July 14, 2024
The Bay Area schools are doing whatever it takes to find a new home while Washington State and Oregon State wait for resolution.

Two weeks after the Pac-12’s collapse, its storied academic institutions, Stanford and Cal, remain adrift in the merciless realignment game.

Lifeboats have appeared in the distance, but the current is beating against the schools. Their longtime home, while abandoned by its most influential tenants, remains an option for shelter. But time is growing precious.

Here are five thoughts on the present predicament and fraught futures for the Bay Area schools:

— Pac-12 salvation depends on Stanford and Cal.

If their desperate attempt to secure invitations from the ACC or Big Ten is unsuccessful and life as an Independent (alongside Notre Dame) is deemed too risky, the Cardinal and Bears could link arms with Washington State and Oregon State and rebuild the 108-year-old conference.

It’s a poor option but might be the best available.

The building blocks of a Pac-12 renovation project — securing a media rights contract and adding members through expansion — are complex maneuvers. Both must be resolved well before next summer, when eight current schools officially exit the conference and the next era begins.

There is no firm deadline for a decision from the Cardinal and Bears. But the longer the process takes, the more frenetic a Pac-12 rebuild becomes.

“There’s time, but there isn’t time,” said an industry source.

While Stanford and Cal explore every option, WSU and OSU are left to wait. Clarity could come this week.

Or maybe not.

— According to ACC bylaws, 12 votes (out of 15) are required to approve new members. As of last week, four schools reportedly were against expansion: Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina and N.C. State. That could prove a difficult bloc to break.

Their opposition is rooted in cold, hard cash — or the lack thereof. If adding Stanford and Cal doesn’t generate more revenue and help the schools close the financial gap with the SEC and Big Ten, there is zero reason to switch their votes.

Which seemingly means the ACC’s broadcast partner, ESPN, must fund any expansion.

But do the Bay Area schools constitute a smart investment for the network? Everything hinges on the answer.

— The ACC lifeboat includes a trap.

If they receive invitations and agree to join, the Bay Area schools would bind their media revenue to the ACC until 2036, when the conference’s current contract with ESPN expires. That lengthy grant-of-rights deal has held the conference together through the realignment tumult. (Any departing school would owe hundreds of millions of dollars.)

That’s an extraordinarily long time for Cal and Stanford to commit to membership in a league 3,000 miles away with so many challenges, both known and unknown, for the athletes.

What’s more, any deal that locks them into the ACC until 2036 could eliminate their options during the next realignment wave. If the Big Ten wants to expand again later this decade, for example, the Bay Area schools would be off the market.

— In the theatre of the absurd that is college sports, the best outcome for Stanford and Cal would be membership in a conference based in Rosemont, Ill., walking distance from O’Hare Airport.

Why? Because with USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington bound for the Big Ten next summer, the Bay Area schools would have a slew of regional scheduling opportunities with their longtime Pac-12 peers — thereby reducing the cross-country travel demands on the athletes.

Even if they were forced to accept greatly reduced revenue shares, the Cardinal and Bears would be better off in the Big Ten than the ACC.

But Fox runs the Big Ten and orchestrates all expansion decisions. To date, it doesn’t see value in adding Stanford and Cal.

In our view, the best chance for the Bay Area schools to generate serious interest from Fox is to secure invitations from the ACC and its media overlord, ESPN.

Fox has gone to great lengths to box ESPN out of college football on the West Coast, first with USC and UCLA, then Oregon and Washington.

Perhaps the threat of ESPN gaining a foothold in the Bay Area, in combination with the East Coast inventory provided by the ACC, would prompt Fox to muster the cash necessary to secure Cal and Stanford for the Big Ten.

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The four schools that don’t want Cal and Stanford in the ACC

— In their push to secure new homes, Stanford is taking the lead; Cal is merely riding shotgun.

The Cardinal has greater brand value and more powerful allies than its cross-Bay neighbor. (Condoleezza Rice is working on its behalf, according to sources.) It also has a more secure financial position and is better equipped to fund an investment in football that would satisfy the Big Ten and ACC.

The long-held industry view of Cal — that it lacks the resources to compete at a high level and is plagued by administrative apathy — has undermined its leverage at this crucial juncture.

“Cal is in a worse position,” a source said.

Are the schools a package deal? Could Stanford somehow leave its neighbor behind?

It would not make logistical sense for either the ACC or Big Ten to take one school from the Bay Area and not the other, for they make perfect travel partners and would allow those leagues to maintain an even number of teams.

But nothing about realignment makes sense, except the cents.

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