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Pac-12, the ‘Conference of Champions,’ turns to giant PR firm to help solve its many woes

The Pac-12 has a problem: In the country’s marquee sports, it isn’t very good.

The conference has been left out of the College Football Playoff each of the past two seasons. In 2014 and 2016, the two years its teams earned an invitation, Oregon and Washington were overmatched against, respectively, Ohio State and Alabama.

On New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl, the Huskies looked like the JV team to the Buckeyes’ varsity. And in Athlon Sports’ “way too early” top 25 poll, Oregon is the highest-ranked Pac-12 team, at No. 12.

As college sports fans turn their attention to men’s basketball, not a single Pac-12 team can be found in the AP’s top 25. Arizona State — sporting ugly losses to Vanderbilt and Princeton, but with a top-five win against Kansas — is the conference’s top vote-getter.

Washington Post contributor Patrick Stevens predicted Wednesday morning that the conference could be headed for an all-time low in NCAA tournament bids.

That UCLA fired Coach Steve Alford this week could be a piece of good news for the conference, Stevens wrote: “It provided something to discuss about Pac-12 basketball that wasn’t solely about this miserable season.”

The Pac-12′s brand, in other words, appears broken. To fix it, the conference retained one of the nation’s top public relations firms, according to the Oregonian.

FleishmanHillard, whose clients include AT&T, General Motors and JPMorgan Chase, is tasked with helping a Pac-12 “review of our overall communication strategy as part of a collaborative process with our members,” a conference spokesman told the newspaper.

“Our shared interest in a strong Pac-12 brand is a strategic priority given the brand’s impact on the valuation of our collective media and sponsorship rights, recruitment efforts on campuses, impact on overall University brands, and NCAA selection processes in football and basketball, among other reasons,” Andrew Walker, the conference’s head of communications, wrote to university presidents in October.

Every major conference has a television network (the ACC’s will launch in conjunction with ESPN in August), but the Pac-12 retains ownership of its network and its programming instead of joining with a media partner to run the operation and lower overhead costs.

That means the conference’s brand has a direct impact in dollars and cents. If the teams in marquee sports underperform and interest drops, the value of the TV network drops, too.

To help the league, which calls itself “the conference of champions,” FleishmanHillard suggested a three-pronged approach in a November meeting, according to documents obtained by the Oregonian. Among the recommendations:

  • “Conduct in-depth analysis of the influencer landscape to identify neutral to positive voices and systematically build relationships with these influencers to shift the conversation.” 
  • “Expand upon media partnerships with The Players’ Tribune and Los Angeles Times and identify new national partner(s) to increase national and regional coverage.” 
  • “Enlist one of comedy’s great ‘coaches’ or ‘fans’ to star in a digital series that addresses the challenges of last-minute schedule and late games in a way that honors the true commitment of the Pac-12 fan.” 

In other words, FleishmanHillard wants to develop relationships with important people in the college sports media landscape, hoping they’ll start talking up the league, or at least change the subject. There could also be a TV commercial blitz to hype the passion of Pac-12 fans.

Is that going to be enough to help the conference turn things around? Oregonian columnist John Canzano, who broke the story about the Pac-12′s relationship with FleishmanHillard, doesn’t think so.

“The brand isn’t broken because of public perception,” he wrote Tuesday. “It’s busted because of results.”

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