Hotline mailbag: ‘Worst-case scenario’ for the Pac-12, outlook for Oregon and UW, valuation rumors, expansion candidates and more

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

If the president of a Four Corner school panics, what happens to the Northwest schools?
The Hotline mailbag is published every week. Send questions to and include ‘mailbag’ in the subject line — or hit me on Twitter: @WilnerHotline.

Some questions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

If a worst-case scenario occurs and one of the Four Corners schools takes the Big 12 offer and two more follow, what actually becomes of the conference and what happens to Washington and Oregon if the Big Ten is not ready to expand? — @trintran

Great question, and one that we have contemplated often over the past 10 months.

There is no indication the majority of Big Ten schools are interested in adding new members in the short term and thereby detonating the Pac-12. Could that sentiment change if the Pac-12 implosion is triggered elsewhere, with a handful of schools leaving for the Big 12? Perhaps.

And in that event, the new members would assuredly enter the Big Ten at reduced rates. We are deeply skeptical that Fox, NBC and CBS would pay an additional $280 million annually (approximately) to add Washington, Oregon and the Bay Area schools — the amount needed to keep all 20 universities whole with revenue shares. (Even $140 million annually for Washington and Oregon seems unlikely.)

So any Pac-12 schools in desperation mode likely would have to accept a reduced rate to join an 18- or 20-team conference and fight the masses for a College Football Playoff berth.

(That said, keep in mind that a conference with only six or eight members would be recognized by the NCAA and thus perfectly viable for CFP inclusion.)

At this point, it seems any rupturing of the Pac-12 is more likely to begin with the Four Corners schools, as Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark actively courts new members.

Earlier this year, one Hotline source called Arizona and Colorado the primary “flight risks,” with Arizona State and Utah preferring to remain with the California and Northwest schools.

But to that end, comments by Arizona president Robert Robbins this spring are highly relevant. He appears content to wait it out — to give commissioner George Kliavkoff more time to construct the best deal possible.

Could one school cause the conference to fracture? If Colorado panicked and fled to the Big 12, would the others follow, prompting the Northwest schools to beg the Big Ten for invitations?

We aren’t convinced. The Buffaloes don’t have the clout or valuation to trigger a mass extinction event if the other Four Corners presidents believe Kliavkoff will deliver a satisfactory deal.

The Pac-12 could replace CU with San Diego State and roll on.

As Robbins remains patient, stability should prevail.

You kept saying that the Pac-12 would be in huge danger if it didn’t finalize a media deal by the end of March. It is late April. So now what? — @CelestialMosh

No aspect of the Hotline’s broad outlook has changed materially in recent months. We have, and still believe:

— The Big Ten is likely finished expanding for this contract cycle.

— The Pac-12 and Big 12 carry approximately the same media valuation.

— The Pac-12 presidents would prefer to remain together.

If Kliavkoff presents an acceptable media deal, the conference will remain intact.

Also, be mindful of the middle ground: Even if the deal eventually presented to the presidents isn’t what was initially promised, that doesn’t mean it will spark an exodus. Suboptimal can be acceptable given the circumstances.

Of course, the Hotline also believes time and risk move in lockstep in the realignment game.

The longer it takes Kliavkoff to secure a deal, the greater the likelihood of the conference losing schools — either because presidents panic or because economic forces conspire to kneecap market valuation.

As a result, our odds have been adjusted:

Pac-12 survival is a mere 3.5-point favorite over Pac-12 extinction, down from a high of 5.5 points through the late fall and winter.

How confident should Oregon and Washington feel that realignment won’t leave them worse off in five years than they are now in competing for football recruits and championships? — @MikeEllickson

Our view of this issue might not be shared by many, but the Hotline believes strongly that CFP expansion in the 2024 season will be the most significant development in the past 40 years, transforming college football in ways the BCS and four-team playoff never did.

(The only comparison for across-the-sport impact is the Supreme Court decision in 1984 that gave the schools the right to control their TV deals.)

Playoff appearances will be the defining aspect of success and visibility — the fuel behind fundraising and a prime driver of recruiting for the remainder of the decade and beyond.

To that end, the Ducks and Huskies are far better off remaining in a Pac-12 that doesn’t include USC than they would be in an 18- or 20-team Big Ten, where they would fight Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and USC for the automatic bid or handful of at-large slots.

And the same goes for Utah, which is better positioned to elevate its football program in a Pac-12 without USC than it would be joining a 14- or 16-team Big 12.

Again, we could be in the minority with that view. But the remainder of the 2020s is all about brand building for the next stage in college football’s evolution, when the Power Five becomes the Power Three or Power Four and economic forces (i.e., players as employees) create a clear bifurcation into the haves and have-nots.

The best way to join the haves in the 2030s is CFP participation in the 2020s.

Had USC and UCLA stayed in the Pac-12, what is your guess as to the media value per school with the new contract? — @utskipper

We wrote about this very topic last spring, before the L.A. schools took flight.

At the time, industry experts believed the conference would land a media deal that paid each of the 12 schools between $45 million and $50 million annually, thus vaulting the Pac-12 ahead of the ACC and Big 12.

But let’s add a second scenario: What if UCLA had been forced to reverse course by the UC regents?

Based on discussions with those same media industry analysts, the conference likely would have landed a deal in the $38 million to $42 million range.

Obviously, USC’s departure was a huge blow. But losing the L.A. market entirely was the twist of the knife, courtesy of Fox.

That $40 million approximation with UCLA is worth noting because of the other financial aspects of the Bruins’ move.

They are expected to incur at least $10 million annually in additional expenses (per their own analysis) and could be forced to subsidize Cal each year. In December, the regents approved a ‘Berkeley tax’ ranging from $2 million to $10 million.

If the subsidy lands at the high end, the math starts to get murky.

Back $15 million to $20 million out of the expected Big Ten media revenue of approximately $65 million, and there isn’t a significant difference between what the Bruins would receive in their new home and what they would have received by staying in the Pac-12.

But we won’t know the specifics on that until the regents settle on the subsidy figure.

There are rumors in Tucson that the current Pac-12 offer is $22 million per team. Elsewhere, there is speculation that it is $16 million. Regardless, the conference has clearly experienced a reality check. What number do you think is now the minimally acceptable per-school bid? — @Jalex0077

Be careful what you believe. Also, understand what you’re reading.

To illustrate that point, let’s imagine a rumor that ESPN has offered the Pac-12 $22 million per team is correct. But $22 million for what? The entire shelf of Pac-12 inventory?

Perhaps. But ESPN’s rumored offer could be for the Tier One package — the 40-plus games currently broadcast by ESPN and Fox. If so, that would leave the Tier Two package (30-something games currently on the Pac-12 Networks) for another media partner.

And that Tier Two package surely would be worth many millions per school, thereby pushing the total valuation into the high $20 million or low $30 million range.

To be clear: That’s merely a hypothetical scenario, but the Hotline feels compelled to mention it because of the complicated nature of the negotiations and the frequency with which inaccurate, or incomplete, information is tossed about on social media.

As for the valuation necessary to keep the conference together, we’ll quote Robbins, the Arizona president, who told the Hotline: “I don’t think anybody wants to leave. Why would you move for a couple million dollars a year more?”

The Big 12’s deal pays $31.7 million per school for games on the Fox and ESPN networks (including ESPN+).

Our strong suspicion is any deal within 10 percent of that number, with a strong presence on ESPN, would be satisfactory.

Who are the top expansion candidates for the Pac 12 outside of San Diego State and SMU? — @CarlAdamsWV

Our strong suspicion is the Aztecs and Mustangs are the clear leaders in that regard. They make the most sense within the three-pronged formula used by the conference to assess expansion candidates: financial fit, institutional fit and competitive fit.

Both SDSU and SMU carry flaws, but there are no flawless options available for the Pac-12 — just as there were no ideal fits available to the Big 12 when it added Cincinnati, BYU, UCF and Houston.

You play the best hand available.

But as we wrote a month ago, SDSU’s run to the Final Four backed the Pac-12 presidents into an optical box: The conference no longer has a choice with the Aztecs.

Pass on SDSU, and the conference would simply look foolish.

What do you believe will be the length of the Pac-12’s new media deal? — @RockDawg3

The Hotline has believed since July that the conference would seek a short media deal in the range of five or six years. Or maybe it’s seven or eight years with an option clause after five.

Either way, the schools won’t agree to being locked into a contract that extends into the 2030s.

The era of 12- or 15-year deals is over for every conference. The media industry is changing far too rapidly, and the dollars at stake are increasing far too swiftly.

I’m getting concerned the Pac-12 is going to beat itself out of College Football Playoff contention, with the upper half (and maybe some surprises in the lower half) not even leaving a one-loss team. Can you talk me down? — @Cargoman0363

If you’re referring to the 2024 season and beyond, know this: The threshold for qualification in the expanded playoff will be two or three losses, not one.

There are 10 conferences in the Football Bowl Subdivision, and the six highest-ranked champions will receive automatic bids. In many cases, a three-loss champion would clear the bar.

The Pac-12 winner would have to be ranked below its peers from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and two Group of Five leagues (the Mountain West and the American, for example).

That’s highly unlikely and, were it to happen in a given year, well, the Pac-12 simply would not deserve a bid.

Provide your thoughts on the College Athlete Protection Act. — @ryan_silva88

We’ll address the latest piece of California legislation in the coming weeks, but Assembly Bill 252 would make NIL look like amateur hour in terms of disruption to the NCAA economic model.

Simply put: AB 252 requires schools to pay athletes in the major sports tens of thousands of dollars annually (at minimum), directly from athletic department revenue.

For all intents and purposes, they would become employees without the risks associated with employee status — a state of affairs that we find preposterous.

There is a lot written about teams using the transfer portal to add players. Do teams also take advantage of the transfer portal to cut players? — Dave Hayashida

Players typically aren’t cut, per se. A move along those lines by any football or basketball coach would create unseemly consequences for the athletic department if the athlete went public.

But there are frequent instances of coaches nudging players into the transfer portal by threatening to reduce or eliminate playing time, especially when a new coach takes over.

That’s one reason the portal is clogged, with more players looking for new homes than there are new homes available.

As a result, athletes from Power Five and FBS schools are often left stranded, forced to take offers from programs in lower NCAA divisions.

The portal giveth, and (sometimes) the portal taketh away.

How do we know you’re the real you? — @_birdsofwar

Twitter became a more chaotic place this week, unfortunately, with the policy change on verified accounts. And the risk of chaos will track directly with the significance of the news event in question.

Be careful what you read, believe and Retweet

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