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Pac-12 In China: A Real Great Leap Forward

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Larry Scott is always thinking outside the box when it comes to making the Pac-12 one of the premier conferences in America. And one of those ideas involves taking the Pac-12 beyond our borders and tapping into an international market receptive to the message the Pac-12 purports.

The most obvious target to Scott is the one nation that might soon dwarf America: China.

For the Pac-12 to move beyond its current secondary status, it must expand outside the West Coast. Its reach is limited and doesn't carry the numbers and groundswell of support the SEC and BIg 10 currently enjoy. Despite being a relatively stable conference with great regional battles, the Pac-12 seems to fall a step short in the numbers game, particularly when it comes to support of their teams. The Pac-12 needs to challenge the sectarianism of the SEC by expanding its reach beyond its restricted borders, and the Asian market seems like the natural location to turn to.

Lya Wodraska of the Salt Lake Tribune reports more on the issue.

"There is a natural connection there with the Pac-12 and it’s leading research institutions in the Western United States," he said of China. "We look at it as the gateway to the Pacific Rim, and we already have a large population of Asian students and alumni, so there is a very natural connection."

Scott said he doesn’t envision regular-season games taking place in China in the immediate future due to travel and time demands on athletics during the academic year, but believes there are other opportunities that exist during the summer months.

"We can do tournaments and festivals and direct competition with foreign teams," he said. "Those are the things we will focus on first."

In many ways, football is probably only a morbid curiosity in this discussion. Notre Dame playing Stanford in a year or two is discussed, but it doesn't have amazing growth potential unless young Chinese athletes take a liking to the gridiron. There are other more entrenched sports to consider.

There's a lot to like about these developments from a basketball standpoint, particularly with the rise of stars like Jeremy Lin. Basketball is one of the most popular sports in China, and it's only set to rise higher. At the moment, Chinese basketball players have struggled in panning out in college, but if the Pac-12 could sell itself to Asia, top Asian players in the future might end up looking hard at the West Coast schools they're most familiar with.

However, probably even more important for the conference has to be the potential of the Olympics.

You might not have noticed in Beijing four years ago, but the Olympic Games are quite a big deal in the country. Every sport had China going strong for the gold in hopes of winning the medal count, and they did capture the most number of golds of any country.

The Pac-12 prides itself on being the Conference of Champions not just for its football and basketball. It has some of the proudest traditions in all of sport. The best indoor volleyball is generally played on the West Coast, and many of the best players that end up on the Olympic team end up in the Pac-12. The strong swimming and diving tradition (most notable at Cal this past decade) has helped provide the US with some outstanding athletes who are the most decorated of all the Americans. Gymnastics at UCLA and Utah has been strong lately.

If the Pac-12 could tie themselves in with Asia's ambition to compete in the Olympic sports at every level, it could foster some great relationships that benefit the conference. Landing some of the younger promising Chinese Olympic athletes at the Pac-12 institutions to further develop their game would be critical for landing a TV deal, as there's a great need to market and showcase the best of China to its people.

Likewise, such events or exhibitions outside the country would provide similar boosts in culture and broaden horizons of all the Pac-12 athletes by getting a chance to interact with another culture of a burgeoning superpower, and give many of them (particularly non-revenue athletes) new opportunities to thrive in places more accepting of their sports. Asia has long been interested in Olympic sports and has never concerned itself too much with college football, so you have to feel the Pac-12's history of success there will be a selling point.

And of course, the academic tradition of some of the main schools like Cal, Stanford and UCLA goes without saying. China would have to be intrigued at sending its best athletes to some of the best institutions in the United States to further integrate the interests of both countries. The promise of academic events and other such exhibitions can only be a good sign that the Pac-12 Network has a chance of being distributed overseas, as it gives the Pac-12 a good name in these areas.

This could become the start of a beautiful, symbiotic relationship that benefits the fine student-athletes of the Chinese mainland and help further bolster the future health of the Pac-12 in general.