The most significant and compelling games in Pac-10 history are being played this spring, well outside football and basketball seasons.
At least it might seem that way if you're Larry Scott.
The Pac-10 commissioner, when he hasn't been busy remaking the league's formerly old-school image, keeps seeing results like these scroll across the sports ticker:
NBC over ESPN for the NHL, $2 billion for 10 years. Time Warner over Fox for the Los Angeles Lakers, terms undisclosed. Fox for secondary Big 12 rights, $90 million a year. ESPN for 15 years of SEC, $2.25 billion. ESPN closing in on pricey Big East extension.
This eye-opening trend of high-profile media deals keeps getting more heated as the available entities shrink this year.
And guess who's left to dance with?
Scott, and the soon-to-be Pac-12. The exclusive negotiating window for current rights-holders Fox and ESPN ended last month, meaning Scott is also negotiating with potential partners such as Comcast/NBC and Turner, with enough market leverage that the conference is estimated to bring in an average $220 million or more per year - more than triple the current $60 million deal.
"It's a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of moment for the Pac-12," said A.J. Maestas, president of Navigate Marketing, which analyzes college sports entities. "But outside of that, the Pac-12 is doing everything it can do. It will stream games. They are willing to change travel patterns. They're putting everything they can on the table. And they're marketing themselves better, they're promoting themselves better."
In less than two years as the Pac-10's commissioner, Scott has prepared for the window of opportunity by revamping the conference's marketing focus, flirting unsuccessfully with the lucrative Texas Longhorns and eventually constructing a 12-team conference with new additions Colorado and Utah to begin play this fall.
The conference is ready to cash in. Or, in Scott's mind, receive what it's actually worth.
"I've felt for some time that the college sports market is undervalued and I certainly felt that the Pac-12 is undervalued," Scott said. "But certainly it's encouraging to see some of the developments that have happened."
It's not all about money, either. The Pac-12's leverage is likely to result in all its football and men's basketball games being carried on national broadcasts, sparing Arizona Wildcats and other conference fans the headaches that regionally televised games can create. It may even be able to avoid the kind of regional split broadcasts that ABC and CBS often show.
Arizona stands to benefit proportionally. Not only could the new deal could bring in roughly triple the $6 million the school receives from media rights, but it also could help in exposure nationally and internationally.
In addition to its domestic media plans, the Pac-12 is expected to stream selected sports on the Internet or on television in international markets, where Arizona recruits for several sports.
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said he hasn't been privy to the negotiations, but noted that "if you look at what's taking place, we certainly feel we're in a good position as a league to get a very good contract that will increase our exposure and help us out financially."
A closer look at why the Pac-10 planets are aligning:
• People still watch live sports. A lot.
Unlike other content that can be DVR'd for later use, thus limiting the viewership of commercials, ratings show viewers still value the live sports experience. And technological advances such as high definition have made the experience even better.
"People are turning out to watch these events more and more," said Adam Swanson, an analyst at SNL Kagan. "They're valuable for the networks because the advertising is still strong."
College sports offer an additional benefit: They are reliable, with no threat of lockouts or holdouts. Just content you can always count on being there.
"There's a premium on high-quality sports rights," Scott said, "and the ratings for college football are through the roof."
• Technology is demanding that cable providers diversify.
Since there are already so many alternatives for receiving content, cable providers such as Comcast have been reaching for exclusivity - and high-level sports carry the kind of built-in demand they're looking for.
"There's so many undetermined factors on what the future holds, that this gives them some leverage," Maestas said. "It can make it so if you want that show, you have to go to them."
Time Warner's purchase of Los Angeles Lakers rights provides automatic content for Time Warner providers. It could be if Comcast partners with the Pac-12.
"You can imagine it's a lot easier for them to do it," Maestas said. "Time Warner's going to instantly carry it from Day One. They become their own customer and make money."
• The Big Ten Network has become a gold standard.
After overcoming initial distribution challenges upon its launch in 2007, the Big Ten Network now pulls in about $10 million for each of the conference's teams every year - on top of $11 million per school more in revenue from football and basketball deals with ESPN/ABC and CBS.
The key is creating enough demand that consumers force cable and satellite providers to carry the network, which also prompts providers to raise subscription fees. And the Pac-12 has the advantage of learning from the Big Ten Network's launch; it won't be a surprise to see it feature many higher-profile games than the Big Ten did in order to create more demand.
Again, though, money isn't everything. A Pac-12 network would allow the conference to further boost its athletic and academic profile.
"There's a significant premium on exposure," Maestas said. "The Pac-12 has some serious branding problems to address. There's a real on-the-field performance relative to perception opportunities. In the mind of consumers, if they ranked the conference in performance it would consistently be 4, 5 or 6 - but in performance it is 2 or 3 in football and basketball. And a clear No. 1 in other sports."
A Pac-12 Network likely would also allow the conference to meet objectives of the school presidents and chancellors - who hired Scott - by broadcasting high-profile speakers, stories of academic breakthroughs or other significant campus events.
• Time Warner outbid Fox for the Los Angeles Lakers.
This recent deal meant that Fox lost content for its California regional sports networks and possibly put them in a more desperate situation to retain relevant local content.
"Fox has the most to lose in my opinion," Swanson said. "The Dodgers are set to expire in 2013 and now the Pac-10 is up. So Fox obviously wants to hold on to anything that will keep its RSN (regional sports networks) strong."
It is possible that Fox could re-brand one of its RSNs to become the Pac-12 Network, giving the conference the kind of valuable automatic distribution that the now-formidable Big Ten Network did not have.
• The other deals are all impactful, too.
ESPN is bent on keeping SEC, ACC and Big East rights. The Big Ten has a collection of partners. And Fox took the Big 12.
The Pac-12 is the last one standing alone at the dance.
So who makes the best move?
"It's almost like a chess match," Swanson said. "Fox has a lot to lose. Comcast could spend a lot of money and really be able to round out their programming. Or ESPN could come in and kind of muscle everybody out."
The major players A look at the key potential partners for the Pac-12:
As the longtime partner of the Pac-10, Fox has carried games nationally via its regional sports networks, but not all networks outside the West always pick them up - and not everybody has them. It's been a constant source of frustration for out-of-market viewers and coaches alike.
But a new deal could have Pac-12 games on Fox over-the-air broadcasts and on Fx, for which Fox wants more sports content. Both of those channels are widely available.
Fox has two other distinct advantages. It can help launch a Pac-12 Network quickly by rebranding one of its current regional sports networks, or partner to create one from scratch as it did with the Big Ten.
Additionally, Fox's owner, News Corp., has an ownership stake in ESPN Star Sports, a Singapore-based collection of networks that broadcast throughout Asia. ESPN Star Sports could pick up some Pac-12 content, especially in the Olympic sports more popular in Asia, thus increasing exposure for athletics and academics at schools.
"I believe international development is a high priority for the presidents and chancellors for their own branding and exposure," Scott said. "Basketball, swimming and track could have some real interest. Softball and baseball. Everything but football - but football, clearly, is the economic driver for the domestic package."
The 800-pound gorilla in sports television, ESPN has already sewn up the SEC and the ACC, and is seeking to extend its Big East arrangement, but there's some question of how much West Coast programming it wants and has room for.
ESPN may again purchase some of the Pac-12's best games, as it does now with Fox, though it may not want regular games because of commitments to other games and shows. Pac-10 night games are commonly played during East Coast hours often reserved for SportsCenter or other shows, and ESPN simply may not have much shelf space left to offer.
Its moves, therefore, could be defensive in nature.
"ESPN is sort of the big player here," Swanson said. "That's what sort of makes this deal interesting. It's looking like ESPN isn't going to want to lose anything."
A cable provider, Comcast has been looking to vertically integrate itself by offering its own sports content. It outbid ESPN and Turner for the NHL rights and is expected to go after future Olympic games this summer. "They don't have anything to lose per se except the potential of becoming a more recognized name in sports content," Swanson said. "They're trying to rebrand things."
However, Comcast is a provider for only about 25 million homes so it would have to make deals with other providers to carry Pac-12 games not carried on NBC.
Further, bidding for the 2014-2020 Olympic games could strain Comcast's budget.
By partnering with CBS on a 10-year, $14.8 billion deal to broadcast the NCAA basketball tournament, Turner showed it was serious about sports.
Not only does Turner have TBS and TNT but it also has rebranded Court TV to truTV, where it is also showing sports.
"I wouldn't count them out," Swanson said. "They've obviously shown they're willing to spend some money with March Madness. They're interested in sports contracts. They were one of the first guys to bring sports content that was historically a broadcast thing and took it to cable. They could be a dark horse who slides in there and says, 'Hey, here's the check.'"