The self-styled "Conference of Champions" has not added new members since 1978, when Arizona and Arizona State joined the league, and for all of its athletic and academic achievement, the Pac-10 has lagged behind the SEC, Big Ten and the Big East in terms of TV exposure and national marketing.
Larry Scott, the league's new commissioner and the former CEO of the Women's Tennis Association, says he was given a mandate to bring a "fresh set of eyes to the league" and craft a plan to increase its brand and media dollars. As I mentioned earlier this week, the Pac-10 recently retained CAA, the Hollywood talent agency, to look at expansion, advise on media deals and to explore ways to play up the conference's ties to both the entertainment and technology industries.
It's the latest in a series of significant forays into sports for CAA, which has acquired the practices of several high-profile agents and now advises the International Olympic Committee, European soccer powers, such as FC Barcelona and Chelsea FC, and the New York Yankees on media and marketing deals.
One of CAA's lead executives on the Pac-10 deal, Chris Bevilacqua, helped launch CSTV, the college sports network that CBS purchased in 2005 and is now known as CBS College Sports. He was also a former executive with SCP Worldwide, the entity that owns a Major League Soccer team in Salt Lake City -- a potential market for Pac-10 expansion if the league ends up adding the University of Utah.
The question is: will staging a concert at the Pac-10 women's tournament or having a B-list celebrity hob nob at the annual football media day really up the conference's cool quotient? Scott says the conference should at least be willing to try.
"We intend to highlight the West Coast advantage that we have and highlight more of our connections with the thought leadership out here," says Scott. "I don't have anything concrete to announce -- but there a lot of little things that go into making that happen. The fact is we're in some of the biggest media markets of the country, like L.A., San Francisco and Seattle, and we've got actual rivalries in four states."
Scott declined to name any schools that he's thinking about as expansion candidates, but did say the conference will make a decision on the issue by the end of this year. There's some concrete time pressure. The league's media deals with Fox and ESPN expire at the end of the 2011-12 school year, and its first negotiating window with both networks on new deals begins in early 2011, so the league and the networks need to know what the league will look like going forward before negotiating any contracts.
The Pac-10 is already exploring an enlarged strategic partnership with the Big 12. For the last two years, teams from the two leagues have played each other in a winter men's basketball series, taking a page from the long-running ACC-Big Ten series and the much-ballyhooed ACC-Big East showdowns from the late '80s and early '90s.
As currently constituted, the conference has five pairs of natural geographic rivals and Scott has indicated that he would like to preserve that, as much as possible, going forward. Colorado and Utah have not been conference rivals in nearly half a century, but before Colorado joined what is now the Big 12 in 1948, the two schools often vied for league titles in the old Skyline and Rocky Mountain Athletic conferences. The schools haven't face each other in football since 1962, but are scheduled to re-kindle the series games in 2012 and 2013 -- and there are other compelling reasons for the Pac-10 to want both schools. The proximity of Colorado's campus to Denver could conceivably help a new Pac-10 network gain wider distribution in the mountain time zone, and Utah's strong tradition in both football and basketball makes it an attractive candidate.
"I wouldn't be doing my job as the commissioner if we weren't exploring expansion," says Scott, who says the league began studying the issue well before all the speculation about the Big Ten's plans began late last year. "This conference used to be the Pac-8, and before that it was the Pac-5. We're at another point in time where you're going to see another evolution."