Hotline mailbag: Pac-12 partnerships with Amazon and SMU require the same calculation, expansion timeline, the 14-team option and more

(AP Photo/Ralph Freso, File)

*** Please note: Several topics related to Pac-12 media rights and expansion will be answered separately in forthcoming articles.

(Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.)

I’m trying to wrap my head around SMU joining the Pac-12. I get San Diego State in terms of the Southern California footprint, and the Aztecs have been competitive in football and basketball. But SMU, overall, not so much — and they have a sliver of the Dallas market. Can you talk me down on this? — @Cargoman0363

That sentiment is completely understandable and, all things being equal, the Mustangs would not have been the Hotline’s first choice for Pac-12 expansion. (Houston was atop our list.)

But the conference must navigate the landscape as it exists, and the Mustangs, in several respects, are the best available option for growing the footprint.

In fact, we view adding SMU as a member in similar fashion to adding Amazon as a media partner: Neither entity can be judged on its merits as of today; both must be evaluated for what they could be in the future.

The Pac-12’s next media contract cycle begins in the summer of 2024 and, depending on the length of the deal, should last until the end of the decade or early in the 2030s.

Let’s envision a seven-year deal, because odd numbers create easy midpoints. The 2027 football season would be halfway through the agreement (three years down, three remaining).

The Pac-12 isn’t assessing the viability of Amazon as a means of content distribution based on Prime Video’s market position today. It’s evaluating Amazon for what that partnership would provide midway through the next cycle.

Will streaming be more widely acceptable in the sports media realm in 2027-28 than it is now?

Would technology evolve to the point that viewers did not need to close the app in order to channel surf?

Our advice is to assess SMU football the same way: Will the Mustangs have a stronger football brand late in the decade than they do now?

Would an affiliation with the Pac-12 lead to improved recruiting, higher community interest, greater resources and more competitive success, to the point that the Mustangs gain traction in the massive Dallas market?

(Don’t be misled by the Big 12’s lack of interest in SMU during its 2021 expansion phase. That was rooted in resistance on the part of Baylor and TCU, in particular.)

And to be clear: We don’t know whether a few years in the Pac-12 would elevate SMU to a level that’s not currently visible, just like we don’t know if Prime Video will become a mainstream viewing platform (for sports) by the midpoint of the next media contract cycle.

But that’s the calculation to consider for both issues.

It makes zero sense to me that ESPN is more interested in the Big 12, fronted by Oklahoma State, Baylor and BYU, than the Pac-12 with Washington, Oregon and Utah. Make it make sense. — @kmasterman

I have no reason to believe ESPN is materially more interested in the Big 12, but because the conferences deployed different negotiating strategies, conclusions are difficult to draw.

ESPN was willing to renew its existing agreement with the Big 12 at a below-market valuation that worked for ESPN.

The network very well might have done the same with the Pac-12. But instead of renewing its deal, the Pac-12 opted to take its inventory to the open market and explore new partners.

The reality is that each conference will occupy second-tier status with ESPN, which will be all-in with the SEC starting in 2024 — to the point that we will see SEC doubleheaders on ABC and ESPN in the prime viewing hours, with 30 minutes carved out for home videos of the Smart family reunion.

Is the Disney corporate restructuring announced yesterday possibly related to a Pac-12 media deal delay? — @GoCougs7

I cannot state definitively either way. But my sense is the corporate-level event in November, with disappointing earnings and Bob Iger’s return as chief executive, played a role in the trajectory of negotiations.

So, perhaps, did the layoffs announced by Amazon in late 2022.

And if true, that’s hardly surprising. Economic factors can impact media negotiations and are one of many risk factors that underscore the need for urgency in the process.

But that’s only a hunch, and I don’t expect to ever have full clarity on that piece of the puzzle.

What are the chances the Pac-12 adds any teams in 2024, as of today? Everyone keeps talking about San Diego State and SMU, but I don’t see this group of presidents adding those schools without a compelling financial case from commissioner George Kliavkoff. — @BearFlagFan

Are you confident votes are there for SDSU and SMU? — @Sporttakes3

Any membership requests would require a three-fourths vote of the existing schools; at least eight presidents would have to approve.

(Fortunately, the Hotline has recent experience in counting votes, having tracked the UC regents’ months-long deliberations on UCLA.)

Although Pac-12 presidents have a history of misguided decisions, we’re confident that the Aztecs and Mustangs would have the votes if the schools stick together and determine expansion is the proper course.

From the outset of this saga, the Hotline has believed new members were needed — partly as a defensive play (keeping the Big 12 out of San Diego), partly as a means of growing the footprint (the Dallas media and recruiting markets) and mostly because of the need for game inventory.

As a 10-team conference, the Pac-12 would have approximately 65 home football games available to its media partners each season (assuming two non-conference home dates per team).

As a 12-team league, it would have approximately 78.

That’s a significant difference when each game carries a multi-million-dollar price tag.

When do you think official invites will be sent out if the Pac-12 expands? I am assuming the presidents will meet and vote on this first. — @lilcmac5

By the middle of March, we should have a sense for whether the schools will sign a media rights deal and whether the conference will expand.

And it could unfold more rapidly.

If the media rights piece drags deep into the spring, trouble could follow. Big trouble.

At some point, the schools could lose faith in Kliavkoff’s ability to meet the moment.

Would Tulane, Rice or other Central Time Zone schools be considered by the Pac-12 if the conference goes to 14 teams? Will it go to 14? — @PjKiernan_

I am deeply skeptical about a 14-team league, but there’s no reason we can’t venture down Hypothetical Lane …

The primary reason to grow beyond 12 is inventory: More schools mean more games, which create more programming which could, potentially, lead to a better media contract, but only if Amazon and ESPN are pushing for quantity to satisfy their streaming needs.

And in that situation, yes, Rice and Tulane would make the most sense because 1) they provide access to new markets, 2) they (easily) clear the bar academically, and 3) they would create more Central Time kickoffs.

But in the real world, the Pac-14 is extremely unlikely.

Your best guess for conference affiliation for the following schools in 2024, and 2030: Washington, Arizona State and Washington State. — @DawgsWhy

The Hotline published our vision for the future of the Pac-12, and college football at large, in September. And despite all the events over the past five months, the outlook remains generally the same:

The Washington schools likely will remain in the Pac-12 through the decade — granted, nothing is guaranteed until contracts are signed — but tumult is coming to the sport in the early 2030s, when the Big Ten’s next media cycle begins.

Will the Big Ten create a western division with Oregon, Washington and the Bay Area schools joining USC and UCLA?

Will the SEC respond?

Will the ACC fracture?

Our best guess is that college football will have three conferences by the mid-2030s: The Big Ten and SEC, each with 20 or 24 members, and a fully revamped Big 12 that spans the country and incorporates most, if not all of the remaining Power Five schools.

Do USC and UCLA get an expansion vote as part of the 75 percent requirement to add a school? — @ML84Pro

They do not, as we outlined Thursday in a report on the state of Pac-12 expansion.

Only the 10 remaining schools will vote on membership — and on any matters pertaining to the future of the conference.

USC and UCLA participate in discussions about, and cast votes on, issues that impact conference operations until the summer of 2024.

(They voted on the 2023 football schedule, for example. And if Comcast withholds any cash as a result of the $50 million overpayment saga, the L.A. schools will take the same revenue hit as everyone else.)

But all the long-haul, meaty matters will be addressed only by the 10 continuing members.

You’re good at what you do. Any chance you shift to a Big 12 sports focus? — @vakaviti

Appreciate the kind words.

The Hotline’s syndication partners include Salt Lake City-based, and we’re thrilled with the relationship.

Our content strategy for the 2023 season and beyond hasn’t been formulated, but the mission will remain the same:

We cover the schools (and the issues that matter to them), wherever they are.

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