Pac-12 survival: What to make of Big Ten expansion plans, Oregon’s search for an escape hatch and the Big 12 option

A series of recent media reports have cast the Pac-12’s fragile situation in the bleakest terms possible. And yet, each development carries a complexity not captured on social media or by fans anxious about the future of the conference.

We’re here to steer the discussion back to center — to the extent that any existential crisis can be addressed in a rational and reasonable manner.

First came reports that the Big Ten’s mammoth new media rights contract includes an escalator clause that carves out hundreds of millions of dollars in case of additional West Coast expansion.

Then came a report that Oregon representatives have engaged Big Ten officials in discussions to determine whether the Ducks “are compatible” with the conference.

The resulting portrait depicts a conference on death’s door, but the reality is considerably more nuanced.

And nuance doesn’t exist on Twitter or Facebook, in sports bars or across the public machinery of college football realignment.

But four things can be equally true:

The Big Ten’s contract can contain a huge escalator clause to account for expansion …

And Oregon representatives can be talking to the Big Ten …

And the Four Corners schools can view the Big 12 as a viable option …

And the Pac-12 can remain intact for the foreseeable future.

From our vantage point, nothing has changed for the Pac-12 in the two weeks since news broke that ESPN would not participate in the Big Ten’s next media rights contract, which begins next summer.

In theory, that was a positive development for the beleaguered conference: Lacking Big Ten content across its networks, Disney seemingly would be motivated to partner with the Pac-12.

(Even there, nuance exists. Unless a competing media company steps to the negotiating table with a serious bid, ESPN will set its price and refuse to pay a dollar more.)

Let’s address the topics in reverse order from the list above:

Item I: The Four Corners schools are eyeing the Big 12.

Reaction: Sure, the university presidents would be naive to ignore any lifeboats on the horizon, but that doesn’t mean the Big 12 is their preference. In our estimation, all four schools want to remain in the reconfigured Pac-12. An exodus would unfold only if they have no reasonable choice.

The Pac-12’s media valuation isn’t substantially worse than the Big 12’s and, in fact, might be better, while the institutional fit (academics, location of alumni bases) clearly falls on the Pac-12’s side.

Item II: Oregon representatives are talking with the Big Ten about “compatibility,” per the Action Network.

Reaction: Of course they are.

Any Pac-12 school that hasn’t reached out to other conferences is steering directly toward the iceberg.

Does anyone believe Nike founder Phil Knight, the only Oregon representative who truly matters, hasn’t reached out to key officials in the Big Ten and SEC about options for his school? Of course he has. Knight knows everybody worth knowing in both leagues.

Item III: The Big Ten’s new media rights contract, worth approximately $7.5 billion over seven years, includes an escalator clause — in the event of membership expansion — that pushes the total value to $10 billion.

Reaction: This is the critical piece, so let’s start with some background.

Notre Dame has always been the Big Ten’s expansion priority.

The Irish have an immense national following and a huge alumni base in Chicago. They are as Big Ten as Ohio State and Michigan, except for their century-old status as an Independent.

But will the Irish agree to the move when their current contract with NBC expires in three years? Our industry contacts are skeptical. Notre Dame’s value and identity are, to a large extent, rooted in its status as an Independent.

If the media revenue is right and access to the College Football Playoff is acceptable, the school has zero reason to join the Big Ten.

Should the additional $250 million in the Big Ten’s contract — or the majority of it — be viewed as a jackpot set aside for a six-team Western division, with Stanford, Cal, Oregon and Washington joining USC and UCLA?

That could very well be the Big Ten’s ultimate goal. But a report from the Sports Business Journal — it hasn’t received nearly as much attention as the escalator clause or the Action Network nugget — provides contract details that muddle the financial piece to another round of West Coast expansion.

Per the SBJ’s John Ourand:

“If Notre Dame joins the Big Ten within the next seven years, CBS, Fox and NBC know exactly how much extra they will have to pay in rights fees. That specific dollar figure, which is not publicly known, is spelled out in the contracts.

“No other school is mentioned in these deals by name, and the contracts don’t assign a dollar figure to any other school that may join the conference, according to several sources. Notre Dame is the only school that has specific language about escalators.

“If, say, the Big Ten adds two West Coast teams, the networks have agreed to have good-faith conversations with the conference about opening their deals and adjusting their rights fees. But the specific increases are not spelled out in the contract language, I’m told.”

To us, it sure doesn’t appear the Big Ten’s network partners have committed $250 million to adding four Pac-12 schools.

In fact, the networks haven’t committed to paying the Big Ten anything for the West Coast quartet.

Could they? Will they? Perhaps.

But again, the dynamics haven’t changed an iota since terms of the Big Ten’s new contract leaked to the media two weeks ago.

The Big Ten probably isn’t days or weeks away from adding Oregon or anyone else from the West Coast.

The Four Corner schools probably aren’t days or weeks away from jumping to the Big 12.

The process will take time, likely many weeks and perhaps many months.

And while a rupture could occur — we aren’t here to guarantee the Pac-12’s survival — the most likely outcome remains just as it was a month ago:

The 10 continuing members sign a new media contract that preserves the conference for the next three, five or seven years.

That doesn’t seem like much. But given the rate of change in college sports, it’s an eternity.

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