A week after Oregon plays Michigan State in the Redbox Bowl on Dec. 31 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., the national championship game will be contested in the same venue.
The Pac-12 won’t be represented.
For the second consecutive season, and the third time in the five-year history of the format, the “Conference of Champions” did not have a team selected for the College Football Playoff.
Pac-12 champion Washington was ninth in the selection committee’s final rankings, one spot behind Group of Five program UCF, three spots behind Big Ten champion Ohio State and four spots behind SEC runner-up Georgia.
Washington State, which finished 10-2, was ranked 13th and excluded from a lucrative New Year’s Six Bowl. Mike Leach and the Cougars will settle for a matchup with 8-4 Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl.
The Pac-12 finished 1-8 in bowl games last season, the worst postseason on record for a Power Five conference, and the conference is off to an 0-1 start this bowl season with Arizona State’s loss to Fresno State in the Las Vegas Bowl.
The Pac-12 isn’t performing any better in men’s basketball, the other critical revenue sport for athletic departments.
No. 18 Arizona State is the lone Pac-12 team in the Associated Press poll. The Sun Devils have also provided the only marquee nonconference win — Saturday’s upset of No. 1 Kansas.
In the NCAA’s “NET” computer rankings Sunday, only Arizona State (43) and Colorado (46) were inside the top 50. Oregon (93) and Oregon State (97) were barely inside the top 100, with Stanford (103), USC (131), Utah (137), Washington State (160) and California (174) all outside the top 100.
The Pac-12, which did not advance a team to the round of 32 in last year’s NCAA Tournament, could be a one-bid league this March, if Arizona State wins the conference tournament in Las Vegas.
Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens, who is also the chairman of the College Football Playoff selection committee, said the Pac-12 shouldn’t be judged purely on its exclusion from the four-team football playoff or its recent issues in men’s basketball both on the court and in federal court.
“I think the Pac-12 has a great league, and sometimes the focus only gets on football and men’s basketball results,” Mullens said during a recent interview with The Register-Guard. “Stanford just won a volleyball championship, which sometimes deserves some more amplification. But I understand that football and men’s basketball haven’t produced what we all want it to produce. Sometimes those things are cyclical.
“I think we have great institutions, we have outstanding coaches, and we all need to be working collectively to do everything we can to give our teams the best chance to succeed. The playoff is so important and gets so much attention; it’s not the only measure of success.”
To Mullens’ point, this year:
— Five Pac-12 women’s basketball teams are currently ranked in the AP poll, led by No. 7 Oregon. Four unranked teams from the conference — Arizona, Colorado, USC and Utah — are a combined 41-3 in nonconference play.
— Stanford won its eighth NCAA volleyball championship, giving the Pac-12 its 16th title in the sport, the most for any conference. The Cardinal have won an NCAA title in at least one sport for the 43rd consecutive year.
— Oregon State won the College World Series for the third time.
But the bottom line: Television contracts for football and men’s basketball pay the bills for athletic departments.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott is facing mounting criticism as the conference continues to lag behind its peers in distributing revenue to member institutions.
For the last reported tax year in 2016, SEC schools received $41 million each in conference distribution, Big Ten schools received $37 million and Pac-12 schools received $31 million.
When the Pac-10 expanded in 2011, Scott was lauded for the conference’s 12-year, $3 billion television contract with ESPN and Fox.
In summer of 2017, the Big Ten announced a six-year deal with ESPN and Fox Sports worth $2.64 billion. The contract is expected to net each of the conference’s 14 members more than $50 million annually.
“There is this big resource gap between, particularly the SEC and the Big Ten, and that always creates some tension,” Mullens said. “We closed the gap significantly when the new TV deal was done, and sometimes that gets lost in this. We’ve got much, much greater exposure in football and men’s basketball than we had prior. And we closed the resource gap at the time the deal was done.
“Unfortunately, it’s grown. We took a road less traveled in that we decided we would retain 100 percent ownership of the networks and that we would do seven networks, we’d do 850 live events to elevate our Olympic sports.”
The Pac-12 Network is still not available on DirecTV, another source of frustration for many fans. Scott maintains that owning the network will ultimately pay off for the conference when it's time to negotiate a new media deal in 2024.
Mullens admits the long-term strategy is a gamble.
“That’s a different model. I think it’s still up in the air as to whether that turns out to be the right move,” Mullens said. “If the media landscape shifts and it goes our way, we could be sitting in a great position. But that is to be determined.”
Over the next five years, Mullens and his peers must figure out how to compete against the other five Power Five conferences with fewer financial resources.
During a recent series examining Scott’s leadership and the issues facing the Pac-12, The Oregonian revealed the conference spends about $6.9 million per year in annual rent for its headquarters in downtown San Francisco, which includes the Pac-12 Network studios.
The SEC spends $318,000 in annual rent for its headquarters in Birmingham, Ala., and the Big Ten spends $1.5 million in annual rent for its headquarters in suburban Chicago.
“I know we’re challenging to follow because we’re unique as a conference,” Scott told a scrum of media at the Pac-12 championship game between Washington and Utah at Levi’s Stadium. “Certainly when it comes to financial results and headcount. We’re actually a media company, and the way that all gets reported is all together and that’s very hard to parse.”
Scott’s annual salary of $4.8 million is twice the salary of Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany ($2.4 million) and also dwarfs the salary of SEC commissioner Greg Sankey ($1.9 million).
Scott insists the Pac-12 is “very, very efficient” with its operational expenses. Mullens was asked if the conference needs to be even more financially efficient to keep up with the Joneses.
“That’s a tough question,” Mullens said. “Obviously I don’t know the ins and outs of how they spend every dollar. I certainly think that all of us need to make sure that we’re doing everything that we can to be as efficient as possible, so as much of that net revenue can get returned to the campuses that allows us to compete at the highest level. I think it’s in everybody’s best interest.”
In addition to the revenue gap with the television contracts, the Pac-12 football programs also take in less money at the gate.
During the 2017 season, the 14 SEC teams averaged 75,074 in attendance per home game. The Big Ten (66,227) and Big 12 (56,852) also ranked ahead of the Pac-12 (49,601) in average home attendance.
USC was the only Pac-12 team that ranked in the top 20 nationally in average attendance in 2017 (72,683), but the struggling Trojans only averaged 55,449 fans during their six games at the L.A. Coliseum in 2018.
Three Big Ten programs (Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State) and SEC powerhouse Alabama averaged over 100,000 in attendance in 2017. Four other SEC teams averaged over 92,000 for home games.
“We have to have two home games sold out to get to what they average on a game-by-game basis,” Mullens noted. “Our deal has always been innovation, brand, and student-athlete experience creates a bit of a competitive advantage for us.
“We have to do things a little differently. We have to be more efficient. We just can’t run into the marketplace and money-whip people. We have to find where our place fits and make it work.”
In addition to the financial issues the Pac-12 is facing, the integrity of the conference’s officiating and several of its marquee men’s basketball programs has also been called in to question.
During a USC-Washington State game on Sept. 21, Woodie Dixon, the Pac-12’s general counsel and head of football, called into the the conference’s centralized instant-replay command center and overruled the replay officials on a controversial targeting call.
The in-stadium replay officials determined that Washington State linebacker Logan Tago was guilty of targeting for a helmet-to-helmet hit on USC quarterback JT Daniels. Dixon over-ruled the decision, which Scott admitted was a mistake.
“I’ve been told it’s an isolated incident,” Scott said during an interview at halftime of Oregon’s loss to Washington State in Pullman.
The Cougars were in position to win at the L.A. Coliseum, which would have bolstered their position in the College Football Playoff standings later in the season.
But when quarterback Gardner Minshew absorbed a helmet-to-helmet hit by USC linebacker Porter Austin on the final drive, no targeting call was made. Instead of having a first-and-goal with a chance to go ahead, Washington State missed a potential game-tying field goal.
Yahoo Sports obtained a trove of heated texts exchanged between Leach and Dixon after the costly no-call.
"Why can't I help wondering, if you're trying to manipulate wins and losses?" Leach texted Dixon.
Mullens is satisfied with Scott’s handling of the incident.
“I am concerned about the perception,” Mullens said. “But I have confidence in the league on all that stuff. I was really pleased with how the commissioner brought that issue before the ADs, how he had done his review, how he shared it with us, asked for our input. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
“I think it’s unfortunate that it happened. I don’t think anyone in the league office is trying to influence games in any way. Again, I think they’ve got a tough job, but I do have confidence in them.”
Arizona and USC were named in the original complaints filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office after an FBI investigation into corruption in men's basketball.
Oregon was mentioned in court during Adidas executive Jim Gatto’s federal corruption trial in New York this fall. His attorney, Casey Donnelly, stated that her client agreed to send $100,000 to the family of recruit Brian Bowen in exchange for him attending Louisville instead of accepting offers from Oregon and other schools.
“Oregon, a Nike school, offered (Bowen) an astronomical amount of money if he’d go to Oregon,” Donnelly testified, according to Yahoo Sports.
Oregon released a statement saying it was aware of the claim but had not been contacted by the federal government during the investigation. Mullens doesn’t believe the ongoing trials will be an issue for Dana Altman and his program.
“I don’t,” Mullens said. “I think we’ve been very diligent with our general counsel’s office and being on top of this from the beginning in how we’ve looked at it, how we’ve reviewed it. First with our own compliance office, then with our general counsel’s office.”
Two years ago, Altman and the Ducks won a share of the Pac-12 title and then made a run to the Final Four, where they lost to eventual national champion North Carolina.
Four years ago, Marcus Mariota led Oregon to the national championship game, where it lost to Ohio State. The Ducks’ win over Florida State in a national semifinal at the Rose Bowl remains the Pac-12’s only victory in the College Football Playoff.
Despite the issues the Pac-12 is now facing, Mullens is confident Oregon can get back on the national stage in football and men’s basketball in the near future.
“We are not going to back off of our goals, our expectations,” Mullens said. “We just have to find out where we fit and what creative, innovative ways can we compete with the folks that have more resources than we do.”