The Pac-12, consistently the most dysfunctional of the “Power Five” college football conferences, is about to close out another year of frustration for fans and increasing irrelevance in the wider college football landscape.
What started with yet another season devoid of a Pac-12 team in the lucrative College Football Playoff will likely end in the same this year, assuming there’s a playoff at all. The eventual conference winner will be lucky to have played seven regular season games (down from 12) due to COVID. Even a rescheduled Rose Bowl won’t be much of a saving grace when that conference winner potentially heads to Pasadena in… March.
Yet, the most troubling news for the Pac-12 may have been this note earlier this week around its new ad-supported streaming service, “Pac-12 Insider.”
Look, given the state of college athletics this year — few fans in attendance, reduced number of games across sports, no NCAA Tournament — budgets are tight. So pursuing new revenue streams is not a poor idea by any means. Yet this idea — ANOTHER new venture for the league — seems less careful planning and more just a lazy attempt at making a few dollars while the rest of its house is still in disarray.
We spoke about the Pac-12’s issues in this pace last year, when it was rumored the conference was talking to Apple about streaming rights (something that came up again in April 2020). Along with on-the-field struggles, the Pac-12’s biggest issue is content distribution. Getting games into more homes — at more reasonable times of day on the East Coast — would mean more revenue, which means more opportunities to improve athletic departments and their various teams.
With that in mind, finding distribution avenues with new partners like Samsung, Redbox and XUMO (Roku was also announced after this was published) are good. But… the most valuable inventory is LIVE sports, not replays. And most other conferences (especially those with games aired by ESPN) already have these features easily available, either for free through YouTube or free for millions of existing subscribers on WatchESPN.
Distribution for the linear Pac-12 Network — which airs live games for all sports — still pales in comparison to that of the SEC Network, ACC Network and Big 10 Network, respectively, and there’s no sign of that issue improving. The list is limited to something like Comcast, Spectrum, Cox, Dish, fuboTV, TVision, Frontier, Sling TV, Vidgo and a handful of others right now. The Big Ten Network has those PLUS virtually every other major cable, satellite and OTT provider. The SEC Network and ACC Network are picked up by most major MVPDs as well. Plus, all three of those networks have the ease of negotiating as part of larger media conglomerates (the Big Ten Network is produced in partnership with Fox, while SECN and ACCN are Disney properties as part of ESPN).
Simply, the Pac-12 needs to figure out TV. We can blame the fact the Pac-12 owns its network, but that doesn’t explain how it’s failed to capitalize on a booming market for sports rights and attractive team brands in popular markets like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland (OR), Phoenix, Denver, Seattle and Salt Lake City. among others. While fans pine for games to appear on their respective MVPDs at a reasonable time of day, the Pac-12 seems hell-bent on airing games at 9 a.m. or 9 p.m. PT. Or streaming in China. Or on more obscure streaming platforms instead.
The West Coast isn’t the middle of nowhere and there’s no question that fans care about these teams. In recent years, the Pac-12 been seemingly written off as that other league “out there” as the rest of college sports’ power structure continues to see increasing financial returns. So how can they fix it?
Lowering carriage fees to ease negotiation stalemates could help, as more distribution’s better than less at this point. Having a clear mission with the network also seems like an easier ask, as are more reasonable kickoff times. Right now, the disjointed regional setup doesn’t work, so consolidate back to one central content feed to save money. Maybe keep working to get a buyer for the network, whether that’s Apple or another investor in nearby Silicon Valley.
These suggestions are easier said than done to some extent, sure. But the Pac-12 has to do SOMETHING to catch back up to the rest of the Power Five, and gets itself back in front of audiences. When the league expanded to 12 teams back in 2010, it was seen as the announcement of a new era for the Pac-12; the sleepy conference out west no more. Yet, what started with a bang and a network launch has been relegated to a soft hum at this point. And the college sports landscape isn’t just going to wait for the Pac-12 to figure things out.