In case you missed the headlines, the Pac-12, Cal’s athletic conference, blew up over the weekend, leaving observers slack-jawed. Writing for the Associated Press, John Marshall said the news “hit like a supernova: A Power Five conference dying in real time.” Veteran sports reporter Jake Curtis, now with Sports Illustrated, told California the event reminded him of the extinction of the dinosaurs. “Everything was fine for millions and millions of years, and then almost overnight the effect of an asteroid wiped them off the face of the Earth.”
Unlike the dinosaurs, conference leadership did get some warning when, in June 2022, USC and UCLA defected to the Big 10. And things grew more concerning when Colorado jumped to the Big 12 last July. “But there was still a living Pac-12 until the August 4 bomb was dropped,” said Curtis. That’s when Arizona, Arizona State and Utah, announced they were leaving for the Big 12, followed a day later by Oregon and Washington, who fled to the Big 10. “In a matter of hours the Pac-12 no longer existed as we know it.”
Indeed, just four teams have been left holding the proverbial bag: Cal, Stanford, Washington State and Oregon State are all that’s left of what was long billed as the “Conference of Champions.”
How did this happen? Most observers point to economics.
“Make no mistake, said Roxy Bernstein, longtime voice of Cal men’s basketball, “we all know what forced this to happen: Money. No one can look at a map and say the new Big 10 makes sense, or that schools like Arizona and Arizona State should be in the same conference as West Virginia and Central Florida. But that is the new reality.”
Critics are also pointing to the leadership of former Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who made the fateful decision to form the independent Pac-12 Television Network instead of forging a partnership with existing media companies such as ESPN or Fox, as other large college athletic conferences had.
As students of Cal sport history know, this is not the first time the school has seen its conference affiliate fall apart. In the 1950s the Pacific Coast Conference (PCC) disbanded after scandals involving paying student-athletes for non-existent jobs at Cal, UCLA, Washington, and USC.
Cal was one of four charter members of the PCC established in 1915. Under the leadership of former Berkeley Chancellor and Nobel Prize winning physicist, Glenn Seaborg, the PCC was reformed to become the Athletic Association of Western Universities, culminating with the Golden Bears last Rose Bowl appearance and national champion men’s basketball team, in 1959. Seaborg chronicled his experience managing the crisis in a book titled Roses from the Ashes, declaring that “Berkeley proved it was possible to combine athletic and academic excellence.”
The AAWU later morphed into the Pacific-8 Conference in 1968 and became the Pac-10 ten years later when Arizona and Arizona State joined. It did not become the Pac-12 until Colorado and Utah came on board in 2011. While the West Coast schools have not recently enjoyed the level of football success or fanfare of teams in conferences like the Big 10 or SEC, neither have they been slouches. Pac-12 teams have historically won 10 national championships in football, 16 in men’s basketball.
Cal, Stanford, UCLA and USC are all leading feeder programs for the U.S. Olympic national teams.
That level of overall athletic excellence often surprises outsiders. “I came to Cal, and then to the Pac-10, from a Southeastern Conference school (Florida), and I found that West Coast fans were just as passionate about their college sports, but in a more refined way,” said Dean Diltz, Associate Sports Information Director for the Golden Bears before becoming an Assistant Director for Public Relations at the Pac-10, followed by a stint at ESPN. “It’s obviously very sad what’s happening to the great history and tradition of the Pac-12. But it was inevitable as colleges chase the almighty dollar at the expense of all student-athletes in all sports.”
Diltz also lays some of the blame at the feet of Larry Scott, the former Pac-12 Commissioner. But, he said, “Scott at least had the vision to try to expand early with Texas and Oklahoma, but the Pac-10 President balked. They were simply too arrogant about the Pac-12’s ability to self-sustain and didn’t have a vision. In fact, former Commissioner Tom Hansen, who I worked under, even floated the idea of adding Texas and Colorado, each of whom had interest, back in the early 90s to the presidents, but no one wanted to hear it from him. They thought it would dilute the league’s image. Imagine that. Scott then drove the league into the ground with his own arrogance in creating the Pac-12 Network—a complete disaster!—along with his lavish spending. But again, the presidents let this happen, watched him ruin the league, then hired a new commissioner [George Kliavkoff] with no relevant experience. Shame on them.”
It was Kliavkoff’s job to forge a new media contract to replace the expiring deal with ESPN and Fox. What he presented, just before the breakup, was a proposed deal with Apple’s streaming service reportedly worth about $20 million per team, roughly half what they were making previously and far less than most other power conferences.
For context, Cal Athletics’ total operating budget exceeds $100 million annually. Media rights, including from the Pac-12 and NCAA, have been the leading contributor to that figure.
Now Cal, along with rival Stanford, with whom most observers think they will move in concert, is left struggling to find a home and facing some far-from-ideal options, including talk of joining the Atlantic Coast Conference. Needless to say, that would be problematic both logistically and economically as teams would have to regularly fly across the country for conference match-ups.
Said Rod Commons, who served as Sports Information Director at Washington State for more than 30 years, “Merging with the ACC would be interesting with its television contract with ESPN. You could have a Western Division and an Eastern Division. But athletes would have to leave on Wednesday to play on a Thursday and Saturday and wouldn’t get back until Monday. The Pac-12 has to now decide whether it wants to be a research league or a sports league.” He also pointed out that non-revenue sports (which are in the majority of college teams) would have a hard time affording that level of travel.
Closer to this coast, there has been talk of joining the Mountain West division, home to mid- to lower-tier programs like Air Force, Nevada and San Diego State. Mountain West media payouts are likewise on the low end of the spectrum, about $4 million annually per school.
So, where has the NCAA been on all of this? “Asleep at the controls,” said Commons. “There was no proactive action. If they had been out front with treatment of athletes, most of this could have been prevented and conferences would be intact.”
In the end, Sports Illustrated’s Jake Curtis blames the fans.
“TV gets most of the blame for the Pac-12 demise, but television is merely reflecting the demand. So, it is the TV viewer that is to blame at the most basic level. If people did not tune in to watch college football games, networks like ESPN, Fox, CBS and the rest would not be willing to shell out the exorbitant money to conferences to show their games.”
Whether the problem is money, Larry Scott, the NCAA, or the fans, it’s clear that a host of reasons led to the downfall of the Pac 12. Cal fans, however, won’t disappear with the conference, and perhaps they’re the only ones who can help Cal Athletics survive the proverbial asteroid. Stay tuned.