

The typeface also had to be adaptable because the conference's name is about to change. Scott said that unlike the Big Ten, which will be a 12-team league beginning in 2011, or the Big 12, which will be a 10-team league beginning in either 2011 or 2012, his conference will remain mathematically correct. When Colorado and Utah join, the league will be called the Pac-12. Had Scott succeeded in landing Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, the conference would have devised an entirely new name, conference leaders felt the Pacific portion of the name would still make sense with just two new additions. The number change just seemed like common sense. "The name should be uncomplicated," Scott said, "and it should reflect what you are." Says Mutt's Cromer: "We're already designing the two."

Washington president Emmert knows some won't appreciate the new mark, but he is a fan. "You always get some people that love it and some people that hate it," said Emmert, who came to Washington from LSU. "I was intimately involved in the selection of the tiger head that is currently the LSU logo. I'm here to tell you that that there is no winning those debates."

So will the logo become an icon? The Mutt guys can't promise that. At the end of the day, it's only a logo. But if Scott can realize some of his outsize dreams, and if Pac-10 teams can keep winning championships, the shield with the mountain and the wave could come to symbolize a conference that shed its stodgy image and took up residence on the cutting edge.

"It's up to the Pac-10 now to live up to those ideals," Luker said, "to play with excellence and to fill this mark with great championships and stories and memories."