Sometime in the very near future, the University of California at Berkeley is going to have to make some very hard decisions about its athletic future, and no matter what those decisions are, lots of people are going to be unhappy.
Let’s start with this possibility: The Pac-12 athletic conference disappears and what, if anything, will replace it is unclear.
Today – and let me emphasize the word “today” – there are nine schools in the conference. Those nine schools do not have a media deal, and though Colorado was not a prime-time player in that regard, the loss of the Denver market has to sting. If the Arizona schools or, worse yet, Oregon, follow suit, it’s unclear if the Pac-? even has a future.
Sure, Fresno State and UNLV could join, or maybe Boise State and SMU, but really, that’s not the Pac-10 of old. That group is just a conglomeration of schools hoping to find some TV money to support the exorbitant salaries of its administrators and coaches – it’s not a college conference, with history and rivalries and pomp and circumstance. It’s just a bunch of semi-pro teams that can’t find a date.
Best case: Stanford, Cal, the Oregon schools, the Washington schools, the Arizona schools and Utah all stick together, and maybe pick up San Diego State. Amazon and NBC come up with a media deal that’s reasonably competitive with the Big 12, there’s a big signing ceremony, and the Pac-10 survives.
But really … how does that alignment compete with the B1G or the SEC? And we’re not just talking on the field – this is a big, big business, and a one-time-zone league (essentially) is not all that attractive to the advertisers who ultimately run the show. Yes, the late window on Saturday night is handy (if not so much for fans at the games who finally get out of the traffic jam about midnight) but the major money is for games played much earlier.
So the new Pac-10 will never have the media backing the B1G will, and thus will never have the same resources. In addition, football players are bred in the bone in Texas and Florida, not in California, and four-star football players from those two states will not have Cal on their list of must-visits.
Which leads to a second issue regarding the new Pac: Can Cal compete? Or to put it more precisely, will Cal compete? Even battling Oregon, Washington and Utah requires an investment of time, energy and administrative competence that Cal has not shown up to this point. Justin Wilcox is a nice guy who has yet to win, and though Mark Madsen looks like a great hire, he’s got a long way to go to make men’s basketball respectable, much less competitive, on the national scene.
But maybe the Pac survives. Maybe Cal fires the abysmally incompetent Jim Knowlton and starts winning football and basketball games. But even then, Cal is a good program in a second-rate conference, with no games against USC and UCLA. And that’s the best case.
It’s also possible the Pac just disintegrates. Oregon, Washington, Arizona and Arizona State join the exodus, leaving well, not much worth saving. Stanford might decide to just de-emphasize, and then whither Cal? The Mountain West? The Big Sky?
It’s still Division I, it’s still football Saturdays, and maybe some of the games even start at 1:30 p.m. And in truth, Cal right now is closer to the level of those schools in the major sports than it is to USC or Oregon. Sure, the Golden Bears should be a power, but it’s not like they can relax their way to a conference title either.
Option three is a West Coast Ivy League, with Stanford and Cal as founding members of a group that doesn’t give athletic scholarships and has no dreams of national athletic prominence. Though expenses are less, alumni donations decline in the long run and it’s a net financial loss. And of course, the quality of play will decline dramatically, and the subset of fans hungry to compete and beat UCLA will simply walk away.
Finally, of course, there’s a fantasy world in which the B1G comes calling, offering $40 million a year in media money to fly to Rutgers and Maryland each year, get pounded by Ohio State and maybe hang with Northwestern. In short, Cal becomes cannon fodder – unless it runs its program like the big boys do, with unethical coaches, players under arrest for assault and a scandal lurking around every dark corner on Telegraph.
So which do you choose? A second-rate Pac-10? The Mountain West? A new Ivy League? B1G money and big money scandals?
That’s what Cal’s day of reckoning is all about. There will be no more stalling, no more fancy verbiage and no place to hide. The cards will be on the table for all to see – and the only sure thing is that no matter how the hand is played, a whole lot of people are going to be really unhappy.