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Could USC actually leave the Pac-12? Could Oregon? Should they?

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

I’ve been working with SB Nation on a full-time basis for over seven years now, and I’ve learned a ton of lessons from some very smart editors. They taught me I should always look for unique angles, so we could stand out in a sea of vanilla coverage. They taught me how to file a FOIA, how to take the stupid stuff seriously, and that it’s often worth it to stay up for that Hawaii game.

Do you know what else I’ve learned while working here?

Always, always, blog the realignment thing.

So in that spirit, let’s take a closer look at USC. And maybe some other schools too

Could USC actually leave the Pac-12?

First, we start with an interview with USC athletic director Mike Bohn did with Ryan Ryan Abraham of USCFootball.com. Abraham has supported the idea of USC leaving the Pac-12 to go independent before (I actually wrote a column exploring the idea after some of his tweets back in 2017), and he asked Bohn if the Trojans would consider such a drastic move, given some of the Pac-12’s struggles, both on the field, and on the balance sheet.

Bohn’s response? “I think right now, Larry would agree with this, everything is on the table.”

The next day, Bohn spoke to CBS to try and clarify those remarks. And while he added a little more context to the first remark, I don’t think he totally walked back what he said:

"The answer is no," Bohn said when contacted by CBS Sports on Thursday. "Why would we do that? We've got 21 sports here. You know the drill. There would be no way for us to do that."Now, that being said, if the unexpected happened and NBC said, 'Hey we want to partner you guys with Notre Dame' … then that's different.'"….."There's no talk of [leaving], but guess what? If it was on the table, we would certainly explore that," Bohn said. "But I've got to be careful. The league is really tender."The context that I was talking about was whether it was league TV stuff, creative pieces with any other type of deliverable, it has to be on the table. Guess what? If that helps [the league] understand the importance of what our campuses are going through, so be it."Bohn later added, "I don't want to walk it back, but hopefully that gives it a little more context."

I don’t think there’s anything unfair or wrong with what Bohn said!

USC is a program that wants to compete for playoff bids and national titles. Because of that, they’d likely be even more concerned about massive (and likely to grow) revenue differences between the Big Ten and SEC. After all, Cal, Washington State, and Arizona aren’t competing against too many SEC schools on the recruiting trail…but USC absolutely is.

Does USC want to leave the Pac-12? Probably not, but hey, if NBC or somebody else just happened to provide a compelling financial reason to do so, and the conference was unable to address those revenue gaps in any other meaningful way….well…USC has to do what’s best for USC, right?

At least one commentator thinks USC isn’t the only program that should throw their weight around a little bit. Why not Oregon?

I love what Bohn did there. He’s sitting on one of the conference’s long-standing, valuable brands, and decided to exert some old-fashioned leverage. It was candid and authentic. Also, his comments were a clear deviation from the unified messaging that Scott forced on conference members 15 months earlier after he hired a high-priced crisis-management firm...Bohn broke from that and put USC’s best interests first. That’s his job and he performed it well. Which made me wonder why Oregon isn’t doing more to publicly set itself apart from the rest of the Pac-12 right now.

USC football is still probably the biggest brand in the Pac-12, given their history and location, but Oregon is probably the real flagship program of the conference right now. They might be the only program in the conference that has a real credible chance at making a four-team playoff in the next two seasons. And if you’re under 30, you might care a little more about Oregon’s recent history and brand than you might about USC.

If it’s in USC’s best interest to try and really push the Pac-12, it’s probably Oregon’s too, right? It’d probably also be in the best interest of Washington and UCLA, but I can’t recall anybody from either of those programs or markets pushing similar language, outside of a rumor from the summer that a UCLA mega-booster was pushing for the school to pursue membership in….the ACC?

Could either of these schools actually leave? Why would they want to?

Let’s try to take this seriously, for a moment. As best as I can understand, the biggest reason why any major program would want to leave the Pac-12 would be over money. If you want to win a national title, you’re going to have to beat teams from the SEC or the Big Ten, and thanks to massive TV deals and lucrative conference networks, those leagues are making tens of millions more each season. It’s not impossible that by the end of the 2020s, the Big Ten could double up the Pac-12 in revenue distributions.

Could either of those teams theoretically get a TV deal so lucrative that they could make more money outside of the Pac-12? USC might, if that potential partner was NBC and they wanted to do some sort of partnership akin to Notre Dame. I don’t know if Oregon could. The school sits in a smaller TV market, and their fanbase may not be as old and affluent as USC’s. It’s possible, but I’d guess it’d be harder for them.

I could also see a company like DAZN or Apple TV theoretically offering USC or Oregon something like a $210 million, five year deal for their football rights, which could end up being a little more than what the Pac-12 distributes. But then those schools would need to weigh that revenue against the need for mass exposure. Making a few million more a year is probably not worth it if recruits can’t as easily see your games. My guess is that if you were trying to be a program that competes for national titles, you’d want the majority of your TV deal to be linear, not streaming. I’m not sure the marketplace will move so quickly in the other direction before 2024.

The other concern is what you do with the rest of your athletic program. As a private school, I think USC would have a slightly easier job, as they might be able to pitch the WCC to theoretically take their other sports. USC isn’t a religious school like the rest of the WCC (a league whose shared institutional makeup is almost unique among modern conferences), but they are private, fit in the geographic footprint, and would solidify the league as a multi-bid conference in most sports. Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s, BYU and USC is a great top half of a basketball league, IMO.

Oregon wouldn’t be able to do that. Now, you might argue that USC and Oregon departing the Pac-12 would be an extinction-level event for the league that could trigger mass western realignment, giving Oregon a potential new home cobbled together from Pac-12, WCC and MWC programs. But failing something really crazy like that happening, it’s difficult to see where everything else would go. The MWC? Eeesh.

FWIW, I bet both programs would probably not have problems assembling good enough football schedules to compete. BYU is able to get SEC teams to travel out west. Even UConn (UConn!) has locked in home and homes with P5 programs. Buoyed by a potential national TV partner, I’m sure either school could cobble together enough high profile games to sell tickets and impress a selection committee.

If this talk isn’t really about leaving the Pac-12, what is it for?

If I had to handicap the chances of USC (or Oregon, or UCLA, or anybody else, really) leaving the Pac-12, I wouldn’t set them at 0, but I don’t think they’re especially likely. There are a lot of substantial obstacles, and I’m not sure it’s clear that such a move would be profitable.

But what if that talk is really about something else? Here’s Canzano again:

This isn’t about UO leaving the Pac-12. It’s about Oregon being eyes-wide-open and increasing its leverage within the conference. Because if the financials don’t improve in the next cycle, something drastic may have to be done.

So that’s an interesting question. What are you trying to use your leverage for?

Is it to force the Pac-12 to not extend Larry Scott? Scott’s deal doesn’t expire for a few years, but given the lead time required to find a new commissioner and a new media strategy, the conference could reportedly decide on Scott’s long-term fate as early as this year. There’s a possibility that one of Scott’s biggest defenders, Arizona State’s Michael M. Crow, could leave for another job. If officials at USC and Oregon made it a priority to push for a change in leadership and insinuated their continued membership in the league was contingent upon that, I bet they could make that happen.

Of course, it’s reasonable to wonder how much that would really change. The Pac-12 could can Larry Scott tomorrow, hire, I dunno, Colorado AD Rick George or something as the next commissioner, sign a conventional, longer-term deal with ESPN, and still face massive revenue deficits by the end of this decade. If revenue gapes are your biggest concern, it might be reasonable to wonder how much, at this stage in the game, new leadership could fix!

So if not that, what are you pushing for? Unequal revenue distributions? That might be justifiable, but that typically leads to conferences breaking up, or at least significant tension. Just ask Boise State.

Is it to force the conference to be more aggressive in officiating changes? To force the Pac-12 Network to cut costs? To take a new NIL position? To make scheduling changes? Something else?

Does USC even know yet?

The conventional wisdom was that the next realignment phase would center on the Big 12

I still think the most likely outcome is that we do not have any major realignment among major conferences over the next decade. But if any was going to happen, the working theory was usually that it would stem from Texas, Oklahoma, or both, leaving the Big 12.

That’s still possible, but maybe that wisdom is incorrect. Maybe it should focus on USC instead.

I’m not saying USC is going to leave the league. USC isn’t saying that either. But USC also isn’t not saying that, if things don’t change.

I’m not sure things will change. So this may be a storyline worth paying a little more attention to.

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