The Pac-12 is expected to announce by the end of the week whether or not it will pursue expansion. Based on the dearth of obvious options and its alliance with the Big Ten and ACC — an alliance designed to provide stability to a roiling landscape — the overwhelming consensus among industry sources is that the conference will stand on 12.
But the Hotline endeavors to examine all major issues from every possible angle.
To that end, we imagined an alternate universe in which the Pac-14 was deemed inevitable.
Which schools should the conference add?
Whereas Colorado and Utah were obvious fits a decade ago, no current options clearly meet the economic and institutional standards.
That’s fine. Because in our expansion universe, the Pac-12 would have made the decision to invite at least two flawed candidates — it would have adjusted the barriers for entry.
We also sought help from Navigate, a longtime Hotline partner that specializes in data analytics and provides strategic advice to clients in the sports and entertainment worlds. (Navigate has worked with several Power Five conferences and numerous major college schools.)
Based on our research and understanding of the Pac-12 priorities and on the information provided by Navigate, there is a clear No. 1 option for the Pac-12 in an expansion universe.
And it’s not a member of the Big 12.
For reasons we’ll outline in a moment, the Cougars come the closest to clearing all the bars necessary for entry into the conference.
But please note: We didn’t start the process with Houston. Rather, we began with an examination of the Big 12 schools, and only two came close enough to make our short list: Kansas and TCU.
Kansas meets the requirement as a member of the prestigious (among university presidents) Association of American Universities. It works geographically (one-hour flight from Denver), and it has a powerhouse basketball brand.
But that’s not the attraction you might think, because football accounts for 80 cents (or more) of every media dollar spent on broadcast rights in college sports.
Evaluating the Jayhawks, we couldn’t get past the combination of an atrocious football program and mid-size media market. (Kansas City is smaller than Salt Lake City.)
Economically, the Jayhawks are a reach for the conference: They don’t carry enough media value to clearly increase revenue for the existing members.
We also gave serious thought to TCU, which has a quality football program in a major media market (Dallas-Fort Worth) and would increase Pac-12 access to a recruiting hotbed.
But even in our alternate universe, it’s difficult to envision the Pac-12 presidents accepting a private Christian school classified as a second-tier research institution.
They have shown a clear preference over the decades for large, secular, public, R1 (highest-level) research institutions.
Even if the presidents were hell-bent on expanding, that’s a line they wouldn’t cross. TCU helps in recruiting and might add media value, but it simply doesn’t fit institutionally.
As we have written previously, no other Big 12 schools come close enough economically or institutionally to qualify for our short list.
Nor does Brigham Young (bad institutional fit) or any schools in the Mountain West.
For those wondering about San Diego State, know this: The San Diego TV market, like the Sacramento TV market, is already part of the Pac-12 footprint. The Aztecs wouldn’t bring additional media revenue.
Also, we’re deeply skeptical the presidents and chancellors — especially those in Westwood and Berkeley — would agree to invite schools from the California State University system. (Just being honest.)
Where does that leave us?
For quality options in an expansion universe, where the barriers for entry are adjusted, we must head beyond the Mountain West, beyond the Big 12 … and into the American.
UCF has merit: It’s a massive media and recruiting market (Orlando), it’s an R1 research university, and the football program is one of the best in the Group of Five.
But it’s just too far.
The Pac-12 presidents care deeply about protecting the brand, which draws heavily on geographic alignment and the institutional ethos of the West Coast.
Were UCF located a thousand miles to the west, it would work as an expansion option in our alternate universe.
Were UCF located a thousand miles to the west, it would be Houston.
The Cougars haven’t been as successful competitively as UCF, at least in football, but they would meet the Pac-12 standard in every other respect — and to a much greater degree than any existing Big 12 schools.
Houston is not a member of the AAU, but it’s an R1 research school. It’s public. It just built a medical school. It’s reasonably accessible from the West Coast (i.e., non-stop flights). And it’s the No. 8 media market in the country.
Also, according to Navigate’s research …
— Houston’s athletic department spent $22.92 million on equipment/facilities and $16.55 million on coaching salaries in 2019.
The median figures for each bucket in the Pac-12: $22.98 million on equipment/facilities and $20.26 million on coaching salaries — and that’s with substantially lower annual conference distributions.
(Data source: Knight Commission and USA Today.)
— The Houston football program’s average power ranking (S/P+) over the past five years is 57.4.
The Pac-12 average isn’t much better: 49.3.
— The basketball program’s average power rating (KenPom) over the past five years is 20.2.
The Pac-12 average is 82.7
— Houston has produced more ESPN 300 football recruits than any city except Miami.
— Since 2013, Houston’s football program has drawn an average of 3.33 million viewers on the main broadcast networks (Fox, ESPN, ABC, CBS) when facing Power Five opponents.
— Of the Pac-12 teams, only Oregon’s viewership is higher (4.66).
(Data source: SportsMediaWatch)
And we’d add one final thought:
Once Oklahoma and Texas depart, the Big 12 will have zero presence in the massive southeastern Texas region.
The SEC will be king, of course, but there’s room for a prince. The Pac-12 should fill that void before the ACC does.
So from here, it’s clear: In the Pac-12’s expansion universe, Houston is the no-brainer No. 1 pick.
The more difficult task is identifying a 14th school.
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