Staid Pac-10 changes to dynamic Pac-12
The cry for help arrived last December in the inboxes of media members on the West Coast.
Following a win at North Carolina State, an Arizona official returned home perplexed by the good amount of East Coasters who had not realized how good of a star player the Wildcats possessed. So he sent a mass email asking for ideas on how to solve a baffling problem.
What could be done to better publicize Derrick Williams? Arizona, with all of its history as a basketball powerhouse, was having an amazingly difficult time attracting national attention for the eventual No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft.
Of course, by that time Larry Scott already had the long-term solutions drawn up on his mental whiteboard.
In an interview with ESPN.com on Monday, the Pac-12 commissioner said that when he was hired in 2009, he believed that the Pac-10 was the most underexposed conference in the country given the championship tradition of its programs. So what did he do?
The man who spent his entire career in the world of professional tennis went out and expanded the conference's membership for the first time in decades and also reached agreement on a couple of landmark television deals.
Although the way in which Scott reshaped the Pac-12's future was primarily football-driven, the changes should also be a game-changer for basketball teams in the league. In fact, he did take notice of the Williams issue as well, calling it a metaphor for the challenges the conference has faced and how they should be addressed going forward.
"The 'aha' moment was during the NCAA tournament when the country woke up to Derrick Williams," Scott said. "It was almost like no one knew who Derrick Williams was or even mentioned him in the same breath as the leading players in the country until probably the Duke game [in the Sweet 16]. The reason was hardly anyone had seen him on TV. Had people been seeing him on TV half as much as some of the other conferences, he would have been the talk of the country."
July 1 was Scott's second anniversary on the job, and he celebrated it by officially welcoming Colorado and Utah to the conference. For the first time in 33 years, the Pac-10 had grown.
The additions of the schools came at breakneck speed considering the generally conservative nature of the conference. Tom Hansen, Scott's predecessor, pursued Texas in the 1990s downplayed expansion possibilities at every turn in the years leading to his retirement.
In contrast, Scott made huge headlines last summer while attempting to construct a 16-team league by luring away programs from the Big 12. Even after settling on plucking Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah from the Mountain West Conference, he has continued to talk of super conferences being the future of the college landscape and the Pac-12 needing to be in good position to capitalize.
"What he has done where people have talked about doing, he has come in the door and raised the bar instantly," said Ernie Kent, who played for Oregon in the Pac-8 and coached at the school in the Pac-10. "That's a man with vision who understands how to get it done. You have to move with it or get left behind."
Although the arrivals of Colorado and Utah allowed Scott to split the into two football divisions and stage a lucrative conference title game beginning this season, the impact on hoops is less certain with both new programs in transition.
Utah has advanced to the national championship game as recently as 1998, but has made only one NCAA tournament in the past six years. Colorado hasn't advanced to the Big Dance since 2003 but is coming off a season in which its 24 wins set a school record.
Scott declined comment on possible future expansion and realignment scenarios, but CU second-year coach Tad Boyle, who has already seen the benefits of the league change by signing three high school recruits from California, likes the direction things are headed however the landscape shifts.
"Whatever happens, the Pac-12 is in a great position -- right now today and certainly going forward," Boyle said. "If everything stays the way it is or if there continues to be expansion and dominoes continue to fall, the Pac-12 will be attractive to schools."
If indeed Pac-12 basketball's national reputation needed to be improved, the league's previous television deal wasn't always helpful.
Consider that preseason favorite Washington did not even have its conference opener against USC televised last season. Even at a storied program like UCLA that is situated in the nation's second-largest media market in the country, not every nonconference home game could be found on television.
Those days are no more.
Stunning, transformative change came in the form of a new 12-year contract with ESPN and Fox Sports that's worth around $2.7 billion, starting during the 2012-13 academic year. That triples the league's previous media rights fees and is the most valuable in all of college sports.
In addition, the conference recently unveiled the Pac-12 networks that will launch next August. The result is that starting next season, the majority of men's basketball games played by a Pac-12 team will be broadcast nationally, including every home game.
Every conference game that isn't carried by telecast partners -- ESPN gets 46 telecasts per year -- will air nationally on the Pac-12 Networks to almost 40 million cable viewers. The networks will telecast 850 live events annually -- 350 on the national feed and 500 on six regional feeds -- including Olympic sports coverage.
"There's going to be a dramatic turnaround in terms of the exposure and therefore the perception of the conference," Scott said. "I'm most excited for our fans."
The television deals are expected to have a positive impact in recruiting, considering Pac-12 coaches can now guarantee recruits that they'll be playing the majority of their games on national television and that their families and friends will be able to follow them closely. Pac-12 programs could look to widen their recruiting bases knowing they'll soon will have more visibility in the Midwest and on the East Coast.
"When you go outside your borders [to recruit players], moms and dad and grandmas want to see them play," Boyle said. "It's just another bullet in your gun, another arrow in your quiver when you go in a home."
The conference that has traditionally played its games on Thursdays and Saturdays has already upped the number of Sunday games this season in order to increase exposure. When the new TV deals kick in next year, there will be more Wednesday games as well in order to maximize time slots in which viewers can tune in.
"It's driven by football, but look at the potential it has created for men's basketball," said Kent, who served as an analyst on Pac-10 broadcasts on Fox Sports last season. "Now programs have to grow with it. You have to get tougher with scheduling. He's created a market for your product. The product has to be really good now for people to watch it."
Remember in March how Washington's Isaiah Thomas created a magical moment when his buzzer-beating shot in overtime against Arizona captured the Pac-10 tournament title for the Huskies?
Official attendance at the game was 12,074 (althogh the actual attendance was much smaller), the lowest figure for a championship game since the tournament first started being held at L.A.'s Staples Center in 2002. The figures have plummeted since the Pac-10 voted to revive the event following a 12-year hiatus, with the sight of empty seats -- especially in the early rounds -- now the norm.
Scott is rethinking the tournament and said he's strongly considering moving it out of Los Angeles. The Pac-12 accepted formal proposals to host the event up until its deadline Friday, with Salt Lake City's EnergySolutions Arena and Seattle's KeyArena reportedly being a couple of the potential sites.
Scott declined to name the cities that sent in proposals and said the conference had yet to rule out different models for the event, including using rotating sites annually and holding games on campus. (The Pac-12 football championship game will be held at campus sites.)
"I really want a strong collegiate atmosphere around the basketball tournament," said Scott, who hopes to make a decision by this fall. "I don't want it to feel overly corporate. I want it to be well-attended and well-supported and there to be great buzz around the event."
It goes without saying that Pac-12 programs could certainly command more attention by simply winning more. Only six NCAA tournament bids have been handed out among them over the past two years, with the league struggling in early-season nonconference action. This coming season won't be any easier, with numerous teams losing players early to the NBA draft, including Williams and Thomas.
But in part because of Scott's leadership toward increasing the Pac-12's visibility, success on the court might soon result in a sufficient amount of recognition.
"From a marketing and exposure perspective, it's never been better," Kent said. "He's opened the door to growth at an alarming rate. Not that the Pac-10 hasn't done it, but now he has set the table to capture the national spotlight ever year. In terms of exposure, recruiting, TV dollars, the whole package, it's amazing to me."
Diamond Leung covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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