SportsPulse: For The Win’s Michelle Martinelli sets the stage for yet another showdown between college football powerhouses Alabama and Clemson.
SAN JOSE — The roundtable discussion centered, as you’d expect, on Alabama and Clemson. Media day activities were wrapping up inside a hockey arena in the heart of Silicon Valley, and a group of SiriusXM college football analysts were talking Dabo and Nick, Tua and Trevor, when the subject changed.
What about the Pac-12? And the conversation suddenly morphed into a discussion of demographic trends: How despite a huge chunk of the nation’s population, participation in football is minimal. And why for whatever reason, there aren’t as many of those really big bodies like the ones that populate those dominant offensive and defensive lines of teams from the South.
Ryan Leaf, the former Washington State and NFL quarterback, had a thought:
“Everybody’s vegan on the West Coast.”
Everyone laughed. But it seemed like as good an explanation as any for the Pac-12’s current plight – and by extension, for the weird situation unfolding this weekend.
There’s been plenty of discussion about the oddity of Alabama and Clemson traveling all the way across the country to play for the College Football Playoff national championship – and plenty of concern as to how many of their fans might not follow. Tickets for Monday’s game are going for well below face value. The Playoff faces the very real possibility Monday night of TV-unfriendly swaths of empty seats at Levi’s Stadium in nearby Santa Clara. And that’s before factoring in the possibility of very wet weather.
But it’s the view through a local prism that should be alarming to Pac-12 types.
“I just don’t think anybody is aware it exists,” Leaf said.
He meant the game, which has generated a distinct lack of buzz. But less than 50 miles away – depending on the time of day, the drive takes between an hour and 90 minutes – the Pac-12’s impressive offices occupy two floors of prime real estate in San Francisco, a high-tech collage of glass and polished concrete that also includes the Pac-12 Network’s studios and presents exactly the cutting-edge image the conference wants to cultivate. But on a late afternoon earlier this week, when the offices were nearly empty, it seemed fitting.
As the national championship game kicks off in the heart of the Pac-12’s footprint, the league is nowhere to be found.
There’s no shame for the Pac-12 in missing the championship game. Alabama and Clemson occupy their own special tier in college football. But the next tier of teams does not include the Pac-12, either. There wasn’t a Pac-12 team anywhere near the Playoff conversation for most of the season. There’s not an obvious team from the league ready to jump into it next year, either.
This isn’t a completely new phenomenon. The Pac-12 has missed the Playoff in three of its five seasons. But as the championship is played in its backyard, the Pac-12 has never felt farther away from participation. The league’s football – and basketball, too, but that’s a topic for another column – is at a low ebb. And at least outwardly, there’s not much indication that many care all that much.
“The reality is if this game was in Atlanta in Mercedes-Benz Stadium and it was Oregon vs. Oklahoma, you’d have a huge SEC contingent of fans,” said ESPN analyst Brock Huard, the former Washington quarterback. “And they’d be mad. You’d see their (SEC schools’) jerseys. You’d feel their passion. They’d be there and they’d want their teams to be there.”
But here? There’s crimson, and that weird combination of orange and purple, the Tide and Tigers fans mingling while dodging raindrops. But Stanford and California fans aren’t out in force, much less any of the other Pac-12 schools.
To Huard, it’s simply an extension of the vibe he got while calling Pac-12 games during the season.
“You go to Madison or Ann Arbor, or most of the SEC schools, or Austin or Norman, and it feels big,” he said. “It just doesn’t feel that way in this conference.”
Maybe that’s because it simply isn’t as big. The Pac-12 bills itself as the “Conference of Champions” because of its success in Olympic sports.
“The scorecard we think matters,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said last summer, “and that I know our university presidents and athletic directors care about most, is academic and athletic success across all sports. By this measure, we’re achieving unmatched success.”
But like it or not, football matters most. And here’s another troubling measure for the Pac-12: The league’s annual revenue distribution ranks a distant fifth among Power Five conferences. The distribution of its network, owned and operated by the league, remains very limited.
And in the last couple of months, the league has been beset by a wave of negative publicity: a controversy over a league executive’s interference in the instant replay review process begat a deep dive into the conference’s finances and inner workings by The Oregonian of Portland. A four-part series, along with several follow-up reports, combined to generate a wave of negative publicity – or more to the point, a new wave of negative publicity.
How to fix it? You could employ a high-priced public relations firm, as the Pac-12 did a while back, to produce glitzy presentations and suggest communications strategy. But the solution is pretty simple and yet at the same time, very difficult:
Win football games.
The Pac-12’s 1-8 bowl record a year ago fed an offseason narrative that the league was down. It helped turn Washington’s season-opening matchup with Auburn into Armageddon, with the result elevating or damaging the league as a whole.
“That’s totally unrealistic,” Washington coach Chris Petersen told USA TODAY Sports last summer. “I don’t look at it like that.”
But other people did. And when the Huskies lost, the league got lost, too, in regard to the Playoff conversation. Which brings us back to that SiriusXM roundtable. Mark Packer, the longtime host, interjected.
“I’ve got good news for Pac-12 football,” Packer said.
“You’re not Pac-12 basketball.”
And then they got back to talking Alabama and Clemson, which might be the unkindest cut of all.
“It’s not resonating right now,” said Huard of the Pac-12 – but it’s not just perception. He added:
“I think the perception and the reality are absolutely the same.”
Last summer, Petersen acknowledged: “We’re in a results business. If you don’t produce, you’re gonna have a lot of bullets coming your way.”
But after another season filled with more poor results, the current situation might be worse. Washington State went 11-2 and yet was never really on the playoff radar. It’s perhaps because of the perception of the Pac-12 that after a loss to rival Washington, the Cougars weren’t ranked high enough to make a New Year’s Six bowl.
Meanwhile, after that loss to Auburn, Washington rebounded to win the conference and reach the Rose Bowl, but lost 28-23 to Ohio State after trailing 28-3 through three quarters. The Pac-12 finished 3-4 in bowls, a two-game improvement but nothing that resonates.
As college football gets set to crown its national champion on Monday night, conversation about the Pac-12 isn’t just negative.
It’s almost nonexistent.