Pac-12 Networks Pioneer College Athletics Into The 21st Century

The future home for the Pac-12 Network was revealed Monday in San Francisco. Six months from now, the Pac-12 Network will debut to great fanfare, and all will rejoice. The celebration was fairly low-key, but you can feel that big things are coming, and the seismic shifts will be felt all around college sports.

In terms of location, San Francisco made perfect sense for the conference. For one, the headquarters are located right in the cutting edge of the technology world, and the Pac-12 is all about using evolving technologies. As big as the Pac-12 Network is expected to be, the Pac-12 Digital Network will be just as crucial to allow fans of the conference to view content from any device, everywhere. And who's more familiar with digital technology than the fine technological minds situated in the Bay Area?

Of course, the conference can't make the total leap; digital economics demand the conference must make sacrifices on that front. You must be a subscriber in some sense to the conference network, meaning you must be signed up in some way to the Pac-12 Network in real life to access any of the content elsewhere (whether on Internet or mobile devices). But the Pac-12 braintrust definitely realized that to make the endeavor a profitable one from the start, subscriber fees would be the ultimate way to make it happen.

It's hard to think of a similar parallel to what the Pac-12 plans to do with "TV Everywhere". It seems similar to what ESPN does with ESPN3, where if you're a cable subscriber to the network, you should be able to view the content. And of course, just like with ESPN, the more companies that agree to distribute the Pac-12 Network, the more profitable the whole enterprise will be.

The big question remains on how satellite companies like DirectTV and Dish (or broadband-based services like AT&T U-Verse and FiOs) will be willing to accept the channel and negotiations will probably progress long into the spring, perhaps even into the summer. Just remember that these sort of negotiations generally take time regardless, and eventually there'll be widespread demand on the West Coast, particularly if the Pac-12 decides to keep a premium allotment of games with some of the best matchups available on its network. It'll be hard for these providers to turn down the clamor. Regional sporting events must be distributed or providers will suffer the wrath of their customers.

In many ways, the Pac-12 Network is the first bridge to the future of college athletics. Brian Floyd of Coug Center wrote about this topic when the deal was first inked.

But the former, creating a network carried widely throughout the country, could only be accomplished by withholding a significant stable of inventory. And it couldn't just be the leftovers; There had to be premium content on the Pac-12 Network. Essentially, Scott withheld half the inventory of Pac-12 football games, an average of three a week, for the conference network. And he still secured a $3 billion primary contract with ESPN and FOX.

To call it a coup would be an understatement. By keeping the inventory and promising premium programming on the Pac-12 Network, Scott has sent a message: Carry our network or face the backlash of fans. He's forced the hands of carriers.

In addition to the Pac-12 inventory, the conference should also have room to add inventory from others. For a premium price, a conference such as the Mountain West could, in theory, broadcast games on the Pac-12 Network. It's why you see the Pac-12 creating a media entity to go along with the new television deal. Unlike the Big Ten, the Pac-12 will have full ownership over its network, not a minority stake in it. It all adds up to more profit.

The Pac-12 inked this deal with FOX and ESPN knowing that it would provide the necessary cash inflow to build its network brand. Right now the conference is starting out anew, so it lacks the ability to do things on their own. It needs investors like the TV networks to give them that necessary boost. In many ways, the Pac-12 Network is like the world's largest startup (again, doesn't San Francisco sound great for all of this?).

But in the long-run, when the network reaches profitability, it wouldn't be a surprise if the conference decides to air the majority of its content (including the top contests) on its own network and break away from the old cronyism of college athletics. Just like the major professional sports have done with their brands (NFL Network, NBA TV, MLB TV, The Golf Channel, and Scott's old enterprise The Tennis Channel), the Pac-12 Network promises the conference with a 24/7 venue for fans to follow their teams and their conference which will give even the most casual fan a place to follow their teams on a daily basis. No secondary agendas, no ulterior focus, just the Pac-12, all the time.

ESPN is nearly untouchable when it comes to its reach. The Worldwide Leader the primary holder of almost all college conference TV rights, and that sort of arrangement should continue into the near future; it's too entrenched a power to be so easily displaced. It has too much money to ever fully be tossed aside. However, there's a limit to how much it can cover when they try and cover everything.

The Pac-12 is starting to recognize that there's more to be gained by building its own thing and carry the games themselves rather than rely on Bristol to anchor its coverage. The Pac-12 will always be a secondary conference in ESPN's eyes to the big conferences of the East, and even though that should change with the new TV contract (pretty well-established that the more someone invests in ESPN, the more coverage ESPN will devote to your teams), it'll still be hard to dwarf the continuing advances of the other big conferences. There are too many competitors for attention on ESPN, and the Pac-12 will always be left dragging behind if they rely solely on it for marketing the conference's worth.

Scott made a perfect example of the network's lasting power to Stewart Mandel.

In illustrating the networks' purpose, Scott often points to the case of former Arizona star and current Minnesota Timberwolves rookie Derrick Williams. Despite excelling throughout the 2010-11 season, the eventual No. 2 draft pick was rarely mentioned in national top player discussions, only reaching critical mass when he led the Wildcats to the Elite Eight.

"To me, that was an indictment of the conference and our media platforms that will fundamentally change with our new TV agreements and our TV network," said Scott. "We will never have the Derrick Williams problem again."

Indeed. Imagine Pac-12 Arizona marketing Williams locally every day, while Pac-12 National had its own ways of marketing Williams to the rest of the country on your TV, online, on mobile platforms, and being totally focused on promoting its athletes. Keeps the athletes relevant on both a regional and national scale.

So the Pac-12 is better off making its own play, building its own brand on its own terms. The Pac-12 Network doesn't just provide maximum exposure, it provides a golden opportunity to make it big on its own terms, and make it immediately visible to as many people on as many platforms as humanly possible. And the path to a new age without the archaic NCAA legislating and pontificating could be within reach, with Scott and the Pac-12 trailblazing the way.

There might be some minor complaints about how slowly things might be progressing toward the finished product. But in the big picture, if everything turns out according to plan, the Pac-12 will be stronger than ever and right up there with all the big boys.

Hell, who knows. It might even become popular.

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