Wilner Mailbag: Chips for the Pac-12’s future, media rights timing, SMU’s value, Colorado replacement options and more

What does the Pac-12 need to do in order to survive long term, meaning 20 years into the future? — @josephkirkpatri

To a certain extent, the fate of the conference is tied to the future of the Power Five structure itself. If the Big Ten and SEC opt to become mega-leagues with 20 or more schools, the Pac-12 as we know it will cease to exist.

But let’s imagine a scenario in which Big Ten and SEC membership remains fixed through the next two media contract cycles — it’s status quo for both conferences into the late 2030s.

How can the Pac-12 ensure competitive success and membership stability (e.g., prevent schools from departing for the Big 12) through the next 15 or 20 years?

Obviously, commissioner George Kliavkoff must craft a satisfactory media rights deal this summer and convince the presidents to sign a medium-length (five-to-seven years) grant-of-rights agreement.

But because we’re taking the long view, let’s cast an eye to the media negotiations that, in theory, would take place in the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Clearly, the present and future strategies are interconnected. Any decisions this summer must help position the Pac-12 for the next round of negotiations.

In that regard, one word seems applicable: chips.

The Pac-12 must craft a strategy that secures the greatest number of negotiating chips for the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Chips take the form of media markets (membership) and football brands (competitive success).

The Hotline believes adding SMU this summer would give the conference a chip, the massive Dallas-Fort Worth market, for future negotiations. (That’s doubly true if the Mustangs are successful in elevating their program.)

We also believe adopting a revenue model that rewards teams for reaching the College Football Playoff would help the Pac-12’s top programs (Washington, Oregon and Utah) solidify their presence on the national stage and enhance their brand value.

There are other ways to promote competitive success — for example, smart scheduling — but those stand out: Do whatever is required to support your top programs and capture the DFW market by inviting SMU.

If the Mustangs are thriving at the end of the decade, the conference could explore two other schools in the region: Rice, which brings the Houston market, and Tulane, which is located in New Orleans.

Generally speaking, the conference must take a broad view with strategies that create pathways to future growth opportunities … and additional negotiating chips.

There is only one question: WHEN?!?!?!!!! — @chang_daniel

I expect the Pac-12 to announce a media rights deal and expansion decision prior to July 21, the date of the preseason media extravaganza in Las Vegas. That would clear the existential crisis from the stage and allow the spotlight to focus on the teams, coaches and players in advance of a hotly-anticipated football season.

If there is no news by the 21st, we will presume something has gone wrong in the final stage of this saga.

Currently, the Hotline views Pac-12 survival as a 4-point favorite over extinction. But as we have stated repeatedly, the longer the negotiations take, the greater the opportunity for unexpected events to derail the process.

Time and security move inversely.

If there’s no deal prior to the preseason media event, survival odds likely will drop to a field goal (or less).

Is this mailbag coming out a day early because you know there will be big news on Friday? — @fakepatskinner

I do not expect news on June 30, a significant but not make-or-break date for the negotiations because of San Diego State’s exit fee.

However, the possibility certainly exists — we are prepared for anything and everything over the next three weeks.

And if there’s no hard news on Friday, the Hotline is planning to publish a column on the media rights saga.

You mentioned in your latest column the possibility of an all-in with ESPN. Does that same possibility exist with Fox? — @pfnnewmedia

Not in our view. The networks have starkly different strategic situations with regard to Pac-12 football content.

Fox needed to renew its contract with the Big 12 because it lost Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC, which has an all-in deal with ESPN. If the network didn’t preserve its relationship with the Big 12, it would have lost college football in the state of Texas.

Fox doesn’t need to renew with the Pac-12 because it gained the crucial Los Angeles market through its contract with the Big Ten.

It’s a supply-and-demand issue on the Power Five chessboard, which is controlled by the networks, not the conferences.

ESPN needs the Pac-12 in order to maintain a presence in the Pacific Time Zone. Fox does not.

That said, Fox could grab a small package of Pac-12 games for the FS1 window on Saturday nights.

With Disney cutting staff and expenses, do you see a future whereby Apple or Amazon buy ESPN? — @UACatManDo

The dollars involved certainly make that a possibility:

Apple has a $3 trillion market cap, the largest in the world, while Amazon has a $1.3 trillion market cap (fifth globally).

Disney is small by comparison at $161 billion.

Given the value of live sports on both linear and streaming platforms, we should not rule out the possibility of a purchase sometime in the distant future. But for now, we’ll assume the status quo.

The question touches on an important point, however: The streaming companies are steadily moving into the sports space because they see the value and have the dollars.

Once ESPN’s main network becomes available on streaming in a few years, the platform will become a mainstream mode of delivery.

For the Pac-12, any partnership with a streamer stands as a bet on media consumption trends in the second half of the decade.

Any chance that if Colorado leaves, the conference slides in Colorado State and Arizona doesn’t leave? Is CSU for Boulder a fair swap? I mean, what has Boulder brought to the Pac-12 since joining, other than Deion Sanders? — @ag10899

You’re correct about Colorado. Other than one division title (in 2016) and hiring Sanders, who has yet to coach a game, the CU football program has been irrelevant for 12 years.

I do not believe it’s an even swap, however — the Buffaloes have a stronger brand, richer tradition and larger audience than CSU.

If Colorado bolted for the Big 12, effectively trading its diminished current home for its diminished former home, the Pac-12 could respond by adding Colorado State or San Diego State and move forward relatively unscathed.

The question is whether CU’s exit would spark other departures within the Four Corners group.

Outside of some alumni, no one in Texas follows SMU. But they’re a good addition to the Pac-12 because of a few wealthy backers? — @ZsaZsa_Peculiar

The wealthy donor base could help SMU become relevant in football through infrastructure investment and an NIL collective, but that’s hardly the university’s primary source of value for the Pac-12.

Its presence in the conference would open the Dallas-Fort Worth market for recruiting athletes and non-athletes alike — out-of-state tuition is a major revenue source for Pac-12 schools — and, of course, for media dollars.

The Hotline discussed SMU’s value earlier this year with Patrick Crakes, who negotiated contracts during his tenure as Fox Sports’ senior vice president for programming, research and content strategy. (He now runs his own firm, Crakes Media.)

For legacy media companies like ESPN and Fox, the valuation calculation is based on retransmission fees: The payments made by the affiliate stations to the parent network in exchange for the broadcast rights in the local market.

“How much is it worth to a pay-TV distributor to make SMU part of the Pac-12? It’s probably worth something,” Crakes said. “The Pac-12 gains a market, but it’s third in the pecking order with the SEC and then the Big 12.

“It comes down to whether they think SMU is accretive. You’re gaining a time zone. You’d get six games in the Central Time Zone. It’s not strategically earthshaking, but it’s incremental.”

If San Diego State and SMU were added to the Pac-12, which future non-conference game played on a Pac-12 campus would you be looking forward to the most? — @SirAndys

As you mentioned in the unpublished portion of the question, both SMU and San Diego State have home dates with Oklahoma later in the decade.

The Sooners are scheduled to visit SMU in 2027 and SDSU in 2029 as part of home-and-home series.

Assuming the matchups survive OU’s move to the SEC, both affairs would carry high intrigue.

If we broaden the scope to include non-conference games for all Pac-12 teams, there are a slew worth circling, including Michigan at Washington (2028), LSU at Utah (2031) and Ohio State at Oregon (2032).

But again, those are dependent on the visitors keeping the dates.

Would college athletics be better if we just went to a system of conference promotion/relegation like European soccer? — @17Readymade

I’m not convinced it would be better, but it’s a distinct possibility 15 or 20 years from now.

As we have noted periodically over the months, two forces will shape major college sports into the 2030s:

— The expanded playoff, which will have a monumental competitive impact from coast to coast (far greater than the creation of the four-team event).

— An inevitable (in our view) change to the NCAA economic model that creates a revenue-sharing agreement between the schools and players.

At some point, the rate of increase in dollars available from the CFP will slow; meanwhile, expenses will rise dramatically. That conflicting reality will force schools to seek other ways to squeeze revenue from their media partners.

If the networks dangle enough dollars, the sport assuredly will adopt a European soccer format.

Wait, are you going on vacation? Logically, that means we get a media deal announcement! Yay! — @hereforsportUoU

Funny you should mention that.

The Hotline has taken exactly one week of vacation since the early spring of 2022, and we made plans to get away in the first half of July — a needed recharge before the football season.

Yes, shame on me for expecting the Pac-12 media rights saga to have wrapped up by now!

We will do our very best to cover the issue from an undisclosed location.

As always, the Hotline truly appreciates the loyalty and support of our readers and syndication partners.