No. 22 ASU @ Colorado
When: 4 p.m. today
Where: Boulder, Colo.
Radio: KTAR (620 AM), ESPN (860 AM)
FINAL: ASU 21, Colorado 3
This trip could have become an every-other-year experience for the Sun Devils, as the Buffaloes — during the flurry of conference expansion in the 1990s — were once a candidate to join the Pac-10.
However, as leagues across the nation added schools to form two-division alignments with a lucrative football championship game, the Pac-10 stayed put. Years later, that fraternity consists of the same 10 schools, and that is unlikely to change soon, if ever.
“I would say that not only is expansion not on the back burner,” Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen said, “it’s not even on the stove.”
In college football’s brave new world, where five Division I-A conferences have at least 12 schools and a championship game, the Pac-10 feels that there is no realistically available schools that would improve the league’s revenue and television market presence.
“I don’t believe the Pac-10 feels pressed,” ASU vice president of athletics Lisa Love said. “We would be open to the right opportunity, but there is no pressing need to say that we should have more than 10 schools, no matter what the trend of the day is.”
There are other reasons for the hesitancy to expand.
The addition of a ninth conference football game creates a round-robin schedule, which the Pac-10 coaches feel is the most ideal way to determine the league champion. Also, each team insists on playing in Los Angeles at least once a year for recruiting purposes; that would not be possible in a 12-team, two-division format.
The Pac-10, which has not had a change in membership since Arizona and ASU were plucked from the Western Athletic Conference in 1978, is in four of the nation’s top 15 TV markets: Los Angeles (second), San Francisco/San Jose (sixth), Seattle (12th) and Phoenix (15th).
The league covers about 19 percent of the nation’s TV homes. And when a conference expands — despite what other reasons are publicly offered — it does so for one motivation: to increase its football viewing audience.
When the Pac-10 considered expansion — which it has not since 1997 — the conference had three criteria for candidates: TV market size, athletic prowess and reputation as a research institution. The latter was perhaps the biggest factor for the school presidents, Hansen said.
In the early 1990s, San Diego State made no secret of its desire to be a Pac-10 expansion candidate. At that time, Hansen indicated that the school’s academic credentials were not up to the conference’s standards.
Most of the region’s other schools reside in the WAC or Mountain West Conference, but no institution in either league would satisfy all three of the Pac-10’s requirements.
“From a financial standpoint, if you cannot bring in a school with more than 1.9 percent of the nation’s TV homes, you are not going to achieve enough new income from the new institution, when it comes to dividing revenues,” said Hansen, the Pac-10’s commissioner since 1983.
“That’s a big hurdle, because in the West, there aren’t that many colleges with that kind of TV area.”
One school that meets all three prerequisites is Texas, and the Pac-10 made a push for the Longhorns in the mid-1990s. Located in Austin, the school’s football program boasts a following across the state, which has about 7 percent of the nation’s TV audience.
“The percentage in television homes would have made it a good windfall for us,” Hansen said. “What caused us not to expand was that we couldn’t get Texas.”
Amidst rumors of Texas and Texas A&M leaving the SWC, then-governor Ann Richards, a Baylor graduate, and powerful Texas Tech alumni in the legislature used their influence to ensure that any move by the Longhorns and Aggies had to include the other two schools.
With the Pac-10 unable to add four teams, the Big Eight was able to pick up the Lone Star quartet to form the present-day Big 12.
Adding four teams to their conference has made the bean-counters in the Colorado athletic department happy. In the Big Eight’s final year, 1995-96, Colorado received a conference disbursement check of $2.975 million.
Last year, Colorado took in about $8 million from the Big 12, said David Plati, assistant athletic director for media relations.
“The first benefit is the big, fat check we get each year from the Big 12,” said Plati, who has worked in Colorado’s athletic department since 1983. “Let’s not kid ourselves.”
In 2005-06, ASU received $7.2 million from the Pac-10, which accounts for about 18 percent of its athletics budget.
When the Pac-10 contacted Colorado after its courting of Texas ended, some faculty members liked the idea of their school being associated with such institutions as Stanford and California. But the Colorado board of regents ultimately decided to continue on the path to the Big 12.
Boulder is outside of Denver, the country’s 18th-largest TV market, with 1.3 percent of homes.
“You always listen, but right now, we’re happy in the Big 12,” Plati said. “If another conference came calling, it would have to be a conference with a better deal than what we have now, and frankly, I don’t see it.”
What does the future hold for conference expansion? Opinions differ, as some feel things have stabilized, while others believe the movement could get even more wild than during the 1990s.
The Big Ten could hold the cards. If it loses patience with Notre Dame — which has had a long-standing invitation to join — it has been speculated that the conference would pluck Missouri from the Big 12, setting off a domino effect.
Should that happen, the Pac-10 will likely remain unchanged through it all, a conference steadfast and satisfied.
“Our presidents have indicated that the conference is confident with who we are,” Hansen said. “Absent some very severe realignments elsewhere in Division I-A — which I don’t see at all on the horizon — we are pretty well settled in.”