What if Cal, Oregon and Washington were no longer members of the Pac-12? What if these founding members of the “Conference of Champions” left not because they wanted to, but because the once-mighty institution had run itself into the ground? What if this crazy downward spiral all began because a TV channel got dropped by a service provider?
On Aug. 15, 2012, the Pac-12 made history when it launched the first fully independent collegiate athletic conference network. Naturally, the conference was on top of the world, as it ushered in a new era on a platform where it could now gain greater national exposure.
Over the past year, however, cracks in the Pac-12’s shining armor began to show, and it only became a matter of time before it would all crash down. Talks of the Pac-12 network struggling with its viewership, media rights and overall finances began to circulate. Then, on Nov. 27, 2018, AT&T U-verse, one of the nation’s leading TV providers, announced that it would, indeed, immediately stop carrying the Pac-12 Network.
Just like that, the Pac-12 Network vanished from about 500,000 homes (including my own — my dad and I miss our Pac-12 sports). More importantly, the conference lost about $5 million in annual revenue.
I shouldn’t get too ahead of myself, though. The network isn’t entirely dead. If you have Comcast Xfinity, Charter Spectrum, Cox or Dish Network as your cable provider, you still can watch an Oregon versus UCLA women’s volleyball match from the comfort of your couch. But those carriers don’t come close to reaching the same high volume of viewers as AT&T U-verse or DirecTV. Consider the growing trend of American households choosing streaming services in place of cable TV, and the numbers get even worse.
The Pac-12 wanted the autonomy, independence and power of wholly owning its network. It makes sense that the conference’s leadership didn’t want to hand over a large portion of ownership to a corporate giant such as ESPN, but right about now, the conference could use some of those resources.
The harsh reality is that the conference has invested so much of its own money and capital into the Pac-12 Network that if it were to fail, the Pac-12 would take a huge fall along with it.
Now, the Pac-12 has had great success in some of the quote-on-quote second-tier sports. In 2017-18, the conference won 12 national titles, which led the nation for the 13th consecutive year. But where it matters most, in football and men’s basketball, the Pac-12 fell well short.
It’s no secret that those two marquee sports are the moneymakers for all major universities. The revenue gained from football and basketball alone allow schools to fund all of the other sports on campus.
It has been widely publicized that the Pac-12 has failed to get a team into the College Football Playoff for two years now. The conference’s football pedigree has been under a huge microscope, and the 2018 season didn’t help the cause to try and salvage its reputation as one of the nation’s best.
A three-loss Washington team headlined the conference as the Pac-12 champions and then gave a dismal — except for a spirited fourth-quarter comeback against their opponent’s reserves — performance against Ohio State in the Rose Bowl.
On the other hand, it’s hard to believe, but the current landscape of Pac-12 basketball is even worse. As of this past week, no Pac-12 teams are ranked in the national polls. Zero. I wouldn’t be surprised if just one Pac-12 team made it into the NCAA tournament come March.
The Pac-12 also gains a large source of its revenue from the exclusive media-rights deal it has bridged with Fox and ESPN. That contract is up for renegotiation again in a few years and could be in jeopardy. If the Pac-12 can’t make a huge splash on the national scene in either of those sports sometime soon, it will lose millions.
Why? Those two channels are only concerned with broadcasting football and basketball games. Simply, they won’t get the viewers (and subsequent commercial money) for a mediocre game between teams with losing records that kicks off at 11 p.m. on the East Coast. It’s nice that the conference can always fall back on broadcasting the football games on the Pac-12 Network, but now there’s even uncertainty surrounding that option.
Overall, the disintegration of the AT&T U-verse partnership is indicative of some of the greater problems the Pac-12 is facing. Realistically, the clock is ticking for the network as a whole, and it’s just a matter of time before some of those implications cause future trouble for the “Conference of Champions.”
Charlie Griffen is the weekly columnist. Contact him at [email protected].
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that more than 20 million homes lost the Pac-12 Network. In fact, about 500,000 homes lost the network.
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Pac-12 Conference lost $30 million in annual revenue. In fact, the conference lost about $5 million in annual revenue.