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Pac-10 chases TV dollars with expansion

With the addition of Colorado and Utah, the question remains whether Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott achieved his goal of adding schools that provided "exponential" growth in revenues.
Image: University of Utah Joins Pac-10 Conference
Commissioner Larry Scott hold up University of Utah gear June 17 after admitting the school into the Pac-10.George Frey / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Pac-10 expansion appears complete with the addition of Colorado and Utah to be the league's 11th and 12th members.

The question remains whether commissioner Larry Scott achieved his goal of adding schools that provided "exponential" growth in revenues and exposure for the conference.

Scott shot big by going after Texas, Oklahoma and three other Big 12 schools that eventually turned him down. The conference settled for expanding into the Mountain time zone, but couldn't crack the lucrative Texas market.

The verdict on how successful Scott's plan was won't come until the conference negotiates its new television deals next year, which could include the creation of its own network to rival the Big Ten's.

"I can't say sitting here today that we will have a TV network of our own, but I can say there is significant interest in it and we are in the process of developing a business plan for it," he said Wednesday.

But it won't be nearly as lucrative without Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the conference. A 16-team conference with those schools and Colorado would have expanded the Pac-10's footprint into seven states that have about 31 million television homes and 10 of the top 30 TV markets, according to the 2009-10 figures from Nielsen Co.

By only adding Colorado and Utah, the conference will see its penetration fall from 26.7 percent of the country to just 19 percent — a loss of 9.1 million of TV homes.

"Adding the state of Texas would have added a lot of TV homes," said Neal Pilson, president of the Pilson Communications media consulting firm and a former president of CBS Sports. "But they still have close to 20 percent of the country. A conference channel is still going to be researched and examined. They could probably make it work in those markets."

Pac-10 network?
The difference in homes becomes stark when it comes to a conference network, where the biggest source of revenue is from subscribers of cable and satellite providers.

Analyst Derek Baine of the research firm SNL Kagan said the Big Ten gets 88 cents per subscriber each month in market, compared to 5 cents out of market. The loss of a potential 9.1 million TV homes a month starts to add up quickly.

Scott said the conference has explored the possibility of a network with different teams and different numbers of teams. It hired the Creative Arts Agency to help determine how much money it can make under different plans. The Pac-10 pays out the least of any of the six BCS conferences, with the latest figures showing Stanford getting less than $7 million and Southern California receiving about $11.5 million.

The conference should increase those figures whether it starts its own network or does a traditional media deal. Scott has said he will be more flexible with scheduling and other matters in order to garner higher payouts from TV partners.

The question now is whether the Pac-10 can get more per school with 12 universities than it would have with 10. A football championship game should provide an additional $10 million to $15 million in revenues. It's not yet clear how much more the addition of the 16th largest market in Denver and the 31st largest in Salt Lake City will add.

Starting a cable network is a difficult process with high upfront costs involved and difficult fights with cable and satellite providers to get on basic packages instead of special sports tiers that reduce the number of subscribers and revenue drastically.

Success in Big Ten
The Big Ten has successfully pulled off the feat, having launched a network in 2007 that plays a big role in the approximately $20 million payouts to each conference team — the most of any conference.

"The Big Ten spent many years pre-launch trying to get deals in place with operators," Baine said. "Sports rights are very expensive. The cable operators are not really into adding new expensive programming. It's not something that can happen overnight. You have to work years on it."

The Big Ten went into partnership with Fox, which owns 49 percent of the network. With Fox's parent company News Corp. also owning a stake in DirecTV at the time, the conference was able to quickly do a deal with the satellite provider, helping make it the first cable network to reach 30 million subscribers within its first 30 days on the air.

By its second season, the network reached deals with all of the major cable providers, making it a success that other conferences wanted to equal.

"You'd have to ask them," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said when asked this week about the impact of his network. "All I know is we've been very happy with the creative and financial aspects of our network."

With News Corp. no longer owning a stake of DirecTV, a deal with Fox would not give the Pac-10 an automatic carriage agreement with a major provider.

The conference could leverage the possibility of a network into more rights fees as the SEC did in its latest deal with ESPN.

ESPN, Fox and Comcast all could be viable bidders by next season. Comcast's deal to take over NBC Universal is expected to be approved by regulators before the end of the year.

That will add another potential bidder for the conference's rights — most notably one that will control a broadcast network in NBC, a sports cable network in Versus, regional sports networks in California and Oregon and is also the nation's largest cable TV provider.

Baine said Comcast is staying quiet now to avoid raising the ire of regulators but could be a major player as soon as the deal is approved.