July 17, 2018

Should the Big 12 and Pac-12 Merge?

Merging the two most vulnerable Power Five conferences could help both.

We’re deep into the offseason, so us football fans need something to talk about.

That used to be the NCAA Football video game series (may it rest in peace). But we need to get more creative these days.

How about conference realignment? Not only that – how about a bold, pie-in-the-sky rethinking of the dynamics of major college athletics itself?

I’m talking about a merger between the Big 12 Conference and Pac-12 Conference. The Great Plains and Southwest meet the West Coast. John Wayne of Winterset, Iowa, meets John Wayne of Hollywood, California.

At first, this idea was only to spur conversation. As it developed, though, it started to make more and more sense to me. Maybe it’s worth exploring (and maybe so worthwhile that it was already explored). Or maybe it’s as bad of an idea as the pewter corn family trophy. Either way, join me in looking into this now, if only to pass the time until kickoff on September 1.

Why merge?

Of the Power Five conferences, the Big 12 and Pac-12 are experiencing the most difficulties, though for different reasons.

The Pac-12 ranks fifth among the Power Five in revenue, and there are no signs of improvement. With the ACC Network’s launch right around the corner, the gap between #1-4 and #5 may widen even further.

This is cause for alarm along the West Coast. Pac-12 institutions recognize that changes must be made to keep pace with the rest of the top of college athletics. That gap could cause problems in retaining top coaches and keeping up in the facilities arms race.

Meanwhile, the Big 12’s financial distributions place it solidly in third place, and its unique third-tier rights retention allows heavy hitters like Texas and Oklahoma the opportunity to be among the highest-earning schools in the nation. Money isn’t the problem.

It has, however, been dogged by swirling rumors of its imminent demise for the last eight years. At one point in 2010, the Big 12 was “within 30 minutes” of effectively collapsing. Its inexplicable flirtation with expansion candidates like Houston and Cincinnati in 2016 only stoked the flames of these rumors.

Meanwhile, both conferences share either a respect or a quality problem, depending on who you ask. The Pac-12 and Big 12 are the only power conferences that have twice missed the College Football Playoff in its four seasons. There’s some embarrassment inherent in being the one Power Five conference left out of the final four – and either the Big 12 or Pac-12 has experienced that every year so far.

So, what can be done when the Pac-12’s biggest issue is money, the Big 12’s is stability, and both conferences share a common lack-of-respect chip on their shoulders? I humbly propose the Big Pac: a new 21-school conference that will dominate the western half of this great country.

You may have noticed that I called the Big Pac a 21-school conference. But the Pac-12 has 12 schools and the Big 12 has 10. What gives? In this hypothetical, for geographic regions, West Virginia doesn’t join its conference mates of the last six years in heading west.

No worries, Mountaineers – your top 30 fanbase will ensure that you land on your feet. Let’s say you join the ACC and restore the Backyard Brawl to its rightful place in the group of annual hate-filled rivalries we all love to watch.

Here’s how Big Pac football would work.

So, we have nine Big 12 schools joining the entire Pac-12 for a total of 21. That creates three 7-team divisions in football.

Three divisions? Yep, three. This will allow travel to remain reasonable, rivalries to be maintained, and, above all else, it will help to hold a 21-school Big Pac together in a manageable way.

Consider the alternatives: No divisions whatsoever, which should seem like an obvious issue for a conference of 21 teams (how do you sort out the mess?). Or one division of 10 and another of 11, which would allow for almost no crossover in inter-division play. When those are the other choices on the table, three divisions of 7 seems like a pretty elegant solution.

At the end of the season, you might have the two division winners with the best conference record square off in a conference title game, or you might have the two winners with the worst conference records play a sort of conference semifinal game with the best overall team waiting in the wings for the title matchup.

I prefer the former option. In my perfect world, we’re playing ten conference games and going up from 12 to 13 regular season games, so there’s no time for a separate semifinal round. And having ten conference games makes scheduling pretty simple: Each team would play the rest of its own division, as well as two from each of the remaining divisions – one at home and one on the road.

13 regular season games (which could be a separate article on its own) would also help to facilitate some of those great non-conference rivalries like Iowa State-Iowa, Colorado-Colorado State, Texas-Texas A&M, Utah-BYU, Oklahoma-Nebraska, USC-Notre Dame, Stanford-Notre Dame, Kansas-Missouri, TCU-SMU, and more.

This set up would allow each team to host all other teams once every seven years. That’s much better than the SEC’s current scheduling plan, which guarantees hosting each team in the conference only once every twelve seasons – and the Big Pac would do it with 50% more schools.

Divvying up the schools across divisions is the fun part. I propose a Pacific Division, a Southwest Division, and a Plains Division.

Here’s what the Pacific Division would look like:

This one’s pretty easy. You keep the Pac-12 North together, which has three pairs of in-state rivals. The only other school that really makes sense here is Utah. You split up California, but you know you gotta do that anyway. It’s compact, it makes sense, it’s good.

Here’s the Southwest Division:

This one is tougher. Obviously the schools in L.A. and Arizona belong here. What comes after that? I went with Colorado, TCU, and Baylor in an attempt to maintain as many rivalries as I could. Not only does the Revivalry remain an annual fixture, but it allows Texas to stay with Oklahoma and Texas Tech in the Plains.

Here’s that Plains Division:

 

It’s the rest of the Big 12 minus those two Texas schools in the Southwest. Like the others, it too seems to be the most straightforward option possible.

One big advantage of these divisions is how they would minimize travel concerns. Then again, the Power Five is chock-full of long trips as it is. Syracuse to Miami, Nebraska to Rutgers, Texas Tech to West Virginia, and Washington to Arizona are all more than 1,150 miles each. Notre Dame has no trouble playing games from Boston or Annapolis to Palo Alto or Los Angeles each year. Missouri to Florida is nearly 900 miles, and those schools are in the same division! Travel is an overblown concern in an era where all of these trips are made by charter flight, but still, I’ve tried to minimize them nonetheless.

You could argue about some of my proposed divisional assignments. Maybe you’d send different Texas schools to join the Southwest Division, or maybe you’d swap Colorado with Texas Tech to reunite as much of the Big 8 as possible in the Plains. Maybe you’d try to keep the four California schools together at all costs and try to stitch together another division that ran from Seattle to Ames, or maybe you’d do the same with the four in Texas.

I know there are some concerns with what I’ve presented. Two of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the country in Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth are both included in the same division. Some traditional or semi-traditional matchups like Cal-UCLA, Stanford-USC, Colorado-Utah, and the Baylor-Texas Tech “BU-TT” game may not be played annually. (Although some inter-division rivalries could be protected – I won’t dive into those details, but the conference could come up with a scheduling scheme to accomplish that).

It was important that each division have a slice of either California or Texas for recruiting purposes – for the same reason why the Pac-12 has Colorado and Utah in the South instead of Cal and Stanford. And I tried to keep rivals together whenever possible outside of that.

Rivalries are what make college sports great, and in this hypothetical world where I’m in charge, they’re the most important thing. Even if we all know that in the real world, those calling the shots would find a way to get a Texas-USC game every year. ($$$!) So feel free to tinker with these divisions in your head to whatever you think would be best before considering the rest of this case for a merger. I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.

Conference championships will be played at some of the best venues in the country. The Big 12 plays its title game at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys, and the Pac-12’s is at the San Francisco 49ers’ Levi’s Stadium. Both would remain viable options.

In addition, three other stadiums could be added to the mix: University of Phoenix Stadium (of the Arizona Cardinals) and the future NFL stadiums coming to Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Big Pac fans would love an excuse to take a long weekend in Vegas capped off with their alma mater playing for a conference title.

The Big 12 and Pac-12 have seven bowl tie-ins each. Although some would need to be traded because they feature those conferences against each other, there’s no reason for the Big Pac not to have at least 14 bowl slots or enough for two-thirds of the conference. That’s right in line with the Power Five norm.

There also would likely be at least one slot in the College Football Playoff almost every year for the Big Pac, if for no reason other than human nature when considering four power conferences for four spots. Also, excluding a 21-team conference that represents half of the country would simply be a very difficult thing to justify.

And if any conference was to get multiple bids in the CFP – especially an expanded eight-team playoff (which I hope is right around the corner) – the largest power conference would have a great shot at it. The Big 12 and Pac-12, as is, would have a very difficult time doing so.

Why? The Big 12 guarantees one of its two top teams will take a loss in the conference championship game, and the Pac-12 suffers from a general lack of exposure with its 10:30 PM Eastern kickoffs – and lack of respect, if you ask a Pac-12 fan. The Big Pac would immediately become one of the first options to get two teams in, though, simply because of its size.

Football could work. Maybe it shouldn’t, but it sure seems like it could.

Basketball would be a lot of fun.

A 21-school conference would be epic for basketball. At a minimum, we’d do a 20-game conference schedule with every school facing every other one time. The Big Ten is going to a 20-game schedule this season, so it wouldn’t be out of place.

I think the Big Pac can do better, though. I would propose a 22-game schedule, with a given team facing every other team once and adding on two home-and-homes.

These could be three-team round robins meant to protect rivalries first and foremost. For example, Iowa State, Kansas, and Kansas State could play home-and-homes with each other and face the remaining 18 teams one time per season. It would be the inverse of football – instead of three groupings of 7 teams each, we’d have seven groupings of 3-team round robins.

Just like Texas-USC in football, though, in reality we’d likely get Kansas and UCLA to play twice a year. I won’t go through and draw these lines, but I think they should rotate to maintain the best home-and-home rivalry series at least once every two or three years. The most important part is that everybody plays everybody, and that’s definitely doable.

The conference tournament, of course, will be at the Sprint Center in Kansas City every year (I’m kidding… sort of). With the football championship venues having a decidedly southern tilt, Kansas City should remain in the mix here for balance, as well as the Pepsi Center in Denver and maybe even arenas in Portland and Seattle. If the Big Ten can play in New York City and Washington D.C., the tournament doesn’t need to hang around the center of the conference.

The more interesting question for a 21-team hoops tournament isn’t where as much as it’s how. You can put together a single elimination tournament with 11 teams getting a first round bye and get it done in five days (although you’d need two venues for the second round, which would include eight games in one day). If you want to add in some double byes, though, you would need to cut down the number of teams for it to be manageable.

Maybe the bottom of the barrel wouldn’t qualify for the Big Pac Tournament. Maybe we’d have a one-on-one street ball play-in between those teams’ stars for those last few spots. We’ll figure it out. Just know that a 21-team conference schedule would be a knock-down, drag-out brawl every night, and I would love to watch it unfold.

The rest of the details are easy. (Well, easier.)

A marriage between California- and Texas-based conferences could be logistically difficult. Fortunately, that might not be the case here. The geographic center of the conference is somewhere in southwestern Colorado.

Don’t forget that Colorado itself has a foot in both camps, as it was a long-time member of the Big 8 and Big 12 before joining the Pac-12 itself during an earlier period of Big 12 instability.

So Colorado is the perfect uniter between these two conferences, and it just so happens that it’s also smack dab in the middle. It’s almost too easy to decide that the Big Pac will be headquartered in Denver.

The remaining elephant in the room is media rights and distribution. The Big Pac can improve things there. The ten-state footprint of the Big Pac is home to more than 105 million people, or nearly one-third of the population of the United States. That’s a lot of bargaining power.

FOX and ESPN are already partners with both the Big 12 and the Pac-12 and would surely not want to lose that business. Meanwhile, digital distribution continues to grow, and Netflix is crushing everything from basic cable to YouTube.

The Big Pac could get ahead of the curve by transitioning to digital distribution. On the other hand, the threat of being able to do so – and pull two conferences worth of content away from FOX and ESPN – could entice the traditional distributors to pony up. And there’s also the option of repurposing the Pac-12 Network into the Big Pac Network.

Because the Pac-12 Network is conference-owned, in contrast with the SEC Network (owned by ESPN) and Big Ten Network (half-owned by FOX), the benefits would accrue entirely with the conference members (ESPN does own the Longhorn Network, which presents some other challenges here. The Longhorn Network is probably the reason why we haven’t already had a Pac-16 for the last eight years.).

I won’t pretend to know how media executives would react to a Big 12/Pac-12 merger. But I know that the combined power of those two conferences exceeds what they can do independently. Society is hitting a moment where digital distribution is everywhere, but the old school hasn’t quite caught all the way up with the trend. Who better to lead the way on this than the conference that’s home to pretty much every tech company?

I’ve focused on football and basketball here. There are a lot of other sports to think about, too, and I haven’t forgotten about them – I just don’t have answers for them. But we know that football and hoops are the main money earners, and in this era of college athletics driven primarily, if not exclusively, by the Almighty Dollar, they’re the top factors in decision-making.

At the end of the day, the Big 12 and Pac-12 are going to do what they think best for them. I believe that just might be a marriage of conferences. And if I’m right, perhaps some of the ideas here will come in handy when Bob Bowlsby and Larry Scott sit down to hash out the Big Pac.

If I’m not? Reading this just got you a few minutes closer to the kickoff of the 2018 season (You’re welcome). No matter what, let me know what you think.

Spencer Hughes
Spencer Hughes 17 Articles
Staff Writer

Spencer is a Cedar Rapids, Iowa native currently located in Jacksonville, Florida. He holds degrees from Iowa State University (B.A., 2014) and Duke University (J.D., 2017) where he learned that you can't choose which is better between Hilton Coliseum and Cameron Indoor Stadium; they're just different. Spencer is a lifelong fan of the Iowa State Cyclones, Minnesota Vikings, Scott's Tots, St. Louis Cardinals, and the Oxford comma. He will discuss college football playoff scenarios or health care legislation with you whenever you want.

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